It was around the time of the second baby that we started to think about where to settle down. For many years my wife and I had pursued the semi-itinerant lifestyle of freelance workers. Place was a liquid commodity. We changed apartments every year or two. The one consistency was the summertime, when we’d fly back to Portland, Oregon, and stay with my parents for a few weeks, in the house where I grew up.
It’s an old house, about 100 years old, on a terraced hill overlooking the Willamette River. Air-conditioning is provided by the east-west breezes that flow up from the river, through the screened back and side doors that my parents leave open on summer nights, and up over the Tualatin Mountains, known to Portlanders as simply “the West Hills.” As you’ve probably heard, normal Portland weather consists of rain, overcast, and clear in equal parts. By visiting in the summers, though, we could cherry-pick a stretch of gloriously mild 18-hour days.
I have no substantive complaints about my parents’ parenting. In their new role as summer hosts, they’ve proved themselves to be polite and endlessly accommodating. One year, we somehow convinced them to sit through nightly viewings of Noah Baumbach’s entire filmography. Another year, we disappeared with one of their two Toyota Priuses and drove out to the coast for several days. Another year, we hiked a mile into the old-growth forest at the base of Mount Hood to bathe in the wooden tubs at Bagby Hot Springs. Some years, we’d sit around and not do much of anything. If their curiosity about our longer-term prospects ever tipped over into skepticism, they did a good job of hiding it.
Nor did they ever push us to move back to Portland for good, at least not openly. Part of their parental doctrine is to never interfere in choices that ultimately belong to their children. This could very well be a reaction to their own childhoods, growing up amid the stronger and more communal expectations of first-generation American Jews. At the same time, they were unrestrained in letting us know how much they appreciated us being there. My mom has cooked up feasts of chanterelle mushrooms and Columbia River salmon, purchased in supermarket parking lots from her carefully guarded list of purveyors. She’d sometimes tear up when reciting the Friday-night Shabbat prayers from her own mother’s tattered prayer book. I remember feeling some pressure to visit in my 20s and early 30s. But around the time we got married, summer visits started being an annual thing, one we genuinely looked forward to. One or two weeks turned into three or four. We stopped treating the house like a free getaway hotel and would help out here and there, with the laundry (at least our own) and the dishes. I’d talk in an earnest way about doing some yard work. We’d sit on the deck with my brothers, both of whom had also come from far away, as our kids played in the backyard. It was nice.
At some point my wife and I started talking in a semiserious way about moving back to Portland for good. Beyond the family connection were the things drawing everyone else to Portland. The city combines the delectable slowness of a small town, the conveniences of a bigger city, and the unspoiled beauty of the Far West. As workers in every other American city ran endless sprints on the treadmill of success, Portland seemed to have extracted the best that capitalism had to offer while escaping the attendant neuroses. Where else outside Europe can you find open-air pubs crowded with good-looking people drinking pilsner at 2 o’clock on a weekday?
As lifetime 1099’ers, this all struck my wife and me as being very much in line with our scheduling and budgetary needs. The fact that we were even talking about moving back meant that my parents were on the verge of hitting the child-rearing jackpot. They had left us alone to make up our own minds, and there we were, coming around to doing what they’d secretly hoped we would.
There was one problem. The image I carried around of Portland as an idyllic refuge, far removed from the troubles of the outside world, was getting harder and harder to maintain. My beloved, obscure hometown had somehow become a city-sized meme, a punchy example deployed across the political spectrum to prove any number of points. First there was “Portlandia,” the TV show, which skewered the town’s smugness and guilt-ridden hypocrisies. Then, after the 2016 election, downtown Portland became a stage for clashes between the far left (mostly locals), the far right (who commuted in for regular Patriot Prayers), and social-media entrepreneurs, such as Andy Ngo, who made their reputations by exaggerating and fomenting chaos under the guise of documenting it. As the protests dragged on and the local economy worsened, the semipermanent tent cities used by Portland’s homeless population expanded, occupying the blank spaces around parks and highways. They became an unavoidable fixture of the boarded-up downtown, which had been diminished first by the protests and then by the pandemic. Even the planet itself seemed to turn on Portland: Air temperatures this summer reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The asphalt on the corner of Woodstock and 92nd hit 180, hot enough to cause third-degree burns.
In the early days of this mounting turmoil, I interviewed Sam Brownback, the former Kansas governor, in his new Trump-era Office of International Religious Freedom. “Where are you from?” he asked, on my way out. It was a completely normal, get-to-know-you pleasantry. But when I answered “Portland,” Brownback abruptly shifted gears.
