Thoughts on Portland


Every city, according to Paul Graham, tries to tell you something. For instance, walking around New York you might get the sense you need to be more fashionable, or make more money. A stroll through downtown San Francisco might prod you to join a startup, or at least work in technology. The culture of a city tugs at you, hinting you should be more X and less Y. It’s the place softly whispering what it wants.

Like all cities, Portland whispers something in your ear. Unlike most major ones, its message is leisure-oriented. Where Cambridge will whisper you should read more books, and LA will urge you to be more attractive, Portland says you should indulge. It tells you to visit the most delicious food cart or the tastiest fusion restaurant. It says life is short, so you shouldn’t pass on that craft beer. Even the city’s emphasis on outdoor activity is tied with pleasure. Hikes in Forest Park or the Columbia River Gorge are only incidentally about exercise, and much more preoccupied with inhaling nature’s beauty.

More obvious indulgences pepper the city. Portland ranks 6th in the country for the most marijuana dispensaries per capita (Oregon is 1st among states). If you’re into sensual pleasures, Portland still has you covered. The city has a long history of stripping, and boasts the highest concentration of strip clubs per capita, beating cities like Las Vegas and Miami. The connection between the city and its vices is best illustrated by the fact Voodoo Doughnuts (a popular tourist destination) for years was neighbors with an adult video theater. I have memories of standing in line waiting for doughnuts next to large billboards promoting films with inglorious titles.

Even things that just look strange can be explained by the attitude of indulgence. Zoobomb — when a horde of people on children’s bicycles race down the West Hills, is an indulgence in a combination of danger and ridiculousness. The Idiotarod, though now defunct, operated on a similar principle. The naked bike ride is an opportunity to indulge in freedom from clothing, under the guise of protesting climate. 1

In fact, I think Portland’s weirdness can be explained by its indulgent attitude. People in Portland have the freedom to do what’s pleasurable, and it so happens some of those things might be weird. The person who dresses up as Darth Vader and plays the flaming bagpipes on a unicycle is only doing what he finds enjoyable. If he didn’t find that fun, he’d probably do something else. In any other city, I suspect he’d think twice before he put the kerosene in his bagpipes. He’d wonder how many other people would say he could do something better with his time. Maybe he’d even wonder if he can do something better with his time. In Portland, though, nobody bats an eye. They’re all drinking microbrews and playing disc golf anyway. Can they really judge from that position?

Perhaps we can also make some sense of Portland’s political climate in terms of indulgence. A culture that values leisure, living well, and doing what you feel like probably won’t cultivate clear thinking. The habits of mind needed for political discussion involve tolerating discomfort and second-guessing yourself. It’s hard enough to develop these as it is, and probably even more so when the city is constantly whispering in your ear to indulge. A consequence may be that people prefer the easy solutions to social problems, which leads to extreme views and wack politics.

My inchoate cultural-political theory of Portland also offers an explanation of why protests in the city continue for so long. No bite of a burger, no sip of a drink, compares to the rush of being in a mass demonstration. People conditioned to indulge will probably come back again and again to a protest to ride the high of social action. They will stop long after others have decided the costs outweigh the benefits.

Politics is complex, and I am not an expert on it nor Portland’s situation. However, it’s noteworthy the place with the most persistent protests is also (I think) a city of indulgence.

  1. Why do all of these involve wheeled transport? ↩︎