There are times, living in the Bay Area, that I feel like I am not from Portland, Oregon, but Portland, Maine. Sitting in bars with ears wide open, holding conversations with others at the university, or talking with California colleagues, the name “Portland” rarely comes up except when I mention it, and when it does, there is a universal reaction.
First, there is almost no familiarity on the part of the other party with anything I am mentioning. Portland is just so far away, it seems, or perhaps so small and insignificant, that nobody really notices what goes on there.
This leads to a second sensation, that here Portland is regarded as some distant place, as if the 750 miles between it and San Francisco was lengthier than the 1700 miles to Chicago or the 2400 miles to New York.
Thirdly, when there is recognition of Portland, it is only as a skewed caricature. I once listened as a well-travelled and well-read observer of the built environment labelled the whole Portland region as “kind of suburban.” (This same person, contradictorily, considers Los Angeles to be urban.) Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia is a brilliant skewering of the city, but it is also at times the only way that people here even know the place exists, making one wonder if its satire, dark comedy, and inside references ever actually get across to those who don’t live there.
The Portland historian Terrence O’Donnell is generally credited with the observation that San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle were three sisters. The first, goes the aphorism, was a debutante, while Seattle was a tart. And Portland? Portland was a spinster. (This last description is older; a writer for Collier’s Weekly described the city as a spinster as far back as May of 1917.) The characterization is imperfect but not without merit. What it fails to note is that the debutante married into new money (circa 1849) and ever since the spinster has been not just her sister but her agent. Portland firms were largely beholden to San Francisco banks and San Francisco shipping for generations. From the 1880s to 1996, Portland was the northernmost edge of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s octopus-like network, a network that counted all its mileage by its distance from its headquarters at One Market Street, San Francisco. Peel back the layers further: much of California’s early American settlement came originally for the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon along the Oregon Trail, but changed their minds to head towards California after the discovery of gold. San Francisco was thus built in part upon the backs of those who had first dreamt of Oregon but had turned traitor–and had prospered from the betrayal.
Though the lopsided relationship has weakened over time, it is interesting to note just how many of Portland’s flights have connections at SFO. A recent story in the Portland Oregonian trumpeted that a building in Old Town was to house a major back-office operation of Airbnb, a San Francisco-based dotcom. Portland’s tallest building, opened in 1973 for the locally-based First National Bank, is now owned by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, and is now called the Wells Fargo Center.
Stewart Hollbrook, who had seen a bit of the world before settling in as a cultural raconteur and public historian at the Oregonian, once described the Pacific Northwest as “the far corner.” (He even used the phrase, in 1952, as the title to one of his numerous books.) Yet growing up in late 20th century along the fringe of Portland, there was nothing that felt isolating. National media reached Portland as fast as any other mid-sized American city, if not faster. Technological advancement was no laggard; we didn’t suffer without color televisions or computers or indoor plumbing. Moreover it is difficult to feel isolated in a city with ships arriving and departing daily for Yokohama or Pusan or Shanghai, in a city that reigns as the center of the third largest grain handling port on Earth.
Is this feeling of connectedness merely one way? In four-hundred-miles-away Spokane, Portland does not feel or seem distant. In the wheat-covered prairies of Montana and the Dakotas, it feels not distant. Minneapolis? Speak of Portland and perhaps trees and bears will get mentioned, as if Grizzly Adams was something filmed on the outskirts of town–though to be fair, Forest Park is the largest urban forest in the nation so it would be possible, just. Yet for that, in Minneapolis we might be neighbors, kith and kin. Chicago? Chicago knows Portland, Chicago does business with Portland. Chicago can find Portland on a map. Only in the Bay Area, only in San Francisco do I, an avowed Portlander, feel more kinship with Canada or Alaska than with anyplace that people here think matters. Yet how can it be otherwise? In a vast sprawling metropolitan region that likes to think of itself as worldly and urbane, in a feisty and dysfunctional mega-region that constantly looks over its shoulder at bottle-blonde Los Angeles, in a place where Sacramento feels more distant than the moon, how can Portland (ever so many times further away than the Central Valley and forever blocked out of sight and mind by the curtain of the Siskiyou Mountains) ever feel like anything more than impossibly far away?