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.
“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.