The Politics of Dwelling PDX

Upon booking our trip to Portland lots of people told us that we would totally love it. I think we were set to love it because of its “eco” identity: cafes with local fare, craft beer, bikes, bikes, bikes, farmer’s markets, good coffee and so on.* This insistence that we would love it felt specific to our identity: “you guys will feel you belong in Portland, you will fit in”.

This is us on the bus in Portland.

This is us on fitting in on the bus in Portland. Hipsters <3 PT!

So yes. That is true. First day there we looked the part and felt the part. I had on an amazing pair of scuffed riding boots. And, of course, Craig sports a beard and shorts, you know? And Portland is cool. We enjoyed the beer, the food trucks, free films, leafy suburbs, river walk, markets, local fare, coffee, thrift stores, stratovolcano landmarks and general village-y vibe. But at the same time there was a nascent shininess to the city that was cause for suspicion. Then I saw a “keep Portland weird” t-shirt at the markets and the alarm bells went off. “Keep _____ Weird” poster/tshirt/tag is only ever warranted, I think, when a place’s weirdness is being commodified and resold as a consumable product. I am sure the first “Keep Newtown Weird” t-shirt was printed at the same time as the first chain store opened on King Street, for example and it is, indeed, the slogan for the @reclaimnewtown twitter feed.

And, it seems, Portland is going through a period of massive transformation. We were exposed to the transformation by virtue of a discussion organized by Karin Bolender an artist and PhD Student from nearby Corvallis. This event was entitled “The Politics of Dwelling PDX” (drawing on Val Plumwood’s essay and Portland’s airport code), and about 10 of us gathered in Christine Toth’s house in Division, a rapidly gentrifying suburb in SE Portland, to talk about where we live and the crossovers between Sydney and Portland.


I was terrible at taking pictures while there were people there. This is the sign.

The discussion revealed that gentrification is at once universal and site specific. We didn’t talk about Sydney a whole lot because it quickly became clear that, although the end-effects of gentrification seem to be the same (increased property prices, craft beer, class homogenisation, bespoke coffee/bike shops), the stories that describe gentrification touch upon site specific geographies, ideologies, histories, communities and institutions. The “Politics of Dwelling PDX” event became a window into the changing face of Portland and the crowd from Portland had many stories to tell of closing local cafes, coffee tycoons, chain stores, migrations of creative class, of the need for a proper politics of dwelling in Portland and a way of productively resisting gentrification. Which is to say, the bikes and the local farmer’s markets have been totally co-opted by the brand-identity of Portland(ia?) to sell new apartments. What became quickly clear is that the brand of Portland is designed to cultivate a very specific view of sustainability for a very particular class of people. Developers are rolling in cash with very few restraints while the entire city is undergoing massive transformation. Sound familiar?

We walked to a craft brewery after the event and talked a bit about how it is easy to slide into a really conservative mode when thinking and talking about gentrification – where all change becomes bad, where all change signals the lost utopia – and the need to develop a nuanced position that is open to transformation but with certain conditions is an important task. I ordered a local cider, Mama J and Craig some IPA and Stanley had a mac and cheese.

…this discussion will continue…

* I haven’t watched much Portlandia.