I’m African American, and I’m in my 40s. I’m a woman of color who went to Portland for vacation on PURPOSE. And I had a blast.
I watched Grimm avidly, and I watch Portlandia with some obsession. How quaint! How scenic! How charming! (notwithstanding bludbaten and Fred Armisen) I was just back from a long-planned European trip to Amsterdam and Paris, but within 48 hours I’d gotten dark, stressful news about a sick parent that made my vacation vibes evaporate. I found myself listless, trying to make the days go by, skipping job interviews and unable to work much at all.
I generally work at home: it’s not optimal for someone with introvert tendencies but it’s convenient and sometimes all I can manage. But there’s been insane drilling for the past three months that makes work without headphones impossible. So I isolated myself in a cramped apartment with the internet, video games and a needy cat.
It was not the best of times.
I’d put some cash aside for another trip this summer and so, spur of the moment, I surfed for fares to a place I’d never been to, that was fairly different from New York, that had transportation or accessible ride shares, and some kind of scene: food, music, something. I needed to change my environment, and a movie or walk around the neighborhood wasn’t gonna cut it right now. I landed on Oregon.
Portland has a ton of nicknames. Rose City. PDX. Beervana. Stumptown. Bridge City. I didn’t see many roses but I can confirm the rest are accurate. I was drinking (a pleasant blond) beer within two hours of landing, when I accidentally stumbled onto Loyal Legion, a hall with 99 beers on tap. It was warm, sunny, no clouds in the sky, yet I felt mildly displaced. This was partly because I was in an industrial area. Partly because I’d chosen to fly on a Monday for a lower rate. And partly because I’m black.
This is noticeable the minute you step off the plane. There are few black staff. Even in less diverse places, there’s the eye-rolling fact that you’ll probably see dozens of us, just not in the front of house. Bar one security guard who greeted me like a long-lost daughter, there simply were none of us present.
I was intrigued.
I chose the Jupiter Hotel for several reasons, mostly because it met my price point. (I generally can’t and won’t book above $150/nt.) It was also kitschy and I’m the world’s most awesome—or obnoxious—tourist out there. I’ve softened on the wandering aimless in NYC over the years after I realized just how nutty I get at a new destination. I’m manic about photography in a way that most of my friends can’t appreciate, and seeing the new and different trumps about everything. So spending a week in a stylized, two-story motel that called itself the “first 420 friendly hotel in Portland” was too tantalizing to pass by. There’s also Doug Fir, a full service bar, restaurant and music venue right next door that provides room service and is open a good 18 hours a day. Knowing where hot food is at all times is key to traveling solo.
Oh I didn’t mention that? Yeah, I go places alone. Mostly by choice. I’m an only child, have no kids and am unmarried. If my funds are right and I’m not sick? I just book a cat sitter and bounce. I jump on the beds. I hang out on terraces if there are some. I try to appreciate as fully as possible my ability to be at peace with myself in a foreign place.
But back to PDX. The next thing I noticed—after the lack of brownness—was the extraordinary number of bicycles. Biketown indeed. NYC has Citibikes, PDX has Biketown via Nike. Orange neon bikes glow ubiquitously on street corners.
I’m not crazy about bikes, primarily because I’ve seen people ride them recklessly on these Brooklyn streets.
So you see, naturally, why my first full day in Portland included a bike tour. Sigh. A week later and I’m still sore, but smiling—cause when no one was available for a Tuesday morning tour, I got a private ride. I don’t recall what the original route is, cause my fat ass got on a bike for the first time in 30 years and I knew ASAP I would not be doing any traffic riding. My guide, Alec, a pro at 23, assured me, “No worries, all good,” and spontaneously created a personal tour that led us over bridges and down the dock, all along Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
The waterfront here is incredible, and you can really spend the entire day there walking, biking, picnicking, sunbathing. I suggest a tour because if you’re like me you have no sense of the city’s history because the pacific northwest is completely foreign to an so-called elite east coaster. I learned about the Pink Tower, the Tilikum car-less bridge, the “ugliest bridge in Portland” (otherwise known in New York as “a bridge”), the red tower, the Portland sign, and glass dome towers designed out of respect of the World Trade Center. I also learned tons about Vera Katz, Democratic former mayor and wonderful woman in general.
