Why Seattlites Love Portlandia

Posted on
Jan 27, 2011
Posted in: Random Musings

A few nights ago, my husband and I – both lifelong Seattlites, decided to watch the premiere of Portlandia. The sketch-comedy show, filmed in Portland, features characters based on the city’s archetypal residents, and stars SNL‘s Fred Armisen, and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney.

We enjoyed it. A lot. Perhaps a little too much.

At one point, I may have clutched his arm, shrieking, “Oh, god, it’s so true!” before erupting in a fit of giggles. In return, he might have laughed so hard, that, at some point, it  became soundless. And after it was over, we just may have re-watched the opening vignette, “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland.

“How … how did they do it?” he marveled, after the show was over.

“I … I don’t know,” I whispered. “But it’s spot-on.”

Very nearly auto-biographical, one might say.


I initially learned about Portlandia while watching reruns of Judd Apatow’s Undeclared series on the International Film Channel (a statement which, even to me, sounds absurd). Almost immediately afterward, I found that nearly all of my friends (in the Pacific Northwest, at least) were talking about it.  My friend Katie declared it  “a documentary.” Chrissy posted a link to the first episode on my Facebook page, insisting that I watch it, immediately. Skye, a former PacNW girl now going to grad school in Baltimore, quoted it endlessly.

We were all hooked – in my opinion, it’s an inevitable consequence of us having been, at one time or another, Seattlites.

For us, Portland is like our town’s weird little sister. She shows up to family reunions with new piercings and tattoos, and a life-partner of unspecified gender named Nico. Compared to our stodgier siblings in Idaho, Montana, or even Northern California, Seattle is hip and cutting edge. But next to the counter-culture Bohemia of Portland? We’ve become mainstream. We’re the alternative music section in Target.

Portland, on the other hand, is the guy recording his infant’s cries so he can sample it into his new album. Seattle’s clothes may be from the Goodwill, but the labels inside still read “GAP.” In Portland, clothes are not purchased – they are foraged. Home-made dresses are paired with Dr. Marten’s that were discovered in the middle of a field the morning after a concert.

And we can’t help but resent her for it. When the band broke up, and we all got regular jobs (Seattle began an engineer, San Francisco joined an internet start-up), Portland kept busking on the corner. She didn’t just keep it real – she kept it weird. And as the bumper stickers and signs through the city attest, that’s how people would like things to stay.

But for those of us in Seattle, the hope of remaining small and quirky, unbothered in our corner of the Northwest, died along with Kurt. Even he saw it coming on the horizon …

Found at a rummage sale of the basement of the Pike Place Market. Which, for PDXers, might as well be Wal-Mart.

The greats are not the only ones who meet this fate. No one is spared. When I first met my husband, he had blue hair. I had a few more piercings that I do now, and a haircut that can be described as both “badass” and “ill-advised.” On the chart of arm warmer ownership, I was a statistical outlier: I had more than any person would need.

We were miserably broke. I painted in our living room. He spent most days shirtless. We slept in. He grew out his sideburns and skipped work to be with me.

Then success came along and ruined us. We could afford cable, and groceries from Whole Foods. He was featured in magazines. I got paid to make games.

And that’s the dilemma of it all – for years we sit and wait, hoping someone will see our potential, and love us for our weirdness, our originality, our lives spent in the fray. And when they finally do, all those things that made us so lovable in the first place start to fade. We aren’t outsiders any more. We are in-demand.

Perhaps this is why many of us in Seattle love Portlandia so much.

It gives our odd little sister a good ribbing. It allows us not only to laugh at her, but at the people we once were. If we are able to poke fun at past iterations of ourselves, it makes it less painful to think about how much we’ve changed. If we can laugh at the dreams of our youth, we won’t cry that we abandoned them (or worse still, that we realized those dreams, and find we’re still not happy.)

“Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep till 11, and just hang out with their friends? Had no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?”

“I thought that died out years ago.”

“Not in Portland.”

It makes our descent into yuppiedom seem inevitable – and manages to take the blame away from us. Because if Portland’s counterculture becomes a touchstone for all of us – something we can all sit and laugh at – then isn’t it, somehow, kind of mainstream? If a city is hip, and cool, and weird enough, won’t it inevitably become popular, and consequently less cool?

Isn’t Portland destined to follow in Seattle’s footsteps?

The PDXers are fearful that may be true. As one friend of mine noted, “It’s caused chaos in our household and in our town.”

But, being good-natured northwesterners, they’ve reportedly been friendly and open to the show and film crews. Maybe it’s because they know that even though the show has been well-received, it’s still niche (and truth be told, I’ve yet to hear anyone outside of the left coast mention it.) Maybe they’re confident that Portland can stay true to itself, no matter what. Or maybe they secretly know that resistance is futile (we put up a  full-frontal paparazzi assault against The Real World: Seattle. It didn’t do us much good).

