Old Portland

Hand2Mouth Theater recently held a funeral for “Old Portland”, with a handful of folks delivering a eulogy for the city Portland once was. It made me wonder what I would say, which made me realize I’ve already said it. I host the Moth StorySLAM every first Monday at the Secret Society Ballroom. My job is to choose ten storytellers’ names out of a hat to tell their story. At the top of the show, I begin by telling my own. I told this a few months back and thought I’d share a written version of it here.

After I graduated college I moved home with my parents for the summer, worked three jobs and saved up enough money to move cross-country.

A few days after arriving in my new city a few friends from college who had arrived there first invited me to the movies.

There was a second run theater just 8 blocks from the group house most of them lived in.

So we walked over and bought our tickets, a mere two dollars apiece, and were about to buy popcorn when a fistfight erupted from a Friday the 13th sequel.

It was an even fight, two on two, all four men, but one duo had the emotional support of a screaming lady friend.

We watched from the snack counter as the pair with the cheering section beat the other pair senseless.

As is usually the case with fights that happen off screen it was over in seconds. And in what felt like just a few seconds later cops burst into the theater lobby.

Curiously, they didn’t bother to ask my friends and I or even the cashier what happened.

They asked the winners, the two guys who could still stand and form a complete sentence.

“They started it,” the victors explained. Their lady friend attempted to appear impartial and seconded their assessment with a vigorous nod of her head.

So the cops got the two guys who were semi-unconscious to their feet and loaded them into their squad car.

My friends and I felt like we needed a few moments to think on what we’d just witnessed so we walked around the block.

Once we did, unsure of what else to do, and having already invested two dollars each, we returned to the theater and took our seats as Kevin Costner stood on the bow of a massive ship, and peered out at water, water in all directions.

The movie was, of course, Water World.

The year was 1995.

The city was Portland, Oregon.

And the theater was the Laurelhurst; although a good many years before it was renovated and beer taps were installed.

Some folks might have decided they had made a mistake moving to such a place after such an evening.

Not me.

I’m no fan of violence, but it was confirmation that this wasn’t a college town, or a city of privilege. This was a place full of people from all walks of life.

It wasn’t before too long that I found a house a mere three blocks from the theater, besting my friends in proximity by five blocks.

I didn’t see another fist fight for two years. And when I did it was between two friends attempting to add some drama to what had become in their minds a too tame house party.

But I saw a lot in those first few years of living in Portland that I liked.

I watched a lot more movies, and even helped make some. I had moved to Portland largely because Gus Van Sant was here, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I was delighted to find a thriving film scene and meet other aspiring independent filmmakers to collaborate with.

The art scene was strong, with a community of well-established galleries but also plenty of non-represented emerging artists, many of who would soon become friends, finding unconventional spaces and curating shows of their own.

PICA was forming, which would play a huge role in opening my eyes to what art could be, and the development of my own career.

Everyone I met seemed to be publishing a zine, and the indie music scene was incredible. I saw shows five, six nights a week, almost always a few local bands opening up for a touring one, and usually never paying more than $5 to get in.

And those were just the pockets of subculture I was attuned to.

There was high culture too; the art museum, the Japanese Gardens, the opera and the symphony were all here.

And the homegrown businesses that Portland is known for nationally, companies like, Nike, Columbia, and Wieden+Kennedy, were in full force.

We even had tech. The term Silicon Forest was already in use and I can remember meeting friends of friends who would sheepishly admit over a pint of PBR at My Father’s Place that they had briefly been worth millions of dollars before their stock options turned worthless.

Some might argue we didn’t have the food culture we have now, but I’d disagree. We didn’t have as much as we have now, but there was craft beer, wine and coffee and plenty of amazing restaurants.

While I seldom treated myself to more than a three-dollar burrito, twice I was offered a meal at any restaurant of my choice, with a visiting uncle and then later with Los Angeles location scout generously offering to pick up the tab. After asking my adult friends for advice I chose Higgins and Wildwood respectively and the meals were the best I had had up to that point in my life.

But we also had something we don’t have anymore.

Space.

The city wasn’t full. Which meant you could rent a house for $650 and move with 4 friends and no one had to work a full time job.

It meant there were enough clubs and spaces and empty storefronts that in order to put on an evening of entertainment all you needed was an idea and word of mouth to bring a crowd. And if that was too much trouble, you could just put on a show in your basement.

A few weeks after our adventure at the movies my few friends and I started to meet new people and hear about events that weren’t listed in the paper.

We heard about a sports show at an all-ages space. It wasn’t a sporting event; it was an art event about sports.

We went. Although fashionably late, being used to rock shows that usually started an hour after their promised start time.

We walked up a flight of stairs in an old warehouse and found 100 kids, which is to say folks in their 20s and 30s dressed in ratty shorts and t-shirts like me, watching performances and skits about sports.

It was shocking. All these people here, to see something that didn’t fit any category of entertainment I knew of. (Although in retrospect it was maybe the first performance art I ever saw.)