As my bike guide discussed Vera and architecture, an older latina working on a bike explained that every week there’s a drum circle among the five families (as she explained that “families” meant gangs, my guide mounted his bike in one smooth, quick move). It was a time for congregation once a week, she explained, in a rapidly changing city that was hard on its youth. She’d been on the streets for 27 years. We both thanked her for her time. There was no need for my guide to rush off though; the homelessness, especially among young people, is glaring. There’s no shopping district or grassy fence to obstruct your view.
The rest of the day I visited dispensaries and bought clothes for the weather (pack undershirts and sweaters and you’ll always need a tank and possibly sandals). Although I didn’t quite miss brown people yet, I was getting there. But I’d lucked out with three different brown male Uber drivers, all of whom were immediate and straightforward about the city’s history. “Black people used to live in the Northeast,” one man in his 40s said to me at a red light, peering back to make eye contact. “That used to be our part of town but…”
“Not anymore,” I responded, heavily. I’d spoken to a friend from college who’d grown up in that part of town. She doesn’t come back to visit.
“No. We were pushed out…” he said, turning his windshield wipers back on as the rain picked up again. It’s all he had to say, as it’s certainly an American phenomenon and a recent one, this new wave of gentrification that feels more sinister and targeted in nature. “Now we’re all over.”
“You’ll never find us altogether,” another man with a heavy western/Cali accent said dully. “They have us all spread out,” he noted with an edge of bitterness.
I told him it did seem surprising that they all didn’t have a group, or a club, or something… I thought of my own upbringing, my own “groups”: my church, my college, my sorors, my colleagues… What if all that vanished? What would I do if I needed a fix?
The next day found me on a tour to Multnomah Falls, the lone black person in a van of primarily retired white couples. I could feel them appraising me vaguely; nothing uncomfortable, but yeah, I’ve got big hair, I’m clumsy and I’m in a van of old people on a trip to check out some water. It draws attention occasionally. I’m not sure what they thought of me, but once I dropped the Y word they chatted me up like it was a job. They made Trump jokes, talked inheritance law, and real estate prices (I might’ve started that one). I felt like I was passing, a bit, and my own thoughts made me grumpy. I stared out the window a lot, sour that I was overthinking, trying to get out of my head and take in the mountains.
And the mountains! This is what’s tricky about Portland, and Oregon in general. All that miserable, cold, never-ending rain? Leads to immense swathes of nature. Those trees are LUSH. The waterfalls roar. I found myself gasping repeatedly as my guide (not as thorough as the bike guide but he was fine) announced, “The view gets better at the next stop!”
Being in unruffled nature feels like life. It sounds cliche-ish but it’s genuine. You can’t look over a gorge as an eagle dips overhead in a cloudless sky and not be moved. A city woman needs a place of solitude. An introvert needs space to be properly inward. A creative needs all of it to be inspired. There’s nothing that centers me like a body of water.
I thought of all the landlocked friends who could appreciate the endless trees, the rush of water that goes directly into dozens of local beer. Landlocked, relationship-locked, job-locked. Locked into ideas of where we should or shouldn’t go.
I try to incorporate culture significance in my travels, and in PDX this was critical. I took a tour of the Japanese Gardens—a long-reining Portland tourist staple—and only found one Japanese woman, a volunteer at the information desk. Everyone else was caucasian in Japanese robes. One checkout girl was from Kentucky. The cultural disconnect drove me close to giggles but I managed to remain a mature-looking traveler. I recommend this to anyone who needs a moment’s respite from the world. It was cheaper at $15 than the museum at $20 (although I felt both were worth it).
Still, the pinging in my brain was getting louder, even as I was surrounded by the most friendly white people imaginable. The gardens were marvelous, a must-see. There’s an on-site tea room that people waited almost 30 minutes to experience. And I got to be the friendly tourist who offers to take pics of big groups so everyone can be in the picture. For free.