Whatever the case, I sincerely hope Portlandia won’t be the beginning of Portland’s descent into the mainstream. I hope she stays weird and strange. She reminds me of who I once was. Though I tease her and laugh at her quirks, if she changed and became, of all things, normal? I’d miss her terribly.

But if, tragically, Portland did go the way of Seattle? Well …

I guess there’s always Ashland.

Leave a Comment

  • Well said. Although I know a slightly yuppier version of PDX, but I know that Oregon, in general, is the Hippie Capitol of America. The Oregon Country Fair alone keeps all of Oregon “weird”.

    (As an aside, since I first heard the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” over a decade ago, I wonder if the PDX version of the slogan is a rip-off?!)

    I miss Seattle’s very own brand of show — now dated, the incredibly awesome “Almost Live” of the 80s and 90s. An updated version really needed to happen, but now it would look like we were copying Portlandia, so I’ll just watch re-runs…

    • Everywhereist

      Jackie – Oh, how I miss Almost Live. I used to intern at King-5 in college, and I occasionally saw Pat Cashman around the studio. SWOON. And then there was Joel McHale, back when he was chubby and had a receding hairline. Before he look … L.A.


      Sigh. Good times.

    • Susan

      I saw “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” at least 13 years ago. Wonder where it actually started.

  • “We’re the alternative music section in Target.” Ouch. Also, hilarious.

    Finally, I want photos of blue-haired shirtless RF — NOW! Okay, he doesn’t have to be shirtless, but I have to see the blue hair.

    • Everywhereist

      Philip – I’m looking. I actually did find shirtless almost immediately, but I’m probably not allowed to post those online.

      • Pity. His wee admirer in Hawaii would enjoy it.

        • Everywhereist

          She is SUCH a flirt, that girl.

  • This is a great read. I must share it.

  • @Jackie – Yes, Portland adopted Austin’s slogan (no one ever claimed it was original, just fitting).

    And G, this is very well-put. I must admit I’m more on the yuppie end of things (although as I near 40 I’m starting to wonder if there’s a different term for OLD yuppies), but I dearly love how quirky is accepted as status quo down here. No one flinches when a guy playing the bagpipes while he’s on a unicycle rides by (yes, that’s happened). We’re not all quirky, of course, but we’re quirky-tolerant. And that’s pretty fantastic.

    Says the proud Portlander… 🙂

  • Every time I go to Portland, I’m washed over with this nostalgia for what Seattle was when I got here. Visits with my friend who was living at the OK Hotel. Biking home from my studio at midnight in the pouring rain. Playing hooky to smoke cigarettes on the porch at that rambling complex in the U District. Blah blah blah blah blah. And I’m really mad because I got job skills and a couch and health insurance and a 401k and turned 40 and then more than 40. And then I think I should move to Portland.

    But now, I can go watch Portlandia instead on my flat screen TV via my on-demand cable. Which I can actually afford.

    Or, you know, what YOU said.

  • Am not a native of the great Pacific Northwest, nor lived there for that matter, but simply love it. And don’t know enough about Portland vs. Seattle and such to be able to comment with any knowledge, but this is a great post. Brings some of it home to one in the dreaded… flyover zone.

  • April

    Let me say that Boston defeinitely has awareness of Portlandia! I think a lot of Bostonians find themselves akin to Seattlites or PDXers. We’re not nearly as relaxed or green, we’re mostly hipster wannabes… but we’d do anything to step out of the shadow of NYC. Even if it means drinking overpriced, fancy coffees while waxing poetic on the 90’s, listening to some singer songwriter play in the background while biking on our fixies through Somerville, and wrapping ourselves in heavy, excessive layers.

  • Oh, you make me miss and love Portland even more. This is a seriously awesome read, thanks!

  • Matthew

    That’s it. We’re going 100% SE PDX on your next visit. I’m not messing around anymore.

    • Everywhereist

      I can’t tell if that’s a threat or a promise.

      • SE PDXer

        It’s both.

  • Love this! Having lived here in Seattle since 1987 I’ve definitely seen it go through a lot of changes, some good, some not so good. I always get a case of the envies when I go to Portland–they seem to have gotten so many things right that we didn’t (the Pearl District, the transit system, to name a few) while still retaining a quirky, unique feel.

    I thought for sure you were going to say Eugene at the end though!

  • I am a native Seattleite, but I love making the drive down I-5 to visit friends and go explore all the weird entertainment/night life portland has to offer.

    It’s the uniqueness of the city that draws me back every time.

