Anarchy in the USA: Punk-Rock Spirit in Portland, Oregon

Anarchy in the USA: Punk-Rock Spirit in Portland, Oregon

Uncovering the secret punk-rock spirit of the makers and doers of Portland

This article first appeared in Vol. 30:

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

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

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.

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