“Ah! You know any of those antifa?” he asked – a response that earned him wide-eyed stares from his two press handlers. At the time, I wrote the moment off as a geriatric brain fart.
I was wrong. Brownback wasn’t losing it; he was throwing a jab. What I failed to discern was the clue that his flicker of aggression offered me about Portland’s new position in the Republican cinematic universe. He saw me as a hostile emissary from a liberal Sodom, a city deserving of divine wrath, a place where Democrats allowed, or perhaps encouraged, black-bloc anarchists to run wild. From the eschatological God’s-eye view, as seen from Homeland Security surveillance drones and interpreted by the policy prophets of Fox News, Portland was a city pining for its own destruction.
Long before Portland’s national cult, there was a local cult. Attempts to indoctrinate me began early. When I was 6 years old, the city fathers trucked my grade-school class downtown, where we sang hymns before Portlandia, a newly installed statue depicting a six-ton bronze goddess. In one hand she held a trident; her other hand extended downward, offering a bridge between the pedestrian and the sublime. Each student in my class had composed a verse praising a different jewel in Portland’s urban crown: Powell’s Books, Rose Festival, Forest Park, the city’s odd four-armed sidewalk drinking fountains. My assignment was the Japanese Gardens, which I proclaimed an “oasis of tranquility.”
The original Portlandia was known as the Queen of Commerce. She first appeared on the city’s seal in 1878, when Portland was a booming frontier town nestled on the Willamette River. The myth of Portlandia could be understood as the hope that capitalism and nature could be reconciled and cultivated into something like the city’s International Rose Test Garden, beautiful and stable, where anyone can stop and sniff exotic hybrids with names like Sixteen Candles and Chrysler Imperial. Until very recently, Portland seemed like the rare place that demonstrated such alchemy was possible.
For a time, Portland was also cheap, cheap enough for a group of skateboarders to commandeer a parking lot underneath the Burnside Bridge and build an illegal skatepark. Cheap enough for weirdo storefronts like the 24-Hour Church of Elvis and the UFO Museum, where I would spend late afternoons in high school perusing the clock-filled Freud Room and trying to talk the proprietor, Lex Loeb, into letting me open a museum-endorsed Alien Shoeshine Stand. These pre-internet enterprises were a bit like Portlandia herself. They seemed to run on their own solipsistic vapor.
By the aughts, the Burnside skatepark had become a playable level in Tony Hawk’s “Pro Skater.” But groups of kids in their 20s were still moving cross-country to Portland, where they could rent one of the city’s Craftsman houses, whose earnest architecture, grassy 50-foot (15.24m)-wide lots, and generous porches were not yet an Instragrammed symbol of no-longer-attainable middle-class comforts. The rent was still only a few hundred dollars a month.
The antics of the young and wild were observed closely by advertising creatives across the river at Wieden+Kennedy. The firm’s synthesis of the Western-frontier myth with early-aughts hipsterdom reached its apotheosis with the Levi’s “Pioneers” campaign, featuring “Western youths” in blue denim romping through meadows, dancing under waterfalls, and making love to the voiced-over words of Walt Whitman. Wieden+Kennedy’s global headquarters anchored the Pearl District, where developers were buying up warehouses to make room for condos and wildscaped parks. Before, those buildings contained machine shops that supplied the Gunderson shipyard and the Swigert family’s steelworks. Now, their transformation would set the stage for Portland’s second utopian phase. What was once a delicate garden of provincial gentility would soon be held up as a national symbol of enlightened progressive life.
Of course, Portland’s utopian turn was problematic long before the city was singled out for a federal takeover by the very stable coup-averse president of the United States. The story of Portland is wrapped up in the bloody conquest of the West. All manner of terrible things took place as the old grounds were cleared to make way for the new garden. Native peoples were forced off their homeland and onto small reservations. Chinese immigrants were brutally exploited to build the railroads. Under the first state constitution, Black citizens could not vote, sign contracts, hold real estate, or go to court. The Ku Klux Klan, a prominent force in state politics through the 1920s, held public rallies and won seats in the state legislature. These openly racist policies, combined with private acts of terrorism, left a permanent legacy. Today, Portland’s population is only 5.8% Black. Once, just north of the city, there was a mostly Black settlement called Vanport, along the low-lying banks of the Columbia River. It was destroyed by a flood in 1948 and never rebuilt.
Portland’s homogeneity allowed it to mostly avoid the race riots and white flight that hit more diverse Eastern cities during the 1960s and ’70s. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it also made the city an appealing target for the Sam Brownbacks and Tucker Carlsons of the world. Attacking Portland offered a way to tear-gas streets full of angry white liberals, thus maintaining the crucial fiction that “law and order” had nothing to do with race.
