Branding Portlanders

Looking in the Mirrior Essay: Branding Portlanders

by Flannery Smith

Being a Portlander has always been a special identity, and has been a mark of pride for myself that has always been met with certain admiration from others. I still feel connected to the identity, but feel less than enthusiastic about broadcasting it, since recently there has been a “branding” of Portlander’s lifestyles in the media, and it feels as if we are being sold as a novelty on a home-goods network. The media broadcasting has deeper and more serious repercussions as well. The media attention and glorified branding of Portlanders as a creative, artisan community is based in reality, but the exposure has had a negative effect by creating an influx of residents is taking the lower-income Portlanders, such as artists and musicians, who gave the city notoriety, and pushing them out.

In the 90s, Portland was known for being a “weird,” a city with places like the Church of Elvis and the gritty Eastside. Rents were low and the city struggled with crime issues, but creatively Portland was a unique place because musicians and artists could live here relatively cheap, which meant they could work less and create more. In recent years, however, Portland, and Portlanders have been glorified as the the epicenter of the “creative class,” with talented residents, creating the feel of the city themselves, by the creation of small artisanal businesses. It’s become synonymous with environmental sustainability, bicycle-culture, and food carts. This attention has made Portland a very desirable place to live, and in the last five years or so, housing prices and rental demand has increased dramatically. Additionally, neighborhoods that were once run-down and relatively affordable are now in a state of constant gentrification and development, namely N. Mississippi, N. Williams, N. Alberta, and SE Belmont. Strangely enough, the small businesses and artisanal shops that were started in those neighborhoods and made them what there are, are being pushed out because of the rent increases.

All of Portland’s stereotypes have both positive and negative repercussions. Portlanders are concerned with their environmental and economical impact, with repurposing the old to make new, buying locally, going against the grain and being generally aware of the grip that commercialism has on the nation. These examples have all been good for the region, and have been a leading reason as to why the Northwest area is thriving. However, the very nature of these things, and also media attention, have led to gentrification, overpricing, over saturation, and population increase, with little left for the residents who were here in the first place.

Portland’s obsession with making the old new and creating an artisan economy is something that has come out of necessity, what with high unemployment rates matched with independent-minded people creating their own businesses, but the “handmade” nature of Portland has been satirized to the point of jokes and stereotyping. This is shown in the sketch television show, Portlandia, in the video “Dream of the 1890’s”, where they compare the lifestyle in Portland to be that of the 1890s:

…Where kids grew up to be artisan bakers, everyone had homemade haircuts and guys shaved with straight razors…when the economy was in a tailspin, unwashed young men roamed the streets looking for work, and people turned their backs on huge corporate monopolies and supported local businesses…

In essence, these stereotypes are somewhat true. Portland is definitely place they describe, and actually always has been. The negative part of this is not what content the video brings up, but how it brings it up; which is it’s accentuation of this sect of Portland life, through satire. It is in a way glorifying an old way of life and posing Portland as an answer to modern problems. The problem is people from Portland get it, we know this is only a farce of Portland life, but I don’t believe others take it as such. I don’t know how many times I’ve overheard someone in class or on the bus saying “I’m originally from Colorado, but I started watching Portlandia and it seemed like a cool place to move, so I did”. To most people from outside the state, they have heard little to nothing about Oregon, let alone Portland, and only have to go on what popular culture is telling them. Right now, in popular culture, the lifestyle is glorified, and one might say branded.

Using Portlanders as a brand to sell goods is a way that small businesses and other entrepreneurs have exploited the Portland craze. This can be beneficial for them, to have a widened net of interest and more money coming in, and to display what great things can come from the Northwest, but some small businesses are wary of it. They believe that the overselling of the Portland brand is against the fundamental reason they are working here in the first place. To keep it small and unpretentious (Heying 275). There is of course, a balance that needs to be kept between the two worlds, to be proud of what the Northwest can produce, but not to exploit and oversaturate the market (Heying 275).

As a creative, independent individual growing up and living in Portland for 25, going on 26 years, I know it has surely shaped me in some ways. I sometimes wonder if my creativity and passion for art would have been nurtured elsewhere as much as it has been in Portland, and perhaps it has contributed greatly to who I am now as a young adult. I definitely have always fit right in with the typical Portlander’s way of life, always searching for a new creative endeavor and not ever really feeling satisfied with a “normal” job, playing music, riding my bike everywhere, and yes, I have owned chickens (briefly, for the record, it’s not my thing). There is a great benefit to growing up in a place that lets you explore and work with your hands, but there is also something really sad about having your lifestyle broadcast and regurgitated in the media so much it becomes a cute, predictable novelty, and on a more serious note, really decreases the desirability to keep living in a place that feels this exploited.


Works cited

“Dream of the 1890s – Portlandia on IFC.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 03 June 2014.

Heying, Charles H. “Chapter 18.” Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy. Portland, Or.: Ooligan, 2010. Print.


