BY BRIAN LIBBY
In Wednesday's Washington Post, Maura Judkis argues that Portland's 15 minutes of fame are up.
"Portland, with its elaborate facial hair and abundance of strip clubs, represents irony. Pittsburgh, with its working-class pragmatism, is the opposite: earnest and straightforward," writes Judkis, a Pittsburgh native. "Hipsters take faux working-class attributes — brusque beards, Pabst Blue Ribbon and occupations such as butchery — and integrate them into their lives with an ironic wink and a superiority complex. In Pittsburgh, you can find all of the above, only without the derision and affectation. The natural life span of the hipster has come to an end. What was a lifestyle adopted to make fun of the mainstream has now become the mainstream. There are no more [expletive] hipsters to be looked at...and jokes about them — much like every skit on Portlandia — have started to feel a minute or a paragraph too long."
With due respect to the writer, I think this article, like many from national media outlets, fails to grasp the coalescence of long term trends leading to Portland's rise.
Instead of reading the tea leaves of decades-long socio-economic urban trends that have emboldened Portland and Pittsburgh, or any number of smaller cities around the world, this article and others before it - particularly those covering the Portlandia TV show - have instead confused them with trite, fickle pop cultural cache. The notion of 15 minutes of fame was of course coined by Pittsburgh-born Andy Warhol, but the mentality shown here is less that of a visionary art provocateur than of a TMZ or E! reporter genuflecting or scoffing at a Kardashian depending on the time of day.
It's not just the Washington Post doing it. A New Yorker writer, John Seabrook, described Portland as a city where people "pretend not to care about money and worldly ambition." Did I mention his review predated the Occupy Wall Street movement? We may not be the only ones who see how little of value being in the one percent really buys.
The irony here - and yes, as a Portlander apparently I'm preturnaturally conditioned to recognize it, versus a Pittsburgian's quest for earnestness - is that Portlandia itself exemplifies a much better understanding of the city. The show may have a satirical tone (it being a satire and all) in its send ups of feminist bookstore owners and organic farmers, but it recognizes and embraces the city's broader identity of the progressive outsider, that which helped gave birth to Gus Van Sant films, Apple computers, Mark Rothko paintings and Simpsons episodes. The other irony is that Portland is overwhelmingly an earnest do-gooder populace, not cynical and ironic, compared to larger population centers on the East Coast or in Southern California.
In comparing the merits of Pittsburgh to Portland, Judkis can only seem to praise the Steel City by saying it has some supply of what Portland emblemizes. Pittsburgh, she writes, "has its own bike routes, microbreweries, organic food markets, art and lush scenery." If that doesn't work, there's always the cuisine that made unprecedented numbers of people in the Rust Belt and Midwest to which Pittsburgh belongs obese: "Don’t forget that it has one of the country’s weirdest and most delicious sandwiches."
This ought not to be about Pittsburgh versus Portland. As it happens, Pittsburgh does have a lot going for it. The city, more than any other former industrial Mecca flourishing in generations past, has found a way to reinvent itself as a flourishing small metropolis connecting the East Coast and the Midwest. And admittedly, Portland has its problems: we need jobs and greater diversity. But Pittsburgh and Portland, rather than rivals or as combatatants in some kind of cool-cache duel, both represent the rise of the small city at the expense of megalopolises like New York, DC and Los Angeles.
Gone are the days before the Internet and ease of travel when small cities' most talented artists and entrepreneurs felt they had to migrate across the country forever in order to find attention, investment and advancement. Today Mark Rothko wouldn't have to go to New York to become Mark Rothko.
The great diaspora of the 21st century will not be immigrants foreign and domestic heading to two or three American cultura capitols. It will be one that favors the Copenhagens, Kyotos, Portlands and Pittsburghs of the world - not to the same centers of smog, hubris and spit of the past. There is no Ellis Island today but an archipelago.
Go ahead, Washington Post. Try to marginalize this irrevocable broad transformation as mere fashion. After all, daily papers (once the gatekeepers of information, now stumbling to keep up) are part of the changing times theselves, and one that symbolizes something larger: an urban-cultural oligarchy becoming a democracy.
And now that I think about it, it's actually a good thing Portland's 15 minutes have been declared expired. Now that tastemakers might be moving on, we can focus on the truer substance and sustenance that remains.