My parents still talk about a holiday party they attended in the ’70s, before I was born. One of their colleagues was married to a police officer, who had invited some of his own friends from work. After drinks and some mingling in the host’s finished basement, one of the off-duty police officers turned on a record player, took out an album with some swastikas on the cover, and played the Nazi Party anthem. The group formed a line and started goose-stepping up and down the floor. “We were in shock,” my mother recalls. My parents decided it was time to go.
The affinity of a few Portland police officers for Nazis has since surfaced publicly from time to time. But what strikes me about the basement story is not the sedition so much as the reckless innocence. It’s one thing to play Nazi with your friends; it’s another thing to do it at a party in front of strangers, one of whom happens to be a Jewish lawyer. There’s a thread that runs through the police-officer goosestep, the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, and “Portlandia.” It’s that unfettered eccentricity known to Portlanders as weirdness, as in the “Keep Portland Weird” motto seen on murals and bumper stickers. Portland weirdness is cultural deviation that mutates along specific lines because it doesn’t encounter any friction. This is a different kind of ferment from the generativity of a crossroads like New Orleans or Philadelphia. For a while, Portland was the cultural equivalent of the Galapagos Islands, a place where you could see new species of weirdness arising from uniformity and isolation.
Weird is not necessarily bad. On a recent summer stroll through Alberta Park, I encountered a bike-polo match, a “Dungeons & Dragons” foam-sword skirmish, an open-air Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a group of adult Pokémon Go players holding their smartphones out like divining rods, and a 7-year-old’s birthday party. The coexistence of these various subcultural pods within the same park was due mostly to the psycho-geography of empty space. Alberta Park is nearly 17 acres. Each pod could spread out without bumping up against the next one.
It’s hard to say how much of this is Portland specific and how much is the persistent lure of the West, the vacuum of unclaimed space that sucks up all of the country’s random dreams and puts them on parade. The westward stream of covered wagons never really stopped. Yesterday it was oxen fording the Columbia; today it’s the broken-down Winnebagos squatting beneath I-5 and the Ram ProMasters, full of van-lifing millennials hashtagging their way up the Columbia Gorge.
I wasn’t in Portland for the George Floyd protests. Watching them from my home, in Washington, DC, Trump’s actions in Portland seemed both criminally irresponsible and tactically astute. What looked at first to be extreme and unconsidered measures succeeded in provoking his enemies into discrediting themselves. In Portland, this took the form of what Brownback called “antifa,” a small group of committed radicals who set fires and break windows in the pursuit of unattainable, and often unarticulated, goals. Their targets have ranged from jails and police union headquarters to the county’s Office of Community Involvement, where doors were smashed and curtains set on fire. Whatever cause these actions were intended to serve wasn’t helped by the smashing of the glass doors at the entrance of the Oregon Historical Society.
When Portlanders talk about the protests today, Trump’s success at fraying the city’s progressive coalition is evident. They don’t want to fully disavow the violence committed by the extreme edge of their own side, even as they suffer the consequences. So they look for someone to blame, other than the protesters themselves – hypothetical false-flag provocateurs, city officials who were either too harsh or too lenient. I too can twist myself into knots when considering the violence. Some of the most effective actions carried out by the Vietnam-era protest movement, like the burglary of the FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania, involved property destruction. But the almost random cycle of lawbreaking in Portland accomplishes little beyond alienating the very residents most inclined to support the protests. Setting aside the question of whether an insurgency might somehow be justified, this is not how you win at insurgency.
Today, much of downtown Portland remains boarded up. The Apple Store’s glass façade is surrounded by two stories of chain-link fence. What was once the city’s priciest and most central district is now a magnet for the homeless. When my father goes into work downtown, he passes a small tent city he jokingly calls “our little village.” The Bijou Café, where he ate lunch once a week for 50-odd years, just went out of business. On one of its boarded-up windows, there is a poster of a burning building, along with an exhortation to build a new order from the ashes of the old.
Portland remains a beautiful place. Its two politically fraught afflictions – protests and mass homelessness – are in the city’s foreground, highly visible and possibly temporary. Looming in the background is climate. More than 100 people statewide were killed by this summer’s record-setting heatwave; one elderly man was cooked to death in his old metal camper, parked on treeless asphalt. As with most Portlanders, he had no air-conditioning. My parents spent those days at home, surrounded by fans. At one point we had trouble reaching them by phone. It turned out they had taken refuge inside an air-conditioned movie theater.
My mother used to run our Sunday School. One of the teachers was Jenn Louis, who went on to found three Portland restaurants and write cookbooks. Since last November, Jenn has made regular trips to the homeless camps around her neighborhood, loading up her Volvo SUV with food, clothes, and camping supplies. During the winter, she was going out every day. It was too much to sustain. By the time I showed up in July she had pared her schedule back to twice a week.
