We began to consider where we would settle down around the birth of our second child. My wife and I have lived a semi-itinerant life as freelance workers for many years. Place was a commodity. Every year, we moved apartments. One thing that was constant was summertime. We would fly back to Portland, Oregon and spend a few days with my parents, who live in the same house as I grew up.
The house is about 100 years old and sits on a terraced hill with views of the Willamette River. The east-west breezes from the river flow up through the side and back doors. They then take you up to the Tualatin Mountains, which are known as "the West Hills" by Portlanders. You're probably aware that Portland's weather is a mix of rain, clouds, and clear. We could pick a few gloriously mild 18-hour days by visiting the summers.
My parents have never made me any complaints. They have been polite and accommodating in their new role of summer hosts. We convinced them one year to watch Noah Baumbach's complete filmography nightly. We drove several days out to the coast with one of their Toyota Priuses another year. Another year, we hiked for miles into the old-growth forest near Mount Hood to soak in the wooden tubs at Bagby Hot Springs. We would sit and do nothing for years. They did a great job hiding their curiosity about the longer-term prospects.
They never forced us to return to Portland, at least not publicly. Their parental philosophy is to not interfere with their children's decisions. This could be due to their childhoods growing up in the more communal and strong expectations of American Jews. They were also open in their appreciation of our presence. My mom cooked delicious meals of Columbia River salmon and chanterelle mushrooms, which she bought in supermarket parking lots from her carefully kept list of purveyors. Sometimes she would cry when she recited the Friday night Shabbat prayers from her mother's old, tattered prayer books. In my 20s and 30s, I felt some pressure to go. After we were married, summer vacations became an annual event that we looked forward to. It was not enough to have a couple of weeks. We needed three to four. The house was no longer a getaway hotel. We started to treat it as if it were our home. I would talk to my brothers about getting the yard done. My brothers and I would sit together on the deck, who had both come from faraway, while our children played in the backyard. It was great.
My wife and I began talking seriously about the possibility of moving back to Portland. Portland was attracted to everyone by its family connection. Portland combines the charm of a small community with the ease and conveniences of a larger city. It also has the beauty and unspoiled nature of the Far West. Portland, unlike every American city that ran in endless sprints to achieve success, seemed to have gotten the best of capitalism while escaping the associated neuroses. Open-air bars packed with attractive people sipping pilsner at 2 pm on a weekday are not found anywhere else in Europe.
This was a great deal for my wife and I as we are both lifetime 1099'ers. It also fits our budgetary and scheduling needs. My parents were close to the child-rearing jackpot when we started talking about moving back. We were able to do what they had hoped, because they left us to decide for ourselves.
One problem. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the idyllic image of Portland that I had carried with me, of a place of refuge from all the problems of the outside world. My beloved, small-town hometown had become a popular meme that could be used across all political lines to support a variety of points. The TV series "Portlandia" was the first to mock the town's pride and shame-ridden hypocrisies. After the 2016 election, Portland was transformed into a scene for clashes between the far-left (mostly locals), far right (who commuted to Portland for regular Patriot Prayers), as well as social media entrepreneurs like Andy Ngo who created their reputations exaggerating and inciting chaos under the pretense of documenting it. The protests continued and the local economy deteriorated, and semipermanent tent towns, which were used by Portland's homeless population, began to expand, filling in the empty spaces around parks and highways. They were an inevitable fixture in the boarded up downtown that had been reduced by protests and then the pandemic. Portland seemed to be the center of the universe: The summer's high temperatures reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The asphalt at the corner of Woodstock & 92nd reached 180 degrees, which is hot enough to cause third degree burns.
I interviewed Sam Brownback (ex-Gov. of Kansas) in the Trump-era Office of International Religious Freedom, during the early stages of the turmoil. "Where are your origins?" On my way out, he asked. It was an entirely normal, get to know-you friendly exchange. Brownback abruptly changed gears when I replied "Portland".
"Ah! "Ah! He asked and received wide-eyed stares by his two press agents. I thought the incident was a typical geriatric brain fart at the time.