  • Mindy

    What you fail to note, Everywhereist, is the complete and total lack of jobs here. We have a single Fortune 500 company in the entire state of Oregon. Seattle alone boasts a few of the largest companies in the highest profit industries in the entire world (MSFT, SBUX, AMZN, BA; to name a few). Take that much wealth and distribute it locally and you’re going to see behavioral patterns change regarding spending. Boeing’s been around forever, but the others all made their wealth at the same time that Kurt Cobain & Co. were in the blink of an eye shiny and then dead. Seattle went mainstream because of sheer numbers (larger initial population x infusion of tremendous wealth = stronger market demand for consumer goods/lifestyle), not some uber Target mindset. I’ve lived in Portland my entire life–childhood and well into my 30s now–and can attest that Portland would have done the same thing in the same time frame had those companies landed here and not there. Alas, our tax structure and urban growth boundary instead keep us smaller, more friendly to small business and smaller living. Granted, it’s not cheap here, but it’s a little easier to survive on a coffee-shop job when no one around you cares. No one has loads of money here so no one looks down on anyone else for not having any either. It’s Portland’s greatest blessing and its greatest curse: wealth, pedigree and accomplishment matter nothing here. Coffee yes, beer, yes, music, yes. Money, no.

    • SE PDXer

      Good analysis!

  • Some of us who have lived in Portland for the past five generations, feel like Portland is just a middle age hipster who hasn’t figured out that she’s an adult now, and where it might have been cool when she was 20, now it’s just silly.

    Of course I miss the coolness of the 70s & 80s, but we are more Crate & Barrel and less Music Millennium; more Panera and less McMenimim’s.

    It’s OK though, we all grow up. But we shouldn’t try so hard. When I turned 50, I realized I should have quit wearing baggy shorts and t-shirts about 5-8 years ago.

    Great post however – loved it! Loved the comparisons. I really learned to celebrate the similarities of PDX, Seattle, and Vancouver while I was out of the PNW – now I feel more family than comparison!

    • nativePDX

      Really liked the article and love the love you show Portland in the write-up!

      I agree with a lot of what gwalter says about trying too hard. As a native Portlander I, unlike many it seems, really loved Portland back in the day of Music Millennium, la Luna, and Bridgeport (when it still had dart boards, picnic benches for seating, and sold pizza by the slice).
      It has now become a hipster haven (as portrayed in shows like Portlandia). People that try way to hard to be “cool”, to adhere to a certain lifestyle while not keeping an open mind to those around them. They are trying way too hard to fit into the “mold” of what they think Portland should be.

      Portland used to be a place where bikes and cars shared the road in peace, not where certain people on bikes think they own the road and don’t adhere to traffic laws, while those in cars get angry at the bikers.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland! There is nowhere else in the US that I would want to live. I just don’t want people to think that shows like Portlandia to give a sense that this is the real Portland. Then what is real?

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  • Frogman

    IFC stands for Independent Film Channel, not International Film Channel.

    • Everywhereist

      I’m having a “DUH” moment, because I promise, I knew that. 🙂 Thank you, though.

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  • Mallory

    I am from the South, have not traveled further West than Missouri, and I love Portlandia. There are hippies/hipsters sprouting up everywhere outside of Portland/the Mecca so it isn’t hard to enjoy the subject matter.

    • Everywhereist

      I am unnerved to hear that they are spreading.

  • Jake

    I really enjoyed the article, as it got so much right, but, alas, it succumbed to the usual placement of Portland as the younger, weirder sibling that refuses to grow up.

    Seattle and Portland are different.

    It becomes apparent that you need to go see the new Portland–actually see and enjoy it. Do not only think of the Pearl, Mcmenamins, and the downtown hipsters alone.

    I just spent some time in Seattle, loved it, but realized how much Portland is truly different. It is a young city, perhaps the youngest in the US, but the accusations of a lack of success are empty. We love our beer, coffee, and food to a obsessive extent, but we also are not a poorer version of Seattle.

    Portland is getting expensive, people are starting their own companies, etc.–we just lack the Corporate desire which Seattle embraced. We are not the little sibling heading in that direction. As one person said above, we are quirky-tolerant, but we are also successful and professional. We did not have to sacrifice one for the other.

    I know plenty of college grads with ‘radical haircuts’ but at the same time I find there are more and more young, intelligent, ambitious individuals in Portland than anywhere else. We are going in a vastly different direction than Seattle (one might even think it is because we are learning from Seattle’s mistakes and successes). Our transit is unbeatable, our zoning excellent, our food and beer even better, and yet we are still young and still trendy.

    To me, when all the Seattleites look at Portland fondly as a ‘what we once were’ memory, they miss the picture entirely. Seattle was never what Portland has become now. Yes, Portland is a place where SOME young people go to retire, but it definitely the place where young people are creating their own vibrant economy, Fortune 500 companies be damned. So, if you must entertain your older sibling status and superiority complex: enjoy the corporate life Seattle, your younger sibling is still cooler, still nerdier, and does not need an office job to make money.

    –With actual love for Seatte,
    A young, professional, and quirky Portlander who is sick of hearing these damn comparisons to Seattle.

  • Anisa

    I am from the East coast and when I watched Portlandia I thought it was very strange until I actually went to Portland. Then I could laugh about the show and say this is so very true. The show makes so much more sense now.
    Great article by the way.

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