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Portland is like great art; it means something different to everyone

Last week I received a nifty little book in the mail. It’s called “This Is Portland,” and its subtitle is “The City You’ve Heard You Should Like.”Former managing editor of the Times newspapers, as well as the Lake Oswego Review, Kelly is now chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune - and he contributes a regular column.

The writer of this 64-page booklet is Alexander Barrett, described by the publisher as “a creative type living in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” but one who lived in Portland for 13 months from 2010 to 2011.

The book is small (I read it last Friday on my lunch hour), but I recommend it. So do former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Joe Randazzo, editor of The Onion, and Bill Oakley, producer of IFC’s “Portlandia.”

OK, it could have used another read-through by an editor. It’s loaded with style and spelling errors, but hey, I work in newspapers, so who am I to talk, right?

Mr. Barrett opens the book with a short explanation of why he decided to write it.

“Before I moved here, everyone told me it was the best city ever,” he writes. “When I asked them why, they couldn’t be specific. I heard a lot of: ‘It just is.’ This is my attempt to be specific.”

It’s that specificness you have to admire.

First of all, allow me to confess that I’ve lived in Portland (this time) since 1990. I don’t admit that a lot because I work primarily with newspapers that are not in Portland: Tigard, Beaverton, Lake Oswego, West Linn, Oregon City, Gresham, Scappoose, Estacada, Wilsonville — well, you get the point. There are many more.

And in all of these papers, we often refer to the “P word” without actually saying it. The only paper in our organization that freely throws the word Portland around is the Portland Tribune — which is, of course, the newspaper they’re always reading in “Portlandia.”

I’m pretty sure Alexander Barrett is young. The picture provided in the material sent along by his publisher, Microcosm Publishing, shows him with a shaved head and cool looking sunglasses.

I’m also taking a few clues from the book itself, in which Barrett claims to have lived on Southeast Belmont, and in which he professes his love for pizza, beer, coffee and bicycles.

Anyway, in this book he offers great little insights into such things as rain, Portland’s nicknames, food carts, bands, Portland drivers, strip clubs, tattoos, tater tots, snow, bikes, beer and much more.

Really, you should just read it (go to microcosmpublishing.com, Powell’s or Amazon.com). But I don’t have time to wait for you to do that, so we’re going to go on with the discussion anyway.

Personally, I have to take a little broader view of Portland — which, I admit, I also love a lot. When I was a little tyke growing up in the hills of the Coast Range, Portland seemed to me to be the same as New York City — block after block of big tall buildings, lots of cars and bridges and streets that seemed to go forever in every direction.

Now, after living in several other states, not to mention a good number of other towns and cities in Oregon, I recognize that Portland is really pretty modest in size. It’s not like Seattle, for instance, which still seems too big and totally overrun with freeways.

The other person who lives at our house was born in Portland. I wasn’t. I was born in Albany, same as all my brothers. (I always thought Albany had some sort of kid store because my mom would go away to Albany, be gone a few days and then come home with another little brother.)

In my dad’s view, Portland stopped being a cool place when they finished building Interstate 5. From the day it opened, he could never find his way from my Uncle Elmo’s house (near Cleveland High School, in inner Southeast) to my Grandma Kelly’s house near St. Johns without having one of his favorite routes come to a dead-end under a freeway overpass.

A sister of the other person who lives at our house (who also has to remain nameless lest I turn up face-down in the Willamette River) is much less charitable about Portland. She describes the city’s population as “a bunch of rats, climbing on each other just to stay alive.”

She, being from the same coastal hills we hail from (not to mention that she’s a resident of Philomath), does not get the Portland attraction at all.

For four years in the late 1980s, we lived in Klamath Falls. Because there wasn’t that much to do there (at least in the form of arts and entertainment), we pretty much attended every concert, play, shindig and traveling show that came to town. You never know, we reasoned, this might be the last thing to come here. The result was that we were out dancing, listening to music or doing something crazy every week, sometimes two or three times a week.

In Portland, there’s so much happening that you could be out every night if you wanted to. I think that’s why we almost never go out.

But we know we could if we wanted to.

“If you live in Portland and you aren’t in a band, people will look at you funny at concerts,” writes Alexander Barrett. “They’ll ask, ‘So, when are you going up?’ And you’ll say, ‘Oh, no, I just came to hear some music.’ Then they’ll give you the stink eye and back away slowly.”

Barrett’s book contains many other great observations. The chapter called “The Most Portland Thing I Have Ever Seen” is worth the purchase price alone, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Same goes for his thoughts on cars, the sun, Portland drivers, Southeast vs. Northeast, fancy junk food, $3 movies and Hawthorne vs. Belmont.

I’ll leave you with this tidbit. The chapter is titled “Chickens,” and this is the entire thing: “If you have a backyard and you don’t keep chickens, many will suspect you of being a Republican.”

The other person who lives at our house would like to have chickens, but I’m not convinced. Just knowing myself (and her), I’m pretty sure I’d be the one gathering the eggs every morning and shoveling the poop.

Former managing editor of the Times newspapers, as well as the Lake Oswego Review, Kelly is now chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune — and he contributes a regular column.




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