Keep Portland, Portland
It almost seems that my weeklong stay in Brisbane with Alan and Bruce was a three-person conference in comparative culture studies. Alan’s eye for city planning and Bruce’s counter culture history in the city gave me, as an American visiting Australia for the first time, an opportunity to view the city with a much more critical eye than the average tourist.
But despite our round-table discussion in the Paddington house that overlooked the greenery and rooftops of the classic Queenslander houses, I had difficulty summing up the genericism of Brisbane vs the “weirdness” of Portland -- the waterfront is very nice, the CityCat an amazing subsidy, the museums were great, the modern architecture and the parks were consistently top notch. Honestly, Portland doesn’t do the waterfront or museums as well and our architecture isn’t particularly original.
But there was something that nagged at me, something that made Brisbane feel like most American cities that fail to compare to places like Portland, Austin Texas and Boulder Colorado -- Portland doesn’t have the sole title to “weird” but there is something that consistently gives these towns uniqueness that are otherwise pretty darn generic in their own right.
Brisbane seems pro-corporate/pro-chain where Portland fights national chains and promotes small-scale entrepreneurialism. While I think of Portland as more cosmopolitan, Brisbane is more a part of the global economy, and that is what made it feel generic to me.
I was amazed at the number of international chain stores I saw in Brisbane -- of course there are the clothing chains like Louis Vuitton, H&M and Boss, and I expect 7-11 and McDonalds, but there were lots of Dominos Pizza, Krispy Kreme and even a Mailboxes Etc.
There were plenty of local chains like Guzman Y Gomez, Merlo Coffee and Grill’d which seemed to be on nearly every corner. Bruce’s old haunt, The Kookaburra, may have been one of the only non-chains we ate in during our week, and it’s up for sale, likely to be demolished for the land value.
Portland, by contrast, actively fights the national and international chains even to the point of degrading our successful local establishments. The food cart scene in Portland isn’t just about food, it’s about giving those kids with aspirations of being master chefs a cheap venue to enter the unprofitable world of restaurateuring.
We celebrate the little guy, and queue up for hours to get some bit of pork out of a paper carton not just because it’s tasty but because of the experience of standing in the rain and having something that you know you can’t find anywhere else. City planning encourages this kind of ground-up entrepreneurialism by preserving funky business districts where the eco-foot-spa can take root along side the take-away beer growler shop specializing in sour beers from a four mile radius.
When McDonalds tried to start a location in North Portland the neighborhood rebelled (they ended up with a Popeye’s Chicken for what it’s worth). Wal-Mart still hasn’t found a way into the city limits of Portland.
And we take it further -- the McMenamin brothers helped to change the way we make and sell beer in Oregon, but we now sneer a bit and generally avoid the chain of funky brew pubs because, hey, been there, done that. Any Portlander who has been around the block isn’t going to stand in line around the block for VooDoo donuts but, instead, will direct you to stand in line at Blue Dot.
This kind of small-shop mentality isn’t just by the hipster, for the hipster. It happens because the city gets out of the way of the small guy and, honestly, isn’t as friendly to the big guy. It’s a form of business development that creates a community business scene, even if it doesn’t create a particularly strong economy, but it does make Portland feel special even with its underdeveloped riverfront, 1970s downtown and generic freeways running through it.
So while I really liked Brisbane, and I did come back with a bottle of local rum, there wasn’t much really local about it. And that’s why when I talk to people around the world about Portland they say, “Oh, I really want to go there,” but when I say Brisbane they say, “Where exactly is that?”