7 thoughts on “Branding Portlanders

  1. Hey Flannery,
    Great job on the essay. As someone who was also born and raised in Portland for almost 24 years I can definitely see where you are coming from. It is strange to visit neighborhoods that I haven’t been to in years and see how much they have developed, most notably on the East side as I live in SW. Portland has been branded a eco-friendly city where a lot of people bike and do other things like re-purposing old things like you mentioned. In most cases I feel that I don’t fit in with the general Portland theme of artsy and I never ride a bike on the streets. Though I feel that I do fit in to the carefree, relaxed state that a lot of people here are in. It was interesting to read that many small businesses are wary of overselling the Portland theme, not that it doesn’t make sense because it totally does I just never thought about it. Overall you did a really good job describing Portland and how it has changed over the years.

  2. Flannery,

    I really like the points you bring up in this essay. I fear, a lot in part to Portlandia and other media coverage concerning Portland, that we’re going to become the next San Francisco. I’ve recently been looking for a new place to live, and what I was spending on rent 5 years ago to live on Morrison in inner SE will now barely get me an apartment on 82nd. The gentrification started in N and NE and now it’s making its way to the streets of SE. It’s becoming harder and harder to find a street with bars and restaurants that don’t reek of the latest trends. I love a lot of the changes that are happening around town, but I hope they don’t lead to the feeling of insincerity that I feel in other big cities.

  3. Wow, this is a great essay. Typically, it seems that the media portrayals of certain groups are stereotypical and that this is negative. As an Arab and a Muslim I have certainly felt the negative effects of stereotypes. However, in your post you suggest that maybe sometimes there are positive aspects of the stereotype and this could be your interest in art that you wonder, in the end about. Perhaps the prominence of the stereotype impacted your interest in art, at least partially, At the very least maybe it made art more accessible to you. I also like the historical aspect of your essay in addition to the media portrayal discussion.

  4. Hi Flannery,

    Great essay! I can see how concerned you are about the way Portland is portrayed in the media. I recently moved here from California and I didn’t know much about Portland before coming here. I thought watching “Portlandia” would give me a better idea of how Portland really is. “Portlandia” made it seem that Portland was filled with weird and eccentric people. Also, “Portlandia” made it seem that Portlanders were a bunch of hipsters and hippies. I think the portrayal of Portlanders in “Portlandia” is over-exaggerated. I don’t think Portland is as weird as it is portrayed in the media. Portland is a unique and creative city.

  5. Hi Flannery,
    I really liked your essay! It was really interesting! I also don’t like having our city branded. I liked how were one of the most underrated cities. Everything in our city feels original and creative. Our city is beautiful and the people here are unique. That’s how I think our city should be shown. I feel like just because we live in Portland, Oregon people from there states call us tree huggers, weirdos, or hippies. We also get a lot of Portlandia references. I do like the show but I would like others to see that what’s being shown in the show is just a very small part. Portland is very unique because it is a blend of things. We like to have both modern and traditional ways mixed together and create an identity of our own.

  6. Flannery,
    Interesting essay subject you chose, as a native Portlander I understand completely where you are coming from with this. It is really sad how big businesses are forcing the small ones out that have been around for a long time. It also appears that Portland is being branded as a kind of place where anyone can thrive but it is the complete opposite, Portland is a place for strong willed people to try new things and struggle with who they are and what they do. The old Portland definitely went against the grain of the norm and took pride in its differences, such as things such as nude bike-athlons, keep Portland Weird Festival and Anime Conventions. It would be interesting to see how people’s creativity would have been nurtured in a different setting and see just what their creative endeavors would have been if they hadn’t been living in Portland.

  7. Great essay Flannery! I was very moved by the paradox of a place that is so new and popular because of it’s unique and quirky elements that it becomes too populated and pricy to live in anymore. I have heard the same story over and over again from friends and family who pine for the bohemia they used to enjoy, that became so popular it disappeared. Friends from Austin, the original Keep_Weird city, to the village in NYC, and New Orelans following Katrina. I am always mixed, of course fame and the media puts our city on the map and brings in tourist dollars and new people. But it is a bitter irony that by visiting the place en masse, you slowly see it becoming impossible to actually visit anymore. “Damn Tourists!” It’s easy to joke but I remember the days when you didn’t have to wait in line for an hour to go to Voodoo Doughnuts. Or like you said, Portland is becoming too expensive for the parttime barista and chicken farmer to actually live in… Our quirks have become so hyped that it becomes expected, like you said, branded. Very well put! Like when I visited my then girlfriend in Texas I of course did not actually expect cowboy boots and hats, but part of me still looked. And consequently people always ask me if I am like the people in portlandia. And I am always at a loss of what to say. I am never quite sure if people expect me to be weird and are disappointed if I’m not. This was a very good response to the inevitable characterization and loss via oversaturation of a place’s uniqueness. I liken it to a beautiful forest that everyone talks about, and the time you visit you can’t enjoy it because everyone else has camped there. I really enjoyed your paper!

Comments are closed.