I was wrong. Brownback was not losing it, he was just throwing a jab. His flurry of aggression was a clue to me about Portland's new place in the Republican cinematic world. He saw me in my role as an emissary hostile from liberal Sodom. A city that is deserving divine wrath. It was a place where Democrats permitted, or encouraged, anarchists of black-bloc to roam free. Portland, according to the eschatological God’s-eye view as seen by Homeland Security surveillance drones, and interpreted in Fox News' policy prophets, was a city wishing for its own demise.
There was a local cult long before Portland had its national cult. Indoctrinating me started early. At six years old, my city fathers brought me to Portlandia. There we sang hymns in front of the newly constructed statue depicting a six-ton bronze goddess. She held a trident in one hand and extended her other hand downward to create a bridge between pedestrians and the sublime. My class composed a poem praising one of Portland's jewels: Powell's Books and Rose Festival. Forest Park is another example. My assignment was to proclaim the Japanese Gardens as an "oasis for tranquility".
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The Queen of Commerce was the original Portlandia. The seal of Portland's first appearance was in 1878 when Portland was still a frontier town on the Willamette River. Portlandia is a myth that embodies the hope that capitalism can be reconciled with nature. It has beautiful, stable gardens like the International Rose Test Garden where people can stop to smell exotic hybrids named Sixteen Candles or Chrysler Imperial. Portland was a rare city that could demonstrate such alchemy until very recently.
Portland was cheap for a while, cheap enough to allow a group skateboarders to take over a parking lot under the Burnside Bridge and create an illegal skatepark. It was cheap enough to open weirdo stores like the 24-Hour Elvis Church and the UFO Museum. I remember spending late afternoons at high school looking through the Freud Room, trying to convince Lex Loeb to let me open an Alien Shoeshine Stand that was museum-approved. These were pre-internet businesses that looked a lot like Portlandia. They ran on their own solipsistic vapor.
The Burnside Skatepark was a playable level within Tony Hawk's "Pro Skater" series by the early aughts. However, groups of young people in their 20s still moved cross-country to Portland. They could rent one the Craftsman houses. Their earnest architecture, 50-foot-wide lawns, and spacious porches weren't yet a symbol of middle-class comforts. Rent was only a few hundred dollars per month.
Advertising creatives from Wieden+Kennedy closely observed the antics of the wild and young. The company's blend of Western-frontier myth and early-aughts hipsterdom reached its peak with Levi's "Pioneers", a campaign featuring "Western youths" wearing blue jeans, romping through meadows, dancing beneath waterfalls, and falling in love with the spoken-over words Walt Whitman. The Pearl District was anchored by Wieden+Kennedy, which served as the global headquarters. Developers were looking to buy up warehouses for condominiums and wildscaped parks. These buildings had machine shops which supplied the Gunderson shipyard as well as the Swigert family’s steelworks. Their transformation would be the catalyst for Portland's second utopian stage. This once-simple garden of provincial gentility will soon become a national symbol for progressive enlightened life.
Portland's utopian turn was problematic before it was selected for a federal takeover under the extremely stable and impulsive president of the United States. The bloody conquests of the West are the end of Portland's story. As the old grounds were cleared for the new garden, all manner of horrible things occurred. Native peoples were forced to leave their homeland and move to small reservations. Chinese immigrants were exploited for their labor to build the railroads. Black citizens were not allowed to vote, sign contracts, own real estate, or attend court under the state's first constitution. Through the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a prominent force in state politics. They held rallies and gained seats in the state legislature. This legacy of openly racist policies and private acts terrorism left an indelible mark. Portland's current population is just 5.8% Black. Just north of the city was once Vanport, a predominantly Black settlement along the Columbia River's low-lying banks. It was destroyed in a flood in 1948, and it has never been rebuilt.
Portland's homogeneity enabled it to avoid the riots and white flight which ravaged more diverse Eastern cities in the 1960s and 1970s. It was also a target for Tucker Carlsons and Sam Brownbacks in the wake of George Floyd's death. Portland was attacked by white liberals who wanted to tear-gas the streets. This allowed them to maintain the critical fiction that "law & order" had nothing to with race.
