Friday, February 20, 2015

Haterlandia: Enemies of "Portland Culture" Culture, Ascendant

Let me start this with a disclaimer: I am a transplant. I'm not even one of these long-term transplants who carries a deep secret on his birth certificate, having scraped the California-related bumper stickers off his car, and is making up for it by living in some fuschia bungalow in Sunnyside. No, I'm a monster of a transplant, having moved from the deep suburbs of Phoenix to the rehabilitated part of Aloha, then to a newish apartment in a well-liked neighborhood of the city proper. I work in tech, and I'm so very white. I like Voodoo Doughnuts, Salt and Straw, and the Waffle Window. My family has a membership to OMSI, and we don't have a car. I like "Portlandia". If you're a Portlander, and you don't hate me by now, well, good for you. If you do, this is the piece for you.

CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr user wiredforsound23

Recently, I was reading Willamette Week (online edition, natch) and found that the theme for the issue was the new "health goth" movement, which is something that struck me as hilariously hip, worth talking about in a publication like WW, and all-around good silly fun. The comments section was having none of it. "Gosh, aren't we just the kookiest!" exclaimed one exasperated commenter, in a rare case of sarcasm coming loud and clear over plaintext. The pointed response called them "hyper-aware and self-impressed kids from rich homes". Note that I have the "them" in italics. I don't know what the antecedent is here—ostensibly it's health goths, but I believe it's much deeper than that. (That is, a couple of years reading WWeek and Mercury comments and having been subscribed to /r/Portland—sigh—have taught me that "hip gets shit" is the iron law of PDX online.) Comments on other articles in the same issue are similar or more vitriolic.

And I get it. Really I do. Hating on hipsters is a national pastime, and if it weren't for a certain amount of hate, there could be no humor in things like Portlandia. But the depth and clarity of this antipathy are remarkable, especially for The Thing that Makes Portland Famous. I don't have any good explanations for Haterlandia, but I offer up the following as my best theories:

  •     Concerns about privilege. Portland is swimming in white privilege. If privilege were a form of precipitation, it would be more plentiful than the rain. Some Portlanders despise the fact that the relatively wealthy are willing and able to engage in bizarre trend-seeking as a display of status.
  •     A "Fall from Grace" Narrative. Oregon was a pretty rural place before the Baby Boom, and even after that, it wasn't in the national consciousness until hippies moved in. It wasn't really a national curiosity until a generation later, when the Northwest music scene took off. The town got a reputation for being conscientious, artistic, and youthful, and the transplants started rolling in (bringing economic development and high real estate values with them). To some, this represents a fall from a previous state of purity, where "purity" can be epitomized by any of the following: pre-boom times, the Hippie movement, the Grunge movement, or the pre-Fred Armisen times.
  •     Xenophobia. We think of xenophobia as a fear of foreigners or other races, but without much twisting, the term could cover the fear or hatred of any type of "other", even "transplant from the Bay Area". As the city expands and the lines between "us" and "them" are being blurred, anything that smacks of the Other is shunned or despised. And truly, what is hipsterism if not the appropriation of the cultural tokens of the Other to intentionally create an outgroup? It's especially disturbing when so many items of hipster culture are appropriated from white, rural America (which may trigger emotional responses in those who value rural ideals).
  •     Culture War Sentiment. Related to the above, conservatives in the area may feel voiceless and powerless, and hipsterism is liberalism. Having seen the extent of gun culture as a relative liberal in suburban Phoenix, I am familiar with the other side of this coin and the vicissitudes of feeling that everywhere you turn, you are being made into an undercover Other, unable to voice your opinion for fear of being ostracized. It sucks.
  •     Confusion as to why Portland has a meta-culture. This is the summum bonum of Haterlandian rationales: people are shocked and upset that Portland has joined the ranks of the very few towns in America with the image of its culture embedded in the national consciousness. I think it’s handy to call this phenomenon meta-culture.

    And the meta-culture confusion has legs. New York has one. So does LA. As far as meta-cultures for cities go, there's only a handful: I can think of San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and DC offhand as other cities with meta-cultures, and cases could be made for Detroit, Miami, and Seattle and maybe a few others. (States and regions also have meta-cultures, but that's not the topic.) Portland's meta-culture has surpassed that of its northern neighbor for certain, and appears to be rocketing past the lower-tier meta-cultures at a significant fraction of lightspeed, becoming as associated with hipsters as San Francisco is with venture capitalists or Chicago is with political corruption.

    To some this is undeserved. The reasoning is: I don't wear skinny jeans or line up to watch twee indie films, and no one I know does that either. That's for noxious transplants trawling Mississippi Ave on a Friday night. Unfortunately, like an honest politician in Chicago or a real-estate developer in Detroit, the meta-culture has run you over, and there's nothing you can do about it.

And eventually, it's likely this meta-culture will fade away and pass on: certainly there have been other American cities that were well-known for a thing, but for whom the time has passed, leaving them back in the comfortable pool of "eh, a place you might live" cities. (Pittsburgh's industrialism springs to mind. "Hotlanta" springs to mind.) Until then, well, I don't know what to say.

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