Anarchy in the USA: Punk-Rock Spirit in Portland, Oregon
Uncovering the secret punk-rock spirit of the makers and doers of Portland
11 November, 2021
"Go on, try and reach all the way around!" I obediently press myself against the vast, furry trunk, bark scratching my chin and wilful, lime-green moss springing into my nostrils. I've only been in Portland for a few hours, yet already I'm hugging a tree. Given the city's reputation as a haven for hippies and hipsters, it's a hilariously on-the-nose introduction in more ways than one.
The double "hip" label both reveals and conceals the reality of life in Oregon's largest city. On the one hand, it fondly acknowledges Portland's open embrace of concepts beloved of both tribes, such as sustainability, liberal thinking and DIY creativity. In addition to mandating limits on urban sprawl, creating hundreds of miles of bike paths and hiking trails and establishing the US's largest forested park within city borders, this is a place where a historical combination of low rents, a supportive community and spirit of open-mindedness has allowed grassroots businesses to thrive and individuals to pursue their wildest ideas.
It's also true that this cocktail of feel-good philosophies has led to Portland being perceived as a kind of urban utopia, characterised by an abundance of drip-coffee bars, feminist bookstores and men in plaid shirts. This view can run close to satire, as depicted in the TV series Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's affectionate send-up of "a place where the tattoo ink never runs dry". Admittedly, when a friend who recently moved here tells me of an accident she had when her fairy lights got caught in the rear wheel of her fixie on the way back from a neon, pop-up, food-cart night market, I can't help but stifle a giggle at the Portland-ishness of it all.
However, to cast off the city as a kind of quirky cousin to America's more serious-minded centres of commerce is perhaps a mistake in our current climate of cynicism, political trauma and eco-anxiety. Portland may be idealistic, but it is neither utopic nor isolated - as well as facing the same global issues around climate change and national political schisms, the city is going through its own difficult period of rapid growth and the attendant problems of gentrification and adjustment, with the population due to surge by 40 per cent by 2035 and a housing emergency already declared. Yet Portland's long-standing, fierce belief in its residents' capacity to solve problems, as well as its dedication to balance, nature and self-expression, may be just what we need to heal both ourselves and our ailing planet.
It's with this in mind that I drive towards the newly opened KEX hotel in the former industrial district of East Burnside, a rapidly gentrifying area where long-standing breweries and roasteries rub shoulders with shiny new retail-slash-office spaces and mushrooming skyscrapers. This is the second outpost for Icelandic hotelier Kristinn Vilbergsson, whose original KEX in Reykjavík was one of the first in the current wave of design-focused, affordable hostel/hotel hybrids around the world. His Portland edition shares the same industrial-chic aesthetic and is filled with salvaged items by former Hollywood set designer Dáni Pedersen, including windows taken from an Egyptian bakery, signs displaying the names of horses from a Belgian stable and flooring from a former train depot in Fort Vancouver. Clocks for Reykjavík, Tokyo and Portland are fixed above the entrance, my first indication of the symbiosis between Scandinavia, Japan and Portland that will strike me repeatedly during my time here. Meanwhile in the low-lit, quietly humming bar, a wall stuffed with curios contains two cartoonish ceramic figures that bear more than a passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a wry nod to the city's political leanings.
After a suitably Scandinavian breakfast of trout salad, seed-bread and endless pickles, I'm picked up by Sarah Gilbert of Around Portland Tours to shake off my jet lag with a guided hike in Forest Park, the more than 5,000 acres of woodland that fringe the city. As we make our way through NW 23rd Avenue, also known as "trendy-third", I spy gem-energy shops, boutique hatmakers and those benchmarks of an area on the up: Aesop and Pottery Barn. From here it's a mere 10-minute walk until we reach the park's edges.
I immediately feel like I've stepped into an Arthur Rackham illustration, the gnarled, witchy trunks of hemlocks, redwoods, red cedars and big-leaf maples leaning hunchbacked or yawning straight into the sky. We stroll over tiny bridges and past pools hemmed in by rocks that Sarah tells me are over 16.5million years old and similar in structure to Icelandic lava, stopping only to inhale lungfuls of earthy air and, with some encouragement, hug a particularly ancient Douglas fir. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been proven to increase the activity of cancer-fighting cells by 50 per cent as well as boosting your mood and, as my head clears and my tiredness shifts, it's not hard to imagine that a regular dose of meandering through the trees might have the same effect as meditating.