I went out with her twice, listening in as she chatted up her regulars and gently prodded them to get vaccinated. She listened to stories of enemies setting one another’s tents on fire, or slipping someone a “hot shot,” adulterated heroin intended to kill them. She treated everyone the same way, whether or not they had mental health issues, or drug problems, or bench warrants, or appeared to be in the midst of committing some crime. Everyone was encouraged to take as much as they wanted, as long as there was enough left to complete the day’s run.
What is most striking about Portland’s homeless encampments is their volume, their apparent permanence, and the obviousness of the city’s hands-off approach, which one could characterize as either compassion or fear in the face of impunity. In 2016, tent camping on city sidewalks was officially legal for a few months; whatever rules against it that might exist now are not being enforced. You can park a trailer on a residential street, replace the wheels with cinder blocks, surround it with wooden pallets to create a sort of yard, and not have to worry about much intervention from the authorities. Some blocks near downtown appear to be open-air chop shops for bicycles and automobiles.
For years, the city has treated homelessness as a social issue to be addressed not as a form of blight, but with social services and pathways to housing. The size of the local homeless population has reportedly remained steady over the years, but the share of public space occupied by encampments has increased dramatically. The city has responded to the new enclaves by offering even more services – needle exchanges, dumpsters, Porta Potties. Hundreds now live in city-funded “villages” and “pod communities,” some with tiny winterized houses. This compassionate, hands-off approach has posed a challenge for Portland’s liberal bourgeoisie, many of whom would prefer not to live amidst the visible consequences of their own policy preferences.
Just off Pacific Avenue, a few blocks from Jenn’s home, a middle-aged man asked for some t-shirts and underwear. His pick-up truck still ran, and it had a camper in back. He had been near Paradise, California for the beginning of the wildfires in 2018, and he told us what he’d learned from his escape. “The moment you smell smoke, run,” he said. “Get the fuck out. Have a Plan B. Don’t wait for those fools to tell you to go. They don’t know shit.” It seemed like a good rule of thumb for life in the 21st century.
The man asked Jenn what was causing the current heat wave. She gave a quick gloss on the feedback loop of the heat dome. Hot air pushes away cooler weather systems and begets more hot air. It was one of several feedback loops: heat turning forests into tinder; wildfires transforming that dry wood into carbon dioxide, heating the planet, drying out the land, and begetting more wildfires; fear-based Hobbesian politics driving stupid decisions which degrade the environment, leading to more fear-based politics. Jenn’s project could be considered an attempt to break the latter cycle.
One summer, during the year of my mother’s 70th birthday, my family drove five hours to the town of Sisters. We’d rented a house on the dry plains of Central Oregon, at the same dude ranch where we’d vacationed together 30 years before, going on hikes and horseback rides. There were several days on that trip when the sky was thick, low, and gray with smoke. It was unclear how much we should change our behavior, or what the health effects of those decisions might be. Mostly, we stayed inside. I remember my mother standing alone at the window, looking out at the sky. I don’t know what she was thinking. My parents are stoics. They don’t talk much about the changes they’re living through, in the place they grew up in and will stay, it goes without saying, for the rest of their lives. They don’t see place as a liquid commodity. They’re lifers, with their fortunes hitched up, for better and for worse, to Portland’s.
There is a version of this story where I would tell you that Portland was once good and is now bad. I would explain how apocalyptic transformations had ruined the Eden of my birthplace to the point that they overcame the bonds of family. I would invent the moment when we decided not to move to Portland, and narrate the heartbreaking process of revealing that choice to my parents. Then, I would shift to the uncomfortable questions that the Portland Situation poses to contemporary liberalism: What if you can’t talk to the other side because they inhabit a completely different reality? What if global warming will eventually kill us all, whether or not individual consumers decide to make marginally more virtuous choices? What if tiny homes and minimum-wage jobs are exactly what the homeless are trying to escape?
Playing up Portland’s problems would be a very Portland approach to the story, because Portland does not want you to move there. It would also be an easier story, because it would get me off the hook with my parents. It would also be untrue. Portland is still a wonderful place. The choice to return each summer still feels like a serendipitous combination of hedonistic enjoyment and filial love. Forest Park, with miles of dirt trails blanketed in shadows and pine needles, takes up a full 5% of Portland’s acreage, which is larger than Central Park’s relative footprint on Manhattan. The Willamette River, which forms the city’s east-west axis, is still clean enough to swim in. On good days the entire city feels like a garden, with rabbits, song birds, and a clean-smelling breeze wafting from the Cascades out to the coast.
