Dear Toronto: None of what they said about Portland is true.

Yesterday someone posted a link to an article in the Toronto Sun. “Experience Portland like a local,” the headline read.

experience Portland like a local“Can you point out the errors?” a friend (with a long history in journalism) asked, tagging me in her comments. I clicked over and read the first paragraph. The writer said she enjoyed Portland on previous visits but it was so much better traveling like a local. She went on a 3-hour tour with Wildwood Adventures…

…and she took away many exaggerations. Among the absolutely true things her guide told her:

  •  The term “Portlandian” means someone who is a transplant to Portland.
  •  Restaurants are required to offer vegetarian options.
  •  Graffiti is legal.
  •  Nudity is legal.
  •  Strip malls are outlawed in Portland.
  •  No one wears North Face, or suits, it’s verboten.

world naked bike ride st johns bridgeThere is a bit of truth in everything he says. Portland is so much more nuanced and, well, there is lots less city code to support the famous weirdness. We’ve come up with our own definition of Portlandian, and it mostly comes down to passion for this city. Most of us who grew up here don’t proclaim ourselves experts on anything; that’s dangerous; we’ve seen so many changes that we don’t really know. We’re cynics, with a deep inexplicable love for the city that’s changed so much it makes our heart ache. It’s always some for the better, much for the worse. I tell people every day: the growth is tough to bear, but better growth than stagnation. Without growth, would any of us tour guides have jobs?

Torontonians, and whoever else is interested in Portland: pick your tour company carefully and check their facts. Most of the things about Portland that are the most interesting are true, but they’re complicated. Here’s another take on the facts the “30-something hipster” reported.

  •  The term “Portlandian” is whatever you want it to mean. We take it to mean, a true denizen of this city. Someone who moves here and feels like they belong. Someone who grew up here and feels like this is their true and always home, no matter where they live. Someone who lived here long enough to make it feel like the only place they fit in. It’s about what’s in your heart (and love is always complex).
  •  The city of Portland has been called a vegan paradise, a haven for vegetarians, a heaven for the gluten-free. There are no city requirements that you have any options on a menu, and you should be careful: bacon will sneak into almost everything. Seriously, if you don’t eat pork, ask. I’ve had pork show up in grilled cheese sandwiches, squash soup, kale salads, all manner of things I didn’t expect. We’re a city of complexities: vegan restaurants next door to places named after pork. Poor pigs.
  • graffiti truck Graffiti is not legal. Please, don’t try it. If you do tell us your tag and we’ll search it out and take photos and honor you without any full names attached. The police here are not down with graffiti, and have been known to harass business owners who hung graffiti-style art. Our murals are amazing and varied, part of the Forest for the Trees project, but building owners have to get permits for murals. We love art. The city government promotes it so much it added a probably unconstitutional arts tax to the books in 2013. The police graffiti task force is not so keen.
  •  Nudity is protected free speech in Oregon. That is a different thing than, “nudity is legal.” As long as you don’t intend to titillate or arouse, and you have your nudity designed as political or artistic speech, you’re ok with a LOT of caveats. Don’t try to sunbathe naked on the waterfront claiming “speech” — someone did that and was asked to stop by the police. (Or do, and we’ll bring our cameras, and we’ll make it art. Let’s see how long we can get away with it!)
  • There are plenty of strip malls in Portland. There are Wal-Marts. We have our very own local convenience store chain! (Call it “the Plaid” and be an instant local.) There are lots of things we pretend we don’t tolerate but really, Portland is a city of many neighborhoods, many pockets, and it’s changing all the time. We would like to believe there are no big-box stores in the city, but go a little outside the city center, and there they are! They’re very busy. Outside the inner reaches of Portland’s hipster-artist-software engineer complex, there are people who shop exclusively at Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Safeway, drink national brand light beer, and vote Trump.

Want to visit Portland and live like a local? Do go downtown, especially to Powell’s and Forest Park, but don’t eat or drink beer there. Go into the Eastside, check out our awesome food carts, try Cascade Barrel House or Ex Novo Brewing. Go hiking in the gorge. Knit in public. (We’re doing a Rose City Yarn Crawl tour!) Don’t drink beer at all: drink tea purchased directly from small Chinese farmers at Fly Awake or Qi Fine Teas. Take tours with us or with some companies we can guarantee are more careful with facts: America’s Hub, Ecotours, Evergreen Escapes.

Portland is a lovely city for walking or riding your bike. We know Portlandians who make their vocation or avocation by walking: bridges, stairs, just through neighborhoods. One of our favorite, now-departed Portlandians called himself a “flaneur”: someone who just walks slowly, taking his time to look around. Come to Portland in June for the World Naked Bike Ride or any other more-clothed ride that is part of the wonderful, totally unique Pedalpalooza, a community-run festival of bikes and hundreds (this is a real number) of themed bike rides. We love trees, although in a complicated mess we celebrate cutting them down with our soccer team (I will never understand that). We are pretty much all gay, so don’t look for a gay neighborhood.

I could say so many true things about Portland in this piece, but I’ll leave you with this: we’re a city of complexities that take a lot longer than a three-hour tour to explain. Not that we won’t try if you let us. Let’s start by giving you what we know to be true: we love this city, but much of what we love the most isn’t a verifiable fact, and some of it is so intangible it may disappear into only our memories.


Written by Sarah Gilbert

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