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Rider Mail: Portland Pretension

July 27, 2011

So, Portland. There are two main schools of thought about the city amongst the planning nerd crowds I run with. One is the considerate “Portland is good at getting things done, which means that there’s not a lot of changes for me to make if I were to go there. I want to make a difference, so I’ll stay here.” The other is the less-polite “Portland can suck a dick. We’re so fucking perfect. Fuck Portland.” The former feeling is often from people who have yet to visit, but are familiar with Portland’s public policy. The latter voiced by people who have visited on either professional or vacational terms.
Surprisingly, what follows is an email from someone who has yet to visit the Big P, wouldn’t really mind doing so, and generally sees the direction Portland takes as a good one.

Subject: Identified a source of annoyance due to pretension
Explain something about why what you like is good/better. Then follow it up by saying, “of course,” with justification about why.

[Note to all: This is the wrong way to use “of course” mid-sentence. A mid-sentence “of course” is supposed to be contrary. Fact.]

Example, the one that’s annoying me as I listen online:
“Say, it’s interesting to hear… discussing Denver – I hear people around the nation for years talking about plans for infrastructure, and it sounds like they’re all copying what Portland’s already been doing for 20 or 30 years.”
He gets cut off by the host and NPR also immediately starts playing the “wrap it up” music as they head into a non-commercial break of PSAs. All of that was one monologue. It pissed me off that I actually transcribed all of that word-for-word.

[Monolog transcription cut for brevity, but you can listen and/or read it here!]

So a quick response to a few key parts, and I’m pissed, so this may be amusing:
“Of course, everybody knows that the light rail here has been a role model for the nation for many years. In fact, I know that as I speak they’re breaking ground on the largest suspension bridge across the city’s river.” Know who did light rail first, and kicked off Portland’s revolution? San Diego!
Also, while it’s fun comparing things to themselves – like how this guy compares Portland’s new bridge to Portland’s other bridges – I’m not impressed. So Portland’s building a bigger bridge than Portland has before – that’s totally useless information. “Largest” is a comparative word, so you should be comparing things Portland does to things other places do. I could trumpet how MARTA’s running the newest buses that MARTA owns, or how my penis is the biggest penis on me, and that’s saying about the same amount of information.

“At the same time, the debt problem is hurting places in the nation, Portland seems to thrive in times of high unemployment.” Really? It’s hard to say if Portland loves itself that much more when it’s unemployed, or if he’s saying that Portland is nicer when the rest of the nation’s out of work. But I question this in all cases, because typically cities don’t get nicer when their residents have less money and worse morale. And typically when the rest of the country and world have less money, as a regional urban economy, you usually don’t get more. Unless your entire economy is based on banking and debt consolidation (hey, fuck you Charlotte).

[Charlotte is awesome. He’s just jealous.]

“Of course, we’re known now as the most European city in America – the bicycle increase here is really…” Oh, so that’s a seatpost up your ass. I see you’re working on copying the French stereotypes of snobbery. I guess it’ll take about 20 to 30 years before they start to get good at it.

Not to put down bicycling, or light rail, all things that give Portland a good quality of life, but it’d be nice if they didn’t make the rest of the country think that it made them douchebags too. I think a more tempered attitude would be more appealing when trying to explain things to other regions. Atlanta tends to be more upbeat and positive, wanting to learn from others. Of course, we’ve had the largest tree canopy for a metro area for 15 out of the last 23 years – we’re working on the largest streetcar project under construction in Atlanta right now. Ugh.

So here’s the thing. I doubt the person who called into the radio show was a planner, transit or bridge person of any sort. I actually give the people in charge a lot more credit than that. I mean, I think they circle jerk about how cool they are in the privacy of a nerd happy hour, but not on the radio. So, the tooting of the horn and the patting on the back is not being done by the people who are making it happen. What the hell is that all about, then? Why are some Portland residents so friggin proud to live there when all most of them do is… just live there? And why do we accept this projected superiority?
What’s your experience with Portland, or people from it? If you’re in the industry, do you find the attitude to be consistent, or some weird abstract put upon the city by it’s clueless and privileged residents?*

*Not that Portland consists of only clueless and/or privileged people. Just the horn-tooters.