At the same time, Portland is aging the way that hipsters tend to age, awkwardly clinging to a cool past as a way of shutting out historical and market forces beyond control. The weirdness, like the raw nature, has become something scarce, a civic asset to be institutionalized and conserved. In late July, Mayor Ted Wheeler invited the Unipiper – a unicycling bagpiper – to preside over the official summer “reopening” of downtown, a moment that marked the civic domestication of what was once a wild bohemia.
One by one, my parents’ neighbors are installing central air-conditioning. They half-jokingly offer to shelter my parents when the next heat wave comes. There was one Shabbat dinner this summer when 11 of us sat sweating around the table in the dining room, which must have been 90 degrees. We did our best, like coffee-drinking dogs, to pretend everything was fine. It isn’t so hard to do that for one month out of the year. Even as I tally up Portland’s changes, I can still experience it like a kind of Colonial Williamsburg, a museum dedicated not to my country’s founding but to my own childhood. Moving back would entail coming to terms on a more visceral and daily basis with the fact that the city I grew up in no longer exists. I would have to admit the degree to which things have changed. Some version of this same logic, I believe, may be behind my parents’ resistance to installing central air.
In reality, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we decided not to move back to Portland. In early August, I took one of the Priuses for a naptime drive with my 2-year-old son up the Columbia Gorge. He slept as we wound along the twists of old Highway 100, past the remaining strips of forest that fire crews had fought to save during the Eagle Creek fire in 2017. The smoke from Bootleg was drifting north by then, and a milky white film obscured the views across the river into Washington, where the forest was mostly whole. The timber on the Oregon side was a ragged checkerboard of scorched brown earth and bare gray trunks.
On our way back, my son noticed that something was off. “What happened to the trees?” he asked. When I tried to explain, he seemed incredulous. Then he reinformed me of what I’d just told him – that people had started the fire that burned the trees – and added his own take on the consequences. “The trees are sad,” he said.
Avoiding such close-up views of incremental planetary destruction certainly played a role in our decision to stay back East, where the process of adulteration is further along. But we were also driven by more quotidian factors. For starters, we wanted a house like the one I grew up in, something that no longer seems attainable in Portland. In 2010, city rents were 1% above the US median. Now the premium is about 20%. Portland is no longer aloof from the commercial logic of the national real-estate market; the gossip in my parents’ neighborhood has come to include Zillow estimates and the names of startup moguls who’ve snapped up properties for gut renovations. What’s more, the Portland economy, heavy on services and light on industry, seems better suited to carefree consumers with fewer years or more money. And we didn’t want to be a continent away from our friends on the East Coast, where we’d lived for so many years.
These smaller, more boring reasons for not moving to Portland reflected our desire to find a place where we could be insulated from – or at least temporarily numb to – the crises of the wider world. What we were seeking, in a way, was a new refuge to replace the one we seemed to have lost. Perhaps we’d become W-2ers without even knowing it, telling ourselves a flattering story about a wide-open future, unaware of the roots that we were steadily putting down back East. A move to Portland would be not so much a homecoming as a starting over, and we’re getting too old to keep starting over.
I think back to our last real house party before the time of the first baby. One friend handed me an overpowering joint as another proceeded to tell me what it was like to stay up all night dancing at the legendary Berghain nightclub, in Berlin. The realization that I would never, not in my entire life, set foot inside the legendary Berghain club, and would as likely as not die without having set foot in Berlin, hit me with a combination of panic and sorrow. As I watched the radius of lifetime possibility shrink, like a camera’s aperture, I lay down on the roof of our apartment building and hyperventilated. My friends tried to sooth me with some words of comfort. A few minutes later, the police came and kicked us off the roof.
The problem of getting old is an old problem, which means there are plenty of established ways of coping. The new problem, the one harder to deal with, is the diminishing possibilities for our species. Settling down means something different now, because there is no long term. The best one can hope for is a temporary pocket of equilibrium, to be enjoyed while it lasts, and then mercilessly abandoned. The pain is greatest in those places that are most familiar, where we are forced to come to terms with the geologic changes unfolding within our lifetimes. For me, Portland is haunted by the years when it really did seem to be a refuge from the world’s afflictions. Ultimately, I chose not to live inside of that endless confrontation.
I think it was last spring when a friend in Portland suggested it was time to stock up on air filters and emergency supplies, because the next round of wildfires was coming. The calamity was no longer a random summer interruption. It was now part of the regular seasonal programming. You bought chains for your tires in the winter and air filters for your bedroom in the summer. It was easier than admitting that your home was already on fire.