We pass an archaic-looking structure that turns out to be a blasted former ranger's station and is known locally as the "Witch's Castle", where Sarah explains that modern Wiccans often perform rituals. In homage, we enact one borrowed from one of her "witchy friends", leaving our negative energy on one side of a nearby creek and picking up positive vibes on the other. My natural cynicism normally prevents me from indulging in such antics, but under the canopy of moss-dripping branches, it seems less ridiculous. After hiking up the Lower Macleay Trail to expansive views of the city and the snow-capped Mount Hood, we make our way back through the well-heeled neighbourhoods of Kings Heights and Arlington Heights to the Portland Japanese Garden. Established in 1963 as a symbol of the growing relationship between Japan and Oregon and as a hope for peace in the wake of World War II, the gardens form 12 acres of perfectly harmonised sand, stone and slanting sunlight, as well as a "Cultural Village" designed by the architect Kengo Kuma.
From one kind of green and blissed-out to another, we head back into town to meet Anja Charbonneau, the former creative director of Kinfolk Magazine and founder of the cannabis-focused magazine Broccoli. Oregon is one of 11 US states that has legalised the recreational use of marijuana - although visitors should be aware that while they can buy the drug from any of the dispensaries that dot the streets, consumption on public property is not yet legal - and Anja is one of a growing charge of entrepreneurs and creatives keen to explore its potential. "Rather than just focusing on cannabis, our philosophy is about embracing curiosity and sensitivity," she explains. "When we started, cannabis had been legal in Oregon for a couple of years - lots of thoughtful brands were starting businesses and people were beginning to have intelligent conversations, yet there were still just 'stoner bro' magazines on the shelves. I knew that there would be a community behind me, so it felt like the right time." The result is a psychedelic yet sophisticated tome veering between subjects including forgotten women musicians of the past, the role of the endocannabinoid system and Mexican vintage shops.
We round off the day in the candlelit, fern-heavy surrounds of Farm Spirit, a fine-dining vegan restaurant focusing on "Cascadian cuisine" wholly sourced from farms or farmers' markets within 105 miles. Tattooed waiters pirouette around us while beanie-hatted chefs rustle up a six-course tasting menu of delicate slices of glistening beetroot sandwiched with cream and sprinkled with mustard seeds; an unctuous, green-wheat porridge with apple, black-garlic butter and radishes shaped like flowers; and a kind of deconstructed roast dinner using chanterelle mushrooms instead of meat. The next morning, we sit down with owner and chef Aaron Adams at Fermenter, his more accessible offshoot diner that serves nine-dollar "meatloaf" and fermented produce to casual counter seats.
Stocky, bearded and wearing a pair of beaten-up denim dungarees, Aaron is the first person to admit that "I'm not the stereotype of a vegan, i.e. a wafer-thin guy wearing vegetable pants". He converted to veganism 15 years ago after researching the meat and dairy industries, and after a stint in an anarchist café promoting animal rights, opened his first restaurant Portobello Vegan Trattoria in 2008, Farm Spirit in 2014 and Fermenter last year. "We look at the whole system. Purchasing locally is good for the economy and gets us in tune with the rhythm of our surroundings," Aaron tells me. "We believe that we're going to change the way things are done, and we're here to be uncompromising in our ethics. I'm wary of businesses who are trying to invest in ethical industries as a growth opportunity rather than because they truly believe in them. Both Portland and I have a punk, anarchic background - we're fighting for something."
I find another rebellious character in the hipster hinterlands around North Mississippi Avenue, where Eric Isaacson holds court behind the counter at his record store, Mississippi Records. "I'm stubborn and ridiculous," Eric laughs, as he recounts how he had the "best intentions to fail" when he started out in 2003 with $5,000 in savings and $5 cash in the till. Today his shop stocks records that are "meant to reflect the culture of the neighbourhood" from both around the world and Eric's own label, which represents many Portland-based artists.
"We're probably a terrible label as we do no promo, but it works in the esoteric circles that know about us. We give a lot of people their start," he explains, as we browse vinyl by 81-year-old soul singer Ural Thomas and 90s punk legends Dead Moon, whose bass player Toody Cole runs a thrift store in the basement. Having started his business at a time when the spotlight wasn't yet on the city, I ask Isaacson if he thinks Portland still supports this kind of grassroots endeavour. "I don't know if I could start this thing now. I've been lucky with the opportunities I've been afforded, but the city is changing - there's plenty of culture left, but you have to look between the cracks," he answers. "Portland does like to support quirky and eccentric stuff, but I definitely get the blues when my friends are forced to move further out."
