Keep Portland Weird: 10 Things I Love About The Oddball City

It's become known as a haven for artisits, musicians and creatives, but what is it that makes the American city so appealing?
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It's become known as a haven for artisits, musicians and creatives, but what is it that makes the American city so appealing?

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I have a theory that in lots of countries, certain cities develop identities that separate them from the majority. These places then become magnets for the outsiders, people who don’t necessarily feel like they belong anywhere else, but who want to be accepted nonetheless. Portland is definitely one of those places. And as with most things in the US, a country of extremes, it’s weirdness and individuality is magnified 10 fold. And that’s probably why l live there. Here’s 10 of my favourite Portland things I’ve observed:

1. There’s Cats Everywhere. OK, that might not sound strange, but I’m talking about a lot of whiskers. Cats stare at me from windows, and from under cars. Missing Cat posters are stuck to every lamp post. Of the 20 couples I have met so far, I’d say 70 per cent have a cat. As my friend Aaron puts it “People move in together, and they get a cat. It’s just what happens here.” I now know around 10 cats on first name terms. That’s more pussy than I knew my entire life in England.

2. If You Don’t Have a Cat You Probably Have A Goat. I’ve seen people walking pet goats on the street. What more can I say?

3. Food. If they’re not looking after animals Portlanders are usually eating them. Portland loves it’s food. Every world cuisine you can think of his here. Cuban? Check! British? Check! Czech? Probably not. But there is Ethiopian. Apparently their food is delivered by helicopter and customers run out into a courtyard to grab what they can. Bob Geldoff plays benefit concerts there nightly. Food is available on every street and comes in all shapes and sizes. Portland has a thriving food cart industry, where you can get your meals from the back of a van.

4. Vegan Everything. Although I joke about eating animals, Portland in fact has a very passionate Vegan contingent. Most supermarkets have large vegan sections, and there’s vegan restaurants all across town. There’s even a set of establishments that are known as the “Vegan Strip Mall”, which includes a vegan coffee shop, a vegan grocery store and… vegan tattoo parlour. Its my ambition to be vegan eventually but I just love meat too much right now. At least in Portland it seems like it could be a viable option.

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5. Old Stuff. I know most of the world has vintage stores, and people like to dress in retro t-shirts from the 80s. But in Portland it seems the vintage aesthetic stretches far beyond fashion choices. A lot of the wooden houses have a kind of timeless quality. I walk  around and feel like I’m in an Arthur Miller play. There’s probably as many 20 year old cars on the roads as modern ones. Even the local Coca Cola factory looks like the high school Marty transports to in Back To The Future. There’s something reassuring about the old. They didn’t have the internet back then and people were happy.

6. Exhibitionists. Portland seems to have it’s fair share of exhibitionists and circus performers. People set up slack ropes between trees in the park and practice walking between them. I was eating lunch the other day and a guy cycled past on a unicycle juggling. The rest of the table hardly noticed. He was probably just on his way to work at the Vegan Tattoo parlour. Last week was the city’s annual naked bike ride. I stood in awe as 13,000 people cycled past on their bikes, a blur of boobs and ass cracks.

7. Soccer/Football. America still doesn’t quite get football. It hasn’t really carved out a niche for itself yet amongst basketball, baseball, american football and hockey. But in Portland there is a readiness to embrace it wholeheartedly. This season is the local team The Timbers’ first in the Major League and the fans were recently voted the best in the league. And, if I ever get homesick for my beloved Arsenal a local bar here, Beulahland, is a Gunners bar so I can go down at 7 in the morning and cheer them on.

8. People Helping People. There seems to be a genuine benevolent attitude that runs throughout the community here. Local co-working space ADX welcomed me with open arms when I showed up on their doorstep. A lot of people here are involved in creative pursuits, and there’s a willingness to support and help each other out. My friend Aaron is opening a bar soon called Dig A Pony. Over the course of it’s development they’ve had a swell of support from friends and family to get it off the ground. As Aaron says “Without all this help, the project would have cost us three times as much and probably wouldn’t have happened.” This attitude seems to extend to even the less fortunate. It started raining the other day and a homeless man offered me shelter under his umbrella. It warmed my heart!

9. Which Way To McDonald’s? Big brands don’t seem to have the same hold over Portland as they do in other big cities. Walking around, I find myself searching for advertising boarding around. When I do spot one, it’s usually for a Ma & Pa’s Coffee House or Uncle John’s Motors. There’s a definite fight to support independent businesses and local production, and any big chain who hopes to open up in the city can expect fierce opposition. Interestingly this can lead to interesting tensions if a local brand becomes national, as with the recent case of Stumptown Coffee.

10. Anything Goes. There’s a huge painted sign downtown that says “Keep Portland Weird” and that sign sums up the town better than I ever could. There is a feeling of acceptance in town which I imagine is at the heart of most of what I have talked about above. Feelings of self-cosciousness that permeate most big cities don’t seem as strong here. Because there’s always someone weirder than you. Like the blue guy.

This first appeared on Greg's The Ash Tray blog.  He's also got an online comedy series called Super Chill, which you can watch here