BY BRIAN LIBBY
For all the economic activity that has come as a result of globalization and free trade zones, Americans for decades have lamented the loss of the country's manufacturing base and attendant jobs lost to factories overseas. Whether it's Apple iPods, Nike sneakers or any number of other goods, they're made somewhere beyond US shores. But what if there's not a silver lining for the domestic economy, but one which Portland has already embraced?
In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson explores how craft manufacturing is emerging as a niche for the United States that could actually become a much larger segment of the economy. "Don't Mock the Artisanal-Pickle Makers" is the title of the article, and Davidson's focus is how Brooklyn has become a "ground zero" of the artisanal universe. But of course Portland is the unspoken juggernaut here.
Although Brooklyn is a burough of New York City and thus gets media attention even more easily than our over-exposed city, Brooklyn's rise of both hipsters and an artisanal economy has already been referred to in the New York Observer as a "Portlandification." There too, as on the TV show "Portlandia", the focus has been on style more than economics. Aren't these people in their earnest, quirky enthusiam funny? But People seem to get so wary of or mocking about hipsters that they lose sight of what hipsters are doing - which, it turns out, may be inventing or reinventing a whole new economy. When you don't have to sit in a cubicle anymore and have decided instead to make ans sell something yourself, why not grow that Amish beard you've always wanted?
Instead of the high-volume, low-margin commodity business of giant corporations and manufacturers, who turn out millions of units of soda pop, bicycles or beef jerky, Davidson argues in the Times, making things by hand taps into an increasinly savvy world market whose collective middle and upper-middle classes will pay more for things unique and of quality. "Contrary to popular belief, the revival of craft manufacturing isn't just a fad," he writes. He cites not just the usual pickled foods or clothing or specialty consumer items like candles or bikes, but also companies making precision parts for rockets or helicopters.
What's more, Davidson discusses a "happines index" of note, that "once people reach some level of comfort, they are willing - even eager - to trade in potential earnings at a lucrative but uninspiring job for less (but comfortable) pay at more satisfying work. Much as we may desire more Fortune 500 companies to bring jobs to an under-employed metro area, the reason the city is seeing a migration of college-educated, creative-industry denizens is that Portland has earned the distinction of being a different kind of place, where making money may still be important, but not at the price of a saccharine lifestyle of automobile gridlock and eyesore strip malls. It's not where you'll get rich, the thinking goes, but where you'll have a life on your own terms.
And just as important as being a hive of artisanal manufacturing and small businesses without such domination by or dependence upon a few corporate juggernauts, Portland is a place without the burden of history and generations of old money. This point was made by New Yorker turned Portlander William Deresiewicz in an American Scholar essay called "A Jew in Portland."
"When Barack Obama was inaugurated, in a great national celebration, about a year after I returned from the Northeast to live here, my strongest feeling was one of remoteness from the event, a sense that American history was happening, as it almost always has, somewhere else," Deresiewicz writes. "In the East, you feel as if you’re in the midst of things. Portlanders feel as if they’re in the midst of things, but not the things I’m talking about." He goes on to describe an encounter:
"I was gardening one morning when a blissful hippie couple happened by. 'Hey,' they said, 'how’s your day going?' Then they praised the perennials, savored the look of the mulch, and urged me with a smile to have a peaceful afternoon. As they strolled on down the street, I realized what they’d been doing. They’d been 'sending positive energy into the universe.' How sweet, I thought, and how remarkably naive. What kind of place—and a city, no less—allows you to remain so innocent of history that you can wander through the world on such terms? And yet I remain, and just, perhaps, for these very reasons. New York may be the city of my past, but Portland—green, self-limiting, communitarian—is, I believe, the city of our future. Or at least it needs to be, if we’re going to have a future. As any student of American history can tell you, you reach the new by releasing the old. And as any student of another place can tell you—I mean a certain strip of land between the Jordan and the sea—too much memory can kill you."
It's not to say that Portland's advantage is in its flakey, naive ignorance of the weight of history. But as Deresiewicz argues, the country has taken notice that Portland may not be just a stylish fad, but a pioneer in a new-old way of things.
If that's the case, though, what does that mean for architecture? Locally, it would seem to mean a continuation of a trend long since begun with the Great Recession: not so many big projects like half-block condominium towers or office buildings - espcially in the private sector - but more modestly sized ones. In recent years burgeoning neighborhoods like the South Waterfront have been maligned as million-dollar boondoggles because some of their big condos have been foreclosed upon. That neighborhood, like the Pearl District before it, was still a good idea. Sprawl and a lack of density would have been the alternative. But what we may be poised to add now is more foothills to these and other mountains: littler building projects dwarved individually by the behemoths, but collectively larger and better integrated with the urban fabric. More so than new construction, though, the artisanal economy seems rooted in the existing old buidings they renovated into new-economy hives, such as Portland's Ford Building, the Leftbank Building, or the Ecotrust Building.
Even corporate America and government are recognizing the groundswell of new seedlings replacing the old-growth ecosystem. In today's New York Times, Christine Negroni reports on the historic Town Hall in Stamford, Connecticut being turned into a startup incubator, with the bill being paid for renovations of the building largely by local corporate aviation company Sikorsky in exchange for access to or first pass at entrepreneurs' new ideas. Negroni also cites the Oregon Sustainability Center in Portland as an additional example of cities investing in business incubators.
Although the Sustainability Center may turn out to more than pay for itself in economic actitivy and sustainable-industry innovation, it's also a hugely expensive building project that will come with lease rates significantly above market rate. I worry that this will wind up as a very innovative demonstration project for green design and construction but fail as an incubator. The same could easily be true for Stamford's transformation of its Town Hall. The whole thing feels too institutional to capture and enable startup companies.
I'd give a better shot at success to the more informal Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE) being hosted by Wieden + Kennedy ad agency in its Pearl District headquarters. When I visited their space in the building, one of PIE's co-founders talked about how the right environment was a balance of support and informality: the chance for entrepreneurs to come together and exchange ideas, both with each other and with some of the big corporations and investors to which W+K has access, but also to kick their shoes off and order a pizza - to make the architetual space their own. After all, the space that birthed the original computer industry revolution in the 1960s and '70s was the informal home garage. Would a young Steve Jobs have relocated his new Apple company to an office tower in downtown San Francisco, with government officials and fat-cat corporate types looking on, even if he could?
Ultimately what will help Portland succeed - or Brooklyn or Bellingham or Birmingham - is having more garages, not more gilded incubators. Here's perhaps where the sustainability revolution Portland has long since led meets the artisanal economy it seems to be a large part of: in embracing old buildings of character, be they warehouses or old Victorian houses for their most emblematic headquarters. It's not just how you make artisan piclkles, but where.