Rise and Fall of the Weird

Following below, you will find an opinion piece I wrote about Portland’s history and its effects on the city, good and not so good. Originally, I wrote it for Facebook (though a local paper that shall not be named bounced it). I think it’s a thoughtful piece that, among other things, modestly suggests ripping out skyscapers at the south end of town to build houses.

Some of it’s serious, some of it’s vaguely tongue-in-cheek, and, for balance, some it’s bonkers. Enjoy (or something along those lines).

Note: If you’re a Portlander and live in a cool old house (at least 100 years old) that you think might photograph well, please tell me about it.

PORTLAND: RISE AND FALL OF THE WEIRD

I’m a playwright and photographer based in Portland, having lived here since 1989. Of late I’ve been working on a photo project called “Survivors” where I photograph Portland houses that have remained standing for over a hundred years, especially those built in the 1880s (and a few rare homes from the 1870s).

Unsurprisingly, the project has taught me a great deal about Portland’s history—both good and the bad. One thing that sticks with me is that when Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped the famous coin to decide Portland’s name, no Tacoma, Seattle, or Spokane existed. Astoria had been established, but it faced geographic limitations to its growth. Basically, no cities stood between San Francisco and Vancouver, BC, and the question remained open whether the new town even belonged to the U.S. or England. New arrivals built the place anyway.

Things have changed a smidge since then, but this has always been a fractious city, rife with political shenanigans and corruption (and a certain amount of fun) and laced with hope. Cyclically, it has risen and faded.

It has not always treated its citizens well, often squandering its assets. It’s hard to imagine what the city would be today if Harbor Drive, a six-lane freeway, had not taken out some 79 fantastic waterfront buildings and homes in obeisance to the almighty automobile. There’s no Harbor Drive today, and Portland is (to my knowledge) the only American city to have ripped out a freeway and replaced it with a park.

Then there’s the Multnomah Hotel. A truly awe-inspiring building that had long been a centerpiece of Portland’s political and cultural life, it met its demise to be replaced by a parking garage. Eventually, that illustrious facility met its own end to become Pioneer Square, destined to become Portland’s beloved “living room.” What a lot that block has seen.

In the 1960s, wise old men decided that Portland south of the city center had become unsightly; so they used Federal funds to “revitalize” the area, tearing down 83.5 acres, demolishing an entire neighborhood built by Jewish and Italian immigrants, rife with historic homes, mom-and-pop groceries, restaurants, and shops, replacing these with a sea of boxy office buildings. The result has been a human desert where families once thrived. Personally, I’m in favor of ripping out the Bauhaus monstrosities and building houses. We need houses.

On the east side, another vibrant neighborhood of old homes, shops, and scores of jazz clubs was demolished for I-5, the Memorial Coliseum, and, later, the convention center and the Legacy Emanuel Hospital complex. This time, the displaced population was largely Black. Obviously, there’s a pattern here.

In many ways, the city’s saving grace has been its population of cranks: stubborn preservationists, activists, artists, Bohemians, hippies, punks, and other glorious riffraff who embodied an unappreciated facet of the revered pioneers. That is, a lot of the folks who trekked through the forests or risked insanely dangerous sea voyages to get here were plain weirdos who wanted to get away from stultifying normalcy so they could live as they wished.

It’s notable that William Johnson, the first white person to build a log cabin in what became Portland was a British sailor with a Native American wife and a passel of kids who moved on when other settlers showed up. Guess it was all downhill from there.

That’s been the pattern. Eccentrics and regular folks who just want to live their lives build a rich, unique place, and then other people—sometimes well meaning, other times greedy and ruthless—tear it down. We’re forever cursed by our individuality.

Right now, we’re living through a destructive period, where a huge influx of people seeking the Promised Land have brought with them the problems they sought to escape. Their money (and the ever-present greedy and ruthless) pushed away the people that they sought to become. The rootless who came here to find a bit of grace underestimated how difficult that task would be, and now they have nowhere to go. And those with the greatest dedication to their fellows, standing up against discrimination, drew the ire of some truly evil people, turning the city into a war zone.

So things aren’t so great right now, and those in pain turn to a past that, honestly, had its terrible aspects alongside fleeting moments of transcendence. I have a certain faith, however, that the stubborn, irascible weirdos will rise again, creating something unique and beautiful before they become drowned out by sensible voices, and the cycle begins all over.

Maybe the task for those of us who have survived Portland’s “good times” is not to become stuck mourning the past but, rather, to support the weirdos to come and to stand against those who will try to exploit them. We may be doomed, beautiful losers, but we have our moments, and we should recognize that we’re the folks who give the city its character and grit and its ability to build anew.

At least for a little while.