Back then Portland’s scene was small enough I would eventually get to know a lot of the people in that room, and half of them would all be at the same house party on a given Friday or Saturday or even Tuesday night.

For years I told anyone that would listen I was going to move somewhere else in a year. But I never shaved any months off; the impending move was perpetually a year away.

It wasn’t laziness; I was having too much fun. I wanted to move somewhere else and meet new people and have new adventures, but how could I when I was making movies, and playing in bands, and meeting new people where I already was, including the woman who would eventually become my wife. And am I glad I stuck around long enough to meet her.

We did move eventually, Susan and I to Los Angeles. But we kept a room in a house here, knowing we’d frequently be back. After all, where else were going to get married than in Portland, driving south all the way back down the 101 to LA for our honeymoon.

Our time in Los Angeles was good, most especially because it made us fall in love with Portland all over again. We moved back in two years.

It’s been 20 years to the week since I moved here in the first place. Portland has changed a lot.

The area around 28th and Burnside is a pretty iconic example.

The movie theater is still a movie theater, but a much nicer one.

The grocery store across the street is New Seasons, full of organic produce and deli cases of beautiful food. Back when I lived around the corner, it was Food Value, which we called Food Valu since the E had fallen off the sign. It had plenty of groceries, but most people skipped the not so fresh fruit and vegetables and cruised past the rows of canned food for the beer at the back of the store.

Across the street on the South East corner there’s a new apartment building that houses a high end Thai restaurant, an optometrist and a Portland inspired gift shop on the first floor. Back when I lived around the corner it was Fairly Honest Bill’s and The Hungry Tiger 2. The former was a great place to find just about any kind of junk masquerading as an antique you could think of, but signs throughout the store made it clear bargaining of any kind of would not be tolerated. The latter was a lively bar with a diverse clientele known for it’s all-day sipper, a vast cauldron of alcohol that came with 8 straws, and in as many different combinations of low shelf liquor.

I’ve eaten at the Thai restaurant, got my eyes checked at the optometrist, and bought my wife a Christmas present at the gift store. And I much prefer shopping at New Seasons to Food Valu (although I’m a Fred Meyer man first and foremost).

If I’m honest with myself, I’m complicit in Portland’s change. I wrote the ads for Travel Oregon for 5 years. I encouraged people to come. While there’s a certain TV show, a left leaning newspaper out of New York City, and plenty of other factors including the fact that Portland is amazing that made people come more and faster, I helped. And I, like many but not all Portlanders, have benefited from our city’s explosion.

But I also miss what was Portland was.

Walking around Portland back then felt like you were in the middle of an Elliott Smith song. Because you were, his songs were describing the place and the people and what it felt like to live here.

When I hear his records, the first few especially, I remember that sense of space. Not just the emptiness of empty lots and buildings you weren’t quite sure what was inside of. But there were also just a lot less people. You could walk down almost any street in town without having to move to the edge of the sidewalk every half a block. It felt, to me, 3000 miles away from everything I had ever known, that there was enough room to be whoever you wanted to be.

I loved that feeling.

But as I’ve come to learn not everyone did.

This summer my wife I were walking down Division Street.

Division’s transformation between 30th and 38th is on a short list of the most transformed stretches of Portland.

When we decided to move back from Los Angeles we purposefully chose the area. It still resembled the street Elliot Smith sang about, there was a new restaurant with great Thai wings, but it was still the place to get ball bearings and industrial grade cleaning supplies.

Today’s it’s a restaurant corridor so revered USA Today recently named one of the top 10 neighborhoods to eat in America. It’s not unusual to hear three different languages spoken in as many minutes.

As my wife and I walked, marveling at yet another new apartment building being built and wondering what businesses it’s first floor would attract, we passed a couple of contractors.

They were both wide men, taking up most of the sidewalk and too immersed in their conversation to tighten up to make room for us to walk by.

As we ducked under tree branches single file on the grass beside the sidewalk we heard a snippet of their conversation, scripted so perfectly it read like a screenplay.

“What was this area like before it changed?” one asked.

The other, the one who had seen the progress and was probably partly responsible for it, furrowed his brow as if trying to conjure up an image of Division past, and then after a very pregnant pause declared, “A ghetto.”

A ghetto?

Aside from the fact that it’s an offensive term, it felt like such an inapt description for what had been there before.

Like many neighborhoods labeled with the term, the area had been home to people who lived there and loved it. Home to thriving local businesses, and folks raising families and everything else that makes up a neighborhood that might not be rich in tourism but has enough to keep the people living there happy.

In that moment I realized that the Portland I fell in love with and didn’t see anything wrong with, was seen very differently by other people.

Where I saw movies to make, and streets to bike down and learn about and people I wanted to meet, they saw an eyesore, and profit margins to realize.

They saw the junk shops and the dive bars and the grocery stores that mostly sold beer and industrial cleaning supply suppliers and fistfights coming out of Friday the 13th whichever number it was, and thought it needed to change.

And so it did.

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