My parents still talk about the holiday party they attended in 1970s before I was born. One of their colleagues married a police officer who invited his friends from work. After some drinks and some mingling, one off-duty officer turned on the record player and pulled out an album with some swastikas. He then played the Nazi Party song. The group formed a line, and began to move up and down on the floor. My mother remembers, "We were shocked." My parents decided that it was time for me to leave.
Since then, the public has been exposed to the admiration of some Portland police officers for Nazis. The basement story's most striking aspect isn't the sedition, but the reckless innocence. It's one thing playing Nazi with your friends, but it's quite another to do it at a party before strangers, including a Jewish lawyer. The police-officer goosestep and the 24-Hour Elvis Church of Elvis are all connected by a common thread. It's the unrestrained eccentricity Portlanders call weirdness. This is evident in bumper stickers and murals that display the slogan "Keep Portland Weird". Portland weirdness refers to cultural deviation that evolves along specific lines without encountering friction. This ferment is different from the one generated by crossroads like New Orleans and Philadelphia. Portland was for a time the cultural equivalent to the Galapagos Islands. It was a place where new kinds of strangeness could arise from isolation and uniformity.
It's not always bad to be weird. A recent summer walk through Alberta Park brought me across a bike-polo match and a "Dungeons-& Dragons" foam sword skirmish. There was also an open-air Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, an adult Pokmon Go player holding his smartphone out like a divining rod, and a birthday celebration for a 7-year old. These subcultural pods coexisted within the same park due to the psycho-geography that is empty space. Alberta Park covers almost 17 acres. Each pod could be spread without being pushed up against the next.
It is difficult to determine how much of this is Portland-specific and how much is due to the constant lure of the West. This vacuum of unclaimed space suckers up every country's random dreams, and parades them off. The westward flow of covered wagons has never stopped. Yesterday, it was oxen crossing the Columbia. Today it is the Winnebagos squatting below I-5 and Ram ProMasters. It's full of van-lifing millennials hashtagging up their way up the Columbia Gorge.
I was not in Portland to witness the George Floyd protests. Trump's actions in Portland looked both criminally irresponsible as well as tactically savvy from Washington, DC. His enemies were discredited by what appeared to be unthoughtful and extreme measures. Brownback described this as "antifa" in Portland. This small group of radicals set fire to windows and attempted to achieve unattainable goals. They have targeted jails, police union headquarters, and the county's Office of Community Involvement. Doors were broken and curtains set ablaze. The smashing of glass doors at the Oregon Historical Society's entrance didn't help any cause.
Dakarai Akil for Insider
Portlanders are able to clearly see Trump's success in destroying the city's progressive coalition when they talk about today's protests. Even though they are suffering the consequences, they don't want the violence perpetrated by their extreme side to be fully discredited. They look for someone to blame other than the demonstrators, hypothetical false flag provocateurs, or city officials who were too harsh or too lenient. When I think about the violence, I can also get into trouble. Property destruction was one of the most successful actions taken by the Vietnam-era protest movement. This included the burglary at the FBI's Media office. The seemingly random pattern of lawbreaking in Portland does little more than alienate the residents most likely to support the protests. This is not how to win insurgency, even if you leave aside the question about whether or not an insurgency may be justified.
Many parts of downtown Portland are still boarded up today. Two stories of chain-link fencing surround the Apple Store's glass facade. This was once the most expensive and central area of the city. Now it is a magnet for homeless people. My father walks downtown to work and passes a small, tent-built city that he jokely refers to as "our little village". Bijou Caf was his lunch spot for fifty-plus years. One of its windows is boarded up and a poster depicting a burning building can be seen. It also contains an exhortation for rebuilding the world from the ashes.
Portland is still a beautiful city. The city's two most visible, and perhaps temporary, politically fraught afflictions are mass homelessness and protests. Climate is the backdrop. This summer's heatwave killed more than 100 people in the state. One elderly man died after his camper van, which was parked on asphalt without trees, caught fire. He did not have air conditioning, as most Portlanders do. My parents spent the days at home, surrounded with fans. We had difficulty reaching them via phone at one point. They had taken refuge in an air-conditioned cinema theater.
