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Comedy show takes a gentle dig at the piercings, tribal tattoos and organic obsessions in Oregon, but the people who live there are proud to be different.

Adrian Lai
  • 13 february 2012

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This article titled “Portland, the US capital of alternative cool, takes TV parody in good humour” was written by Paul Harris in Portland, Oregon, for The Observer on Saturday 11th February 2012 16.28 UTC

The feminist community centre in north Portland did not look unusual. Called In Other Words, it was located in an unassuming building next to a music store. But the activities to which it plays host might raise a few eyebrows. Its headline event is Dirty Queer, an “X-rated open mic” night when people get on stage to put on an act. One recent performer set up a potter’s wheel and created a ceramic dildo, to great applause.

But that merely scratches the surface of In Other Words. There is a Feminist Film Society, a lesbian cowgirl musical called Bunkin’ With You In The Afterlife (sample song: The Boy I Fell in Love With is a Girl), a feminist cheerleading squad and even the Feminist Queer Science Fiction Book Group.

Jesse DeBey, a tattooed and almost shaven-headed lesbian volunteer, sat on a sofa at In Other Words as she sipped from a glass jar of lemon ginger tea and laughed. “It is just too Portland,” she said.

But In Other Words is not unusual for Portland, a city of 580,000 in America’s north west. While more conservative communities might blanche at public sex-toy making, in Portland it is a colourful part of life. The city is now the unofficial world capital of a hyper-liberal, artsy and environmentally conscious hipster lifestyle. It is one obsessed with everything organic and locally made. Bikes, trams and buses rule the roads, not cars. Its denizens are heavily tattooed, excessively pierced, and obsessed with local bands. They shop in co-ops and hate corporations.

So famous has Portland become as a bastion of everything hip, young and green that it is now the subject of a new hit TV comedy, Portlandia. A partnership between local musician Carrie Brownstein and Saturday Night Live comic Fred Armisen, Portlandia lampoons life in the city with barbed affection in sketch after sketch.

Its tone is set from the first episode. Returning from a trip to Portland, Armisen asks Brownstein: “Do you remember the 90s? People were talking about getting piercings, getting tribal tattoos and people were singing about saving the planet and forming bands? There’s a place where that idea still exists.”

It then breaks into a song about Portland which praises sleeping until 11am, not getting a job and has the memorable chorus “The tattoo ink never runs dry”, sung by a bearded man wearing tiny Speedos, a leather jacket and not much else. Portland, Armisen concludes, is “where young people go to retire”.

Portlandia can be mercilessly accurate about the city’s blossoming alternative culture. One famous sketch involves a couple asking a waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. An intense questioning reveals it was fed a luxury diet in an idyllic woodland smallholding and called Colin. Still unsatisfied, the couple leave to visit the farm themselves. They return, only to start asking about the salmon.

Portlandia‘s success relies much on a hipster boom worldwide. In areas like Hoxton in London, Williamsburg in New York, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and cities like Austin in Texas, a recognisable culture has sprung up. But it is Portland – and now its alter ego Portlandia – that is head of the pack. The show’s success has seen newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post report on how real life and fiction mix and match in the city.

“I would not have predicted that it would have the pop culture impact it has had,” said Kristi Turnquist, TV critic at Portland newspaper the Oregonian. “It was the right show, at the right time, for the right people.” Even the venerable New Yorker magazine – the bible of liberal America – dispatched correspondent Margaret Talbot to visit. She penned some observations on Portlanders that read a little like David Attenborough discovering a band of jungle gorillas. “I spotted heavily tattooed parents leading an as yet uninked toddler out of a gluten-free bakery,” Talbot wrote.

But Portlandia is firmly rooted in the city’s reality. Another skit, “Put A Bird On It”, mocks “crafting” shops that transform bags and clothes by simply sewing a bird motif on to them.

Perhaps not by coincidence a successful local business, called Queen Bee Creations, has a line of items that does just that. Queen Bee sits in the middle of a Portland neighbourhood rammed with artisan breweries, chocolate shops and cute eateries.

Its owner, Rebecca Pearcy, laughed off the show’s gentle dig. “It has exaggerated what life is really like in Portland,” she said, but added: “People here really do want to know where the chicken came from that they are eating.”

Pearcy also thinks that is a good thing. In an age of outsourcing, she sees nothing wrong in making a virtue of local production. “For us, local is Portland; 80% of what we have is made in this building. That’s pretty darn local,” she said.

Even Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, has got in on the act of blending fact and fantasy. He appears in Portlandia as the assistant to the fictional mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan. “People just let that roll off their backs and go: ‘Oh, well, that’s Portland’,” said Turnquist.

It is also subversively hilarious. In Portlandia the fictional mayor is grilled by a hostile press when he is “outed” as secretly playing bass guitar in a reggae band. Adams is openly gay (and it’s a non-issue).

But Portlandia is not the whole picture of life in Portland. Not everyone is white, urbane, child-free and in their 20s, or acting as if they are. In fact the city is 8% black and 9% Hispanic– communities that often live in poorer neighbourhoods that are gentrifying with newcomers who push out long-established families who can no longer afford rents.

Portland also has a problem with gang violence. On one Sunday last month there were four unrelated shootings. Portland’s gangs, which include white supremacists called the Brood, have distinctly unfunny names like the Rolling 60s Crips. Last year there were more than 400 gang-related arrests.

One man who sees this side of Portland close-up is John Canda, founder of gang outreach group Connected. “I personally have been to 358 funerals,” he said of two decades working in the field. Connected, formed last year after a series of shootings, seeks to lessen violence by having volunteers walk the troubled streets, reaching out to Portland’s youth.

“Our message is talk with us. It starts with a greeting,” he said. For Canda, as a native black Portlander, the world of Portlandia and its concerns over recycling and organic food seem unreal. “It is like a parallel universe,” he said.

There is also a serious side to Portland’s embrace of the alternative. Just look at In Other Words. Though the community centre has a central role in Portlandia – as a fictional feminist bookshop run by two humourless ideologues – it has a real mission in the community.

The city’s alternative culture might by mockable to some but it is a lifeline for people like DeBey, the tea-sipping lesbian volunteer. She is originally from Salina, Kansas, deep in the rural American heartland. Now 28, she never felt she had a place there. “I came here from a place in Kansas where the word queer does not exist unless it’s thrown at you from a truck window. I was tired of feeling I was the only person like me,” she said.

When her Kansan mother comes to see her in Portland, she not only finds DeBey happy, but discovers there are many people like her. “There are not just lots of big, shaven-headed tattooed women here, but some of them are also holding hands,” DeBey said.

For her that is priceless. Portland is a magical place where she fits in. “Portland is really important. It is a safe space,” she said. And that, despite the best comic efforts of Portlandia, is no laughing matter.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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