I’m not sure how many people have moved to a new city because they saw it on TV. I could envision that happening for New York maybe. Or Paris. Or Singapore. But for a moderately-sized city in the Pacific Northwest carved out of evergreens and a couple large rivers that has historically been routinely upstaged in the cultural zeitgeist by its larger siblings to the north and the south (aka Seattle and San Francisco)?
Portland locals have mixed feelings about the hit show that got people near and far actually talking about Portland—the variably borderline-funny and nonsensical, oddly compelling, always original comedy sketch production titled Portlandia. Starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein as, well, virtually everyone you could ever possibly think of, it’s a production born from the world of Saturday Night Live but indelibly left coast at its core.
Whether you’ve seen Portlandia or not, whether you love it or hate it—the point here is that I love it. In fact, when this California boy who was born and raised 1.5 hours north of San Francisco first started watching the show, what fascinated me the most about it wasn’t so much the wacky variety of sketches or the timely sendups of extreme displays of millenialness. No, what fascinated me was how rooted the show was in a specific place, a singular locale. Portland wasn’t just a generic stand-in for any up-and-coming large-ish town in America. Portland was Portland. It was its own thing. And it was as much a character in the story as the Enterprise is a character in Star Trek.
Think of how distinctive the culture is in, say, New York. Or Los Angeles. Or New Orleans. Or Chicago. Nobody could be plopped down blindfolded in one of those cities, take it off and look around, and not instantly recognize where they were.
I saw that same sort of mythic ethos echoing throughout Portlandia, and no matter what some grumpy old-timers around here might think, the show captured something uniquely Portland about Portland and presented that as a gift to the rest of the world. And the more I watched it from the waning comfort of my California home, the more I found myself drawn to the place that inspired all the zanniness and satire.
The Dream is Alive in Portland
Now that I’ve lived in Portland or surrounds going on three years, I can certainly tell you that the city isn’t just a bunch of aging hippies and bearded beer brewers and bookstore-owning lesbians and vampire couples and extremely fussy WASPs living in remodeled 1920s bungalows. Portland is far more real and sometimes (dare I say) normal than such a caricature would portray. And yet…on some subliminal level…Portland is weird, and, by gosh, we wish to keep it that way.
This is the city where some dude rides around on a unicycle and wears a Darth Vader helmet and plays bagpipes with flames sprouting out of the drones.
This is the city where mermaids gather at the river beach to celebrate being, um, mermaids.
This is the city where a ragtag bunch of folks get naked and ride around on bicycles.
This is the city that boasts a used and new bookstore several stories tall encompassing an entire city block that is essentially Disneyland for bookworms and nerds. (P. S. We really love books around here.)
This is the city I fell in love with. The city where, perhaps for the first time in my entire life, I felt like I could reinvent myself, and then do it again, and then maybe a third time for good measure, and that’s just fine. Expected, even. Because we’re all a little odd and a little scattered and a little too focused on coffee and cannabis and an endless variety of quirky creative expressions and all the things that make Portland way more than your typical urban zone in these United States.
And that’s why I’m down with the idea that it’s OK to move to a new place because you saw it lovingly laughed at on television. Because, while the real deal is much less outrageous than the jokes might lead to you to believe, it’s also just as inspiring and life-giving. And in this strange season of my pre-mid-life-crisis-crisis, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.