Edited 11PM

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 6:22 pm

    The “Big P”?

    Never heard us called that before. Maybe its because I’m too old for the hipster crowd, having grown up and come of age at a time when Portland was known more logging than anything else. But really–although the city certainly has its share of douchebags, many of us here are mainly focused on making our corner of the world a better place, and not on anything more grandiose than that. We’ve got some advantages that other cities don’t have–a generally progressive political consensus, and (unlike Atlanta), Portland tends to dominate the conservative rest-of-the-state in state politics, whereas hating on Atlanta seems to be a dominant theme in Georgia politics.

    Besides, to the extent we’re a “European” city; it isn’t the transit–several US cities have better, and nobody calls them European. It’s our beer–now that IS something worth being a douche about. 🙂

    • That's MARTA! permalink
      July 27, 2011 6:29 pm

      I made it up! Atlantans excel at developing new city nicknames. We’re very Eastern European in that way.

  2. UrbanCommuter permalink*
    July 28, 2011 8:06 am

    I think EngineerScotty said it perfect when he/she stated that they “are mainly focused on making our corner of the world a better place.” Every city has its group of pretentious people, but I think a lot of times pretentious is confused with pride. I have only met a handful of people from Portland so it would be hard for me to assume the attitude of an entire population, but they have every right to be proud of where they are from in the sense that people from New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco people are proud. They are unique, and unique in a sense that they have done something that other cities havent done.

    Rather than trying to emulate other cities they took their ideas and refined them to make themselves sustainable as a region and didnt busy themselves with what their neighbors were doing, in the sense that they had to keep up with other region’s growth or skyline. This is something that Atlanta needs to do since so many people are getting hung up on what Charlotte does (and Charlotte does the same with Atlanta). Both cities became obsessed with growth and population, over sustainability and quality of life. And side note to Atlantans, stop worry about Charlotte, I spent too many years of my adult life in that hell hole, and there is nothing worth emulating. A recent study actually named them the polar opposite of Portland by awarding them the most sprawling city in America.

    While maybe Portland did get some of their ideas from other cities, they refined them, they took them to the next level and created a region (region being very key, and not just city) that works as a cooperative. A region that has defied odds by getting the whole region to work together, to control growth without stifling the economy, and to become less dependent on other regions. In the process they created a mindset that transcended to their population, creating new businesses and industries and overall concern for their region rather than just treating it as a dumping grounds. Here in Atlanta we could use an attitude like that with the surrounding counties.

  3. George permalink
    September 17, 2011 8:05 pm

    I honestly just don’t get the hate for Portland. So some people are proud of their city? What’s it to you? The person interviewed in that piece is from Virginia by the way. If his point is to compare Portland bridges to each other and not other bridges… again… what is it to you? So what if people voted Portland European-like? So what if the caller brought that up? Guess what? Portland does have a lot of bicyclists and is bicycle-friendly if not bicycle-fanatical. They had 13,000 people show up a few months ago to bicycle after midnight… in 60-degree weather… in the rain… naked. That might be worth noting.

    The fact of the matter is that people DO describe Portland as having a European-flair. They DO have a decent transportation system. They DO have a long history of urban planning and containing sprawl. The people there ARE very civic-minded and cooperate towards creating a better area. They ARE planning a large pedestrian/public transit only bridge. Is Portland perfect? Not by any stretch. #1 in heroin, #1 in human trafficking, #1 in homelessness, 6-7 months of rain a year, etc. Regardless, people from Portland do have a reason to be proud of their city and I can only imagine how miserable you must be that this bothers you. Let them do the best they can in making their area better and if they succeed then let them say what they want.

  4. Poppa permalink
    October 7, 2011 3:43 pm

    I’m a lifelong San Diegan. I’ve been to Portland once. I met more friendly people, dined in better restaurants, and drank in better bars in a day and a half in Portland than I have in four decades in San Diego. I plan to move to Portland in two years.


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