The Grim, Grimy, Socialist Utopianism of Portland


Note the three identical gray Subarus, backdrop to the jogger.

Lurking behind Portland’s famed array of coffee shops, fancy restaurants, trendy design firms, and numerous bookstores, record stores, and other dreams of the 90s, is a city in which one finds the closest American version of a viable socialism.

To get a sense of daily life in Portland, a vast, sprawling, million-person metropolis that yet is often described as “cute,” imagine a cross between Canada, the Eastern Bloc, and Finland, allied uneasily but rather systematically with gutter punks, anti-tax libertarians, tree-hugging hippies, and annoying California yuppies.

There are no political parties within the city limits; instead lurks a three-county regional government called Metro about which no one knows much, other than that they determine everything (from the urban growth boundary to organic home gardening policies) and draw their ranks from a fascist cabal of sensible urban planners.

Trains, trains, trains, trains, wonderful trains.

Trains, trains, trains, trains, wonderful trains.

In Portland, the trains run on time — and oh, the trains: the light rail, the streetcars, the suburb-to-suburb commuter rail named WES — not to mention the aerial tram and the pristine, efficient bus lines. The whole system is fairly new; expansion projects pop up constantly, the mass-transit equivalent of recently-arrived transplants from Williamsburg.

Speaking of transplants, nobody in Portland is actually from Portland, except for the few who are, who ritualistically complain about the noobs. The city’s population recently surged past 600,000 for the first time in history, and the skyline envelops a matrix of cranes. New condos stand next to new condos that stand next to new parks that stand next to new condos, all of which are transit-accessible and moderately priced.

Future condo dwellers eagerly anticipate a new park and views of a bridge.

Future condo dwellers (left) anticipate a new park (right), accompanied by views of a grim, grimy, socialist-looking bridge.

William Gibson once quipped about Singapore, “Nothing is falling apart. Everything that’s fallen apart has already been replaced with something new. (The word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it’s all infrastructure.)”

He could have been chronicling Portland, albeit in a tone less sparkly and breathless, where infrastructure nonetheless reigns supreme. In addition to the mind-boggling (and top-ranked) TriMet transit network, Portland’s bisecting Willamette River spawns an overhang of bridges — lots and lots of bridges — so many that one of the city’s many nicknames is “Bridgetown,” although nobody ever calls it that.

Bridgetown’s many bridges convey bicyclists, pedestrians, and trains, in addition to private vehicles, with the exception of the forthcoming Bridge of the People, which accommodates all forms of transit aside from cars.

Indeed, nothing delights the Portlander more than banning something. Voters — and everyone votes, it’s extremely popular, and done entirely by mail with a turnout topping 80% — have banned indoor smoking, and plastic bags, and recently, when the city council decided to fluoridate the water, passed a referendum to ban fluoride. Banning cars from a bridge thus makes perfect sense, breaking potential new ground for the city’s Tall Bicycle Jousting Leagues.

A yet-to-be reclaimed crappy industrial building, one of Portland's many. (Note the bridge.)

A yet-to-be-reclaimed crappy industrial building. (Note, also, the bridge.)

Portland, for much of its history, lumbered along with a grim, grimy, semi-industrial economy, until more recently, when a resurgence of lifestyle enterprises (brewpubs, coffee shops, design firms, transit-accessible condos, an occasional tech startup, and so on) entered the scene. They reclaimed many, though certainly not all, of the city’s myriad crappy industrial buildings, transforming them into decidedly less crappy (though still grim and, after a while, grimy again) centers of living and commerce.

The patchy post-industrial metamorphosis, orchestrated systematically by Metro’s aforementioned planning cabal, renders certain districts, such as the uber-fancy downtown Pearl, resolutely shiny and new. Other geographies, such as the eastside (which is pronounced t-less-ly, eass-side), reflect the greater decay of urban yore. Hence the less-than-breathless Gibson, who would note these outer districts as landscapes transforming, but not quite transformed.

Part of the issue is that it takes a while for things to change, and when they do, it’s often through a vast, concerted, deliberate and systemic effort. Not to be outdone by the five-year plans of Trotsky, Metro’s immaculate schemes encompass the next half-century and leave no property developer’s stone unturned.

The plans appear to be working.

The plans appear to be working, much unlike the populace.

Combined with what one might term a planocracy is the Portlander’s aversion to work in general, and working for corporations in particular. The public’s widespread anti-corporatism leads to a ferocious aversion to big box stores, ultimately prohibiting their development.

[Ed.: This “aversion to work” seems to be less of an aversion to work in all circumstances, and more an aversion to the sort of dreary lifestyle depicted in movies like Office Space. Marshall King comments, via Facebook: “I think plenty of people work super hard in Portland. I’m one of them. BUT we’ve pretty much dumped the corporate crap and work hard without the corporate trappings and 8-5 commute etc. I’m a CFO but I’ve chosen to work with start ups and cool folks, outside of the structures that our parents generation created. We’re progressive.”]

Simultaneously, wealth (having it, and, especially, flaunting it) is frowned upon — so, while one might aspire towards a day job at a local vegan coffee shop, or even a cool startup (as CFO or otherwise), it’s entirely gauche to express the sort of megalomaniac Bay Area ambition of building a massive company and selling it for, like, ten billion dollars.

Thus, a hole sits in the middle of Portland’s economy, a vacuous gap between fifty-year-planned government on the one hand, and the likes of record stores on the other. Missing almost entirely are the sorts of mid-size, enterprise-ish, hundred-to-thousand-person companies that one would think necessary to sustain both a sprawling public sector and a thriving lifestyle sector — but Portland functions fine without them, a city of planners and baristas unencumbered by the weight of middle management.

And nobody seems to mind — for while jobs are scarce and an unromantic sensibility pervades even the fanciest of manses, the fact is that Portland’s socialism is a socialism that works, even though it might be grim and grimy in the process.

A semi-official-looking person rides a Segway past the dog gym.

A semi-official-looking person rides a Segway past the dog gym. (This photo doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the essay, but it’s so funny that I’m including it here at the end.)

Christian Perry moved to Portland in August, 2012. If you live in the Portland area, drop him a line at, especially if you’re interested in meeting over a delicious cup of locally-roasted coffee. 



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