My mother was the Sunday School director. Jenn Louis was one of our teachers. She went on to open three Portland restaurants and publish cookbooks. Jenn has been making regular trips to homeless camps in her area since November last year, bringing her Volvo SUV filled with food, clothing, and camping supplies. She was out almost every day during winter. It was impossible to keep up with. She had reduced her work schedule to two days per week by the time I arrived in July.
I went with her twice. She chatted up her regulars, and gently urged them to get vaccinated. She heard stories about enemies setting each other's tents ablaze, or giving someone "hot shots" heroin that was intended to kill them. No matter if someone had mental health problems or was using drugs, she treated them all the same, regardless of whether they were convicted or just trying to help. Everyone was allowed to take as much as they wanted as long as it was still enough to finish the day's race.
The most striking thing about Portland's homeless encampments are their size, their apparent permanence and the openness of the city’s hands-off approach. This could be described as compassion or fear in the face impunity. Tent camping on city sidewalks was legalized in 2016 for a short time. Any rules that might have been against it are not being enforced. It is possible to park your trailer on a residential street and replace the wheels with cinder block. You can also surround the trailer with wooden pallets to make a yard without having to worry about the authorities intervening. Some blocks in downtown are open-air chop shops that allow automobiles and bicycles to be sold.
The city has been treating homelessness for years as a social problem that must be addressed. While the number of local homeless has been stable over the years, the percentage of public space that is occupied by encampments have increased significantly. To address the growing number of enclaves, the city now offers needle exchanges and dumpsters as well as Porta Potties. Many people now live in "villages" or "pod communities, some with tiny winterized homes. Portland's liberal bourgeoisie has had to deal with this compassionate, hands-off approach. Many of them would prefer not live among the visible consequences their policy preferences.
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A middle-aged man approached Jenn on Pacific Avenue to request some t-shirts, and his underwear. His pickup truck was still running and had a camper at the back. He was near Paradise in California at the start of 2018's wildfires. We asked him what he had learned from his escape. He said, "The instant you smell smoke, run." Get the fuck out. Have a Plan B. Do not wait for the fools to tell your to go. They don't know what they are talking about. This seemed to be a good rule-of-thumb for 21st-century life.
Jenn was asked by the man what caused the heat wave. She briefly explained the feedback loop that the heat dome creates. Hot air is a force that pushes aside cooler weather systems, and produces more hot air. It was just one of many feedback loops. Heat transforms forests into tinder, wildfires transform dry wood into carbon dioxide, warming the planet, drying it out, and generating more wildfires. Fear-based Hobbesian politics drives stupid decisions that degrade the environment. Jenn's project can be seen as an attempt to break this cycle.
My family drove five hours to Sisters one summer during my mother's 70th year. Our family rented a house in Central Oregon at the same ranch that we had stayed 30 years ago. We went on hikes and horseback riding. On that trip, there were many days when the sky was gray, low and thick with smoke. It wasn't clear how much or how adversely these decisions could affect our health. We stayed in, mostly. My mother was the only one who sat at the window looking at the sky. I don't know her thoughts. My parents are very stoic. They aren't open to talking about the changes that they're experiencing in the home they grew up in. They don't view place as a commodity. They are lifers with their fortunes tied up to Portland's for the better or worse.
In one version of this story, I would tell you Portland was once great and now it is bad. I would describe how the apocalyptic transformations that had destroyed the Eden of my birthplace have made it impossible to rely on the family bonds. I would narrate how my parents felt when I revealed that we had decided not to move from Portland. Next, I would move to the uncomfortable questions the Portland Situation poses for contemporary liberalism. What if you don't have the ability to talk to the other side? They live in a different reality? What if global warming eventually kills us all? This is regardless of whether individual consumers make slightly more noble choices. What if the homeless want to flee from tiny homes and low-wage jobs?
Portland doesn't want you to move to Portland so playing up Portland's problems is a good way to approach the story. This would be a simpler story because it would not tie me up with my parents. This would be false as well. Portland is still a beautiful place. It still feels like a combination of hedonistic pleasure and filial love that the decision to return every summer is made. Forest Park is a 5% acreage of Portland. It has miles of dirt trails that are covered in pine needles and shadows. This area is more than Central Park's footprint. The Willamette River forms the city's east and west axis. It is still safe to swim in. The entire city can feel like a garden on good days, with song birds and rabbits.
