12:11:11 How Portland Became Portlandia

A popular TV comedy Portlandia mocks my hometown as overrun by those who take themselves far too seriously. We're seemingly over-the-top for such ecological must-haves like curbside composting and track our carbon footprints and have an annoying propensity to smugly flaunt green pride. Do the eco-virtuous become caricatures as Portlandia suggests and why?

I think so and as a long-time (but not native) resident, I think I know why. (Quick answer: It's them that moved here).

The caricature--decades in the making--has a number of givens that keep Portland closer to its "forest roots." For one, no coal-fired, smoke-stack industry. Cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville up the Columbia sees to that.

[Portlandia Statue]Moreover, the clean, green, natural image of Oregon was really fueled by the reverse-psychology PR genius of the late Governor Tom McCall, who famously said in the 1971, it's okay to visit, "but for heaven's sake, don't move here to live."

A popular eco-countercultural paean from 1975, the novel Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, further cemented Oregon's reputation as Mecca for those fed up with what the material world offered and who yearned to live more in balance with nature.

Also in the 1970s, Portland's progressive urban planners put in motion a number of initiatives to keep Portland from going the way of traffic-choked urban sprawls elsewhere. An Urban Growth Boundary severely limited development of surrounding farmland. Downtown was torn up to rationalize mass transit (buses and now light rail) through the core, creating the Transit Mall of dedicated lanes. Voters kaboshed a third freeway in the city. The list goes on and continues.

Convincing to me of Portland's spreading reputation was a visit to Austin, where I saw a public service TV ad along the lines of "We can have light rail here and this is what it looks like." Rolling across the screen was Portland's own light-rail trains!

The dynamic is pretty simple: Portland's population swells with migrants from elsewhere seeking the urban Valhalla in Oregon. Above all, they don't want the dream to change. Before long they outnumber local natives. They impose their reactionary progressive values--an odd combo that morphs into the real reason for Portlandia's quirky hipness. These Portland emigres want to live the 19th Century in the 21st (but keep a lot of modern benefits!).

So from such yearnings, Portlandia was bodied forth, even if she wasn't actually born here. She moved here to live. Sorry, Governor Tom!

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
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.pdf (for PCs)

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