I spend the afternoon exploring the artsy Mississippi and Alberta districts, whose clapboard houses and mural-covered walls exude a ramshackle, cinematic allure and are home to a string of food-cart pods, dive bars, tattoo bars, vintage stores and boutique shops. After popping into MadeHere PDX to browse its selection of Portland-made wares and Proud Mary Coffee for a flat white, I make my way over to Tournant, the informal dining space owned by Mona Johnson and Jaret Foster. When we arrive the staff are just setting up for evening service, but within an hour the humble, white-brick room is transformed into a din of chattering locals spread over communal tables and tucking into sheet-pan nachos and steaming bowls of pozole, a Mexican soup served with pork, chicken, vegetables or shellfish. It's impossible not to get cosy with your neighbours, who in my case include Jim Dixon, the owner of the Real Good Food store, and Judith Rizzio, a stylist whose business card states "style activist" in red biro and who gives me a scroll of thrifting tips.
Best known for their open-fire cooking experiences in the summer months, Mona and Jaret met while working at the Portland Farmers Market and launched Tournant as a way to "get back into the art of feeding people". Tired of the closed-off, soulless aspects of the traditional restaurant industry, they now alternate between ephemeral, theatrical outdoor experiences and using their indoor space as a platform for emerging chefs - "Tournant" means "rotating" in French. When I ask what inspired them both to move from NYC, Mona replies: "The food community here is really tight - it's not about competition. The variety and beauty of Portland's food scene is mind-blowing, but so is the fact that the public really shows up for it. There's a connectedness here that's very holistic. It's a bit seat of your pants and punk rock, but rough and tumble is the original spirit of Portland."
It's an attitude I hear echoed when I talk to Taralyn Thuot, the creative director of Wildfang, a fashion boutique in Downtown Portland founded by two ex-Nike employees with an aim to "fuck with gender stereotypes and create androgynous products fit for a woman's frame". In addition to designing suiting, boiler suits and slouchy separates worn by stars including Lizzo and Janelle Monáe, since launching in 2013 the brand has created a "Wild Feminist" t-shirt that went viral, an "I really do care, do u?" camo jacket to combat Melania Trump's ill-advised version, with proceeds going to legal defence for immigrants, and raised over $400k for charities including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. "We try to support and empower women to take up space - in politics, the boardroom and beyond," Taralyn explains. It's a heartfelt manifesto centred on creating change for its community that resonates with the other small businesses I've encountered here.
On our last day we link back up with Sarah and drive the 30 minutes to Columbia Gorge, a network of more than 80 miles of forest, woodland and rocky cliffs. We scramble over gravelly paths strewn with twigs and tiny ferns while rain-heavy plants droop from the steep sides, which in summer, Sarah tells me, are carpeted with wildflowers. A few minutes later and I'm standing in the icy spray of Latourell Falls, framed by cubic layers of basalt rock like an art-deco mantelpiece, and said to contain the spirit of a princess. On the way back we stop in a quiet clearing where people are said to have felt the presence of fairies, and the branches trailing beards of moss and trunks split with mushrooms emit an eeriness that gets under my skin.
Spending time in the fertile surrounds of the Oregon countryside in such close proximity to the city helps me to understand Portland's chefs' obsession with sustainable, farm-to-table dining that respects its provenance. That night we dine in the sea-scented surrounds of Erizo, young chef Jacob Harth's 20-seat restaurant that serves lesser-known invasive species, such as purple sea urchin and gooseneck barnacles, in an effort to create new, sustainable marketplaces. Each previously unused or unloved ingredient is presented reverently, from the skewers of smoky giant Pacific octopus and spiny dogfish to the icy platter of finely sliced horseneck and butter clams and the delectable barbecued chub mackerel with pillowy bread and sharp anchovy dressing.
Jacob tells me about how he and co-owner Nick Van Eck go foraging once a week along the Oregon coast, as well as building relationships with local fishermen and battling with the wider food community to persuade them to accept his ideas. "We're not trying to make money; we just want to highlight indigenous species that are abundant," he says. "We don't want to take away from nature, but instead help it where it's struggling. We want the restaurant to be a showroom for a bigger audience." And in many ways, this is modern Portland in a snap: vehement, quietly revolutionary and with a punk-rock spirit set on shaking up the system.