Portland is also aging in the same way as hipsters age. It is awkwardly holding on to its cool past to keep out market and historical forces from getting in the way. Like the wild nature, this weirdness has become a valuable civic asset that must be preserved and institutionalized. Late July saw Mayor Ted Wheeler invite the Unipiper, a unicycling piper, to preside at the official "reopening of downtown" for the summer. This was a historic moment in the domestication of what was once wild bohemia.
My parents' neighbors have been installing central air-conditioning one by one. They joked about offering to shelter my parents in the heat. One Shabbat dinner was held this summer, when eleven of us sweated around the dining room table at 90 degrees. We tried our best to pretend that everything was okay, much like coffee-drinking dogs. For one month of the year, it's not difficult to do this. Even though I am accumulating Portland's changes, it is still possible to experience it as a Colonial Williamsburg. It is a museum that not only commemorates my childhood but also the founding of my country. It would be difficult to move back, as it would require me to come to terms with the fact that the place I grew up is no longer there. It would be difficult for me to deny the extent to which things have changed. This logic may have been behind my parents resistance to central air.
It's difficult to pinpoint when we decided to not move back to Portland. I took one of the Priuses on a naptime ride up the Columbia Gorge with my 2-year old son in August. As we drove along the twists and turns of Old Highway 100, past the remnants of forest that were saved by fire crews during the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, he fell asleep. Bootleg's smoke was already drifting north, and a milky-white film obscured views over the river to Washington, where most of the forest was intact. The Oregon side of the timber was a rough patchwork of brown earth and bare grey trunks.
My son noticed something strange on the way back. My son asked, "What happened to all the trees?" He asked. He seemed incredulous when I tried to explain. He then retorted that I had just explained to him that people had set the fire that burnt the trees, and added his own interpretation. He said, "The trees are sad."
We avoided such close-up views on incremental planetary destruction. We were also motivated by more mundane factors. We wanted a house similar to the one we grew up in. This is not possible in Portland. The US median was 1% higher than the city rents in 2010. The premium now stands at 20%. Portland is not isolated from the commercial logic in the national real estate market. My parents hear about Zillow estimates and names of startups who have bought properties for gut renovations. The Portland economy is a mix of services and industry that seems to be more suited for carefree consumers who have less years or more money. We didn't want a continent that was far from our East Coast friends, where we had lived for so long.
These less important reasons were more in line with our desire to live in a place that is safe from, or at least temporarily, numbing to, the world's crises. In a sense, what we were looking for was a new place to replace the one that seemed to have been lost. We might have been W-2ers and not even known it. This gave us a false sense of security, allowing ourselves to believe that there was no future. However, we didn't realize the roots we were putting down back East. We are getting too old for this. A move to Portland is not so much a homecoming, but a way to start over.
I remember our last house party before having the first baby. As one friend gave me a strong joint, another told me about the experience of dancing all night at Berlin's Berghain nightclub. A combination of panic and sadness hit me when I realized that I would never set foot inside Berghain's legendary club. I hyperventilated as I watched the circle of possibility shrink like a camera's aperture. I landed on the roof of my apartment building. I was comforted by my friends. The police arrived shortly after and threw us off the roof.
There are many ways to deal with the problem of getting older. The diminishing opportunities for our species is the new problem. This is the hardest problem to solve. Because there is no long-term, settling down can mean something else now. One can only hope for a temporary state of equilibrium that lasts and is then quickly discarded. The most painful places are those that we know best, and where we have to face the geologic changes occurring in our lifetimes. Portland, for me, is haunted from years when it seemed to be a refuge against the world's afflictions. In the end, I decided not to live in that constant confrontation.
It was probably last spring that a Portland friend suggested that it was time for emergency supplies and air filters to be purchased, as the next round was likely to bring wildfires. The calamity wasn't a sudden summer interruption. It was now part the regular season programming. Chains for your tires were purchased in winter, and filters for your bedroom during summer. It was much easier than admitting your home was on fire.