Mar 2, 2010

Portland City Center

Tuesday 23rd - Day 16

Seemingly there are more strip clubs per capita in Portland than any other city in America. Well it is in the Beaver State. And we did see quite a few near our gritty motel. But don't let that statistic mislead you. The strip clubs are cheek by jowl with vegan restaurants and rock climbing centers. And the roads all around them are filled with cyclists. Portland is the beating green heart of Oregon.

When we were in Seattle we got to drive in a car pool lane and we knew we weren't in the midwest anymore. Not in terms of political demographics. Well, Portland seemed even more liberal, even more alternative. How alternative? One of those strip clubs is a Vegan Strip Club.

Radicalism, activism and alternative lifestyles are everywhere you look in Portland... on flyers, posters, badges and t-shirts. Things other than the norm seem to offer themselves to all your senses. When we turned on the radio we heard left wing talk shows. When we drank we had the widest range of micro-brews to choose from. And even our olfactory picked up the scent of something different. The smoking room we got in the Executive Lodge smelled like an Amsterdam coffee shop that was hosting a meeting of Grateful Dead fans who were living with multiple sclerosis. Maybe if I'd gone into the upmarket adult store a few blocks from our motel then I could have exposed other senses to some new alternatives. (Is that a cheap gag? No, it costs $49 and is made from environmentally friendly leather alternatives. And the tattooed woman behind the counter was more than happy to show me how to fit it.)

According to wiki, Portland is well known as a hub of American DIY youth culture especially Zines. It hosts the Portland Zine Symposium and is home to major zine distributors such as Microcosm. Wiki also tells me that it's the home city of The Worlds Oldest Teenage Drag Queen Pageant. Radical!

Portland is divided into four quarters. And every road exists in each quarter. So there are four 1st Avenues: North East 1st, South East 1st and I expect you can guess the other two. Now what's tricky about that is you would imagine North East 1st would run into North West 1st. But it doesn't, it runs into the Willamette River. The west side seemed more upmarket. It had the downtown area, except Portland weirdly uses the British term City Centre. It's even on road signs. I haven't seen any other American cities do that and it's one of those terms that seems to need explaining to many Americans when they first visit the UK. Anyway, we stayed (as you might have guessed) in the East. An odd cross between an industrial estate and a hip neighbourhood. We has a huge new Whole Foods supermarket nearby and a bar which was showing two soccer games at midday on a Tuesday. (Stuttgart drew with Barca and ManU beat West Ham.) There were about 20 souls in there which seemed another indicator of alternatives. Our favourite local hang out though was the 24 hour Voodoo Doughnuts I love the place. It was a big, slightly run down room with 5 pinball tables and it looked like it had been decorated by a fanzine editor. They are clearly radical because they don't spell it d-o-n-u-t. Great food (the vegan doughnuts were a revelation), great coffee and great merch ('I got VD in Portland' was a bumper sticker that caught my eye.) It made me wonder why we don't have independent business like that in the UK. My hunch is it's all about the space. We don't have enough and so rents are high. Lots of the vibrant small shops that give areas like East Portland their counter cultural vibe clearly couldn't compete with Starbucks. But there's room for them all here. And, it seems, a willingness to embrace them. The city council made the Portland Creme Voodoo Doughnut the Official Doughnut of Portland.

We spent two days in Portland and pretty much fell in love with it. It rained there. The first proper rain I've seen for months and that was welcome. It has the greatest bookshop I have ever seen. Powell's Books is a seriously magnificent shop. But it's more than a shop. It's a powder keg. There's nothing as revolutionary as a bookshop. And this one is a big keg. It takes up a whole city block. (They also have a great online shop. One that is much more 'bookey' than Amazon.)

I wish we'd had longer in town. I wish I was young enough to be able to consider moving to the city. Seriously, I liked it that much. It struck me as having a really strong and healthy 'scene'. Almost like what I imagine Seattle had before grunge blew up. Or Manchester in the late 70s. But the funny thing about Portland is that it doesn't seem to have a definitive music style. Acts like Modest Mouse, Pink Martini, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, Blitzen Trapper, The Decemberists and the late Elliott Smith are all non-mainstream but in quite different ways. And they are just the famous ones. Judging by the huge number of acts in iTunes with songs about Portland lots of radical kids are into the city. Some old ones too. I could imagine Portland throwing up a scene if it weren't too busy creating it's own revolution. Maybe more of the old firebrands need to hook up with crazy kids. I wonder if Jack and Loretta did more than just duet in Portland.

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