Google and locals say PDX is a music hotbed, and in my downtime at the Jupiter I flipped through the pages of a new Willamette Week to look for concerts. It was NOT a great read. I was nearing the end of listings when I caught the name Oddisee, I knew the name, and I knew he was a rapper, and I felt lifted from the jaws of death metal. Surely I would be among my people at the Hawthorne.
And I was: all 15 of us. Good times. I had a PBR and confidently pushed my way to the front, leaving fellow concertgoers gently surprised by my presence to put up a fight. I was the old auntie at the club and it was lit! Turns out Chris Brown was also performing last night, but I think it’s clear I saw the better performer. I thought I’d try to sidle up to some small clusters, perhaps, maybe start a chat, but the vibe wasn’t right. Everyone seemed to be in their own silos, their own heads. Which was fine. It was a great show, and I bought the album to support. I’d love to buy Hanif’s music too if he’s ever seen again. (Long story short: enigmatic rapper doesn’t record with labels.)
It was day four that the rain came for good, and day four when I started missing people of color. It wasn’t enough to see them in a cab, or behind a counter, or holding open a door. Where were we when we were enjoying ourselves?
On my last full day, I dropped by the Portland Art Museum. I’d planned to see the Native American art, because Portland has a whopping native presence in its names and geography… but no natives. I was giddy to find out there was an african-american “constructing identity” exhibit as well. We’ll be here, I thought. Tons of us. And we were: on the walls, in the sculptures. Just not the ones gazing at the placards. On a weekday I had almost the entire exhibit to myself. Most interesting was The Art Is Ours exhibit put on by elementary school kids expressing themselves about being black in america. Oooh, a field trip, I thought, surrounded by BLM and say her name and #theartisours. Surely there’ll be—uh, no. No brown students. No brown teachers. It made me wonder what Black History Month looks like in this city.
I was brimming with thoughts and ideas and low on time. On my last full day I went to the Portland City Grill for its impressive skyline views. While I was there my mind wandered back to homelessness, which is thriving in a place I didn’t expect it to. Portland is an obviously progressive city, and yet it hasn’t found the answers to basic questions about diversity or sheltering its citizens. And for once, there are no minorities to scapegoat for poverty, crime, or much else. So who gets the blame, I wonder? I’m sincerely curious. I’ve grown up in a place where blaming the Other is practiced every day, everywhere.
I encountered one or two grumps, as I do everywhere, as I do at home. One, a balding 30-something, insisted I not take his picture at Cannabliss. I replied “You’re the least most interesting thing to me in here,” before snapping some pics of chemdawg. Another, a Doug Fir bartender, was scowly to everyone. There were grumpy construction workers in Amsterdam who refused to tell me where the Hard Rock was even though Hard Rock was in their eye line over my shoulder. There was the grump in Paris who made me fumble through horrific French.
Mostly people were pleasantly surprised, although one woman at a bar pounded the wood and laughed at the idea I’d be here for a reason that wasn’t business. They were happy I was there, open with suggestions, excited for the good weather. One cabbie told me he hated sun and heat, so Oregon was perfect for him. Another said he dedicated his life to mountain climbing, which explained his staying there after graduation. Others were passing through, mostly from Cali and Washington. Many had never been to New York, and one told me with a straight face, “The closest to the east coast I’ve gotten is Florida.” That may have been the most shocking part of the trip, to be completely honest.
They were happy…but unlike places I’ve been like Phoenix, and Paris, no one encouraged me to stay. The absence of a spiel was as glaring as the absence of people of color. No one tried to convince me it was the perfect place to live, despite being chockfull of activities, rivers, mountains, live music, great food (the food cart square is huge and almost 99% ethnic cuisine). It would almost certainly encourage me to get a dog and some skis. This is open to interpretation, but it didn’t feel welcoming. The whole city is a hideaway and they don’t want anyone knowing their secret. But I found out, and now that I’ve gotten a taste, I gotta see its more hip sister, Seattle.
Would I go back to Portland? Absolutely, but not just to wander. I feel the same about Vegas. I’d do a comedy or music festival, a cannabis cup–something that’ll be guaranteed to bring lots of different types together. But they have gorgeous summers with zero humidity. They rarely break 90 degrees, I was told. And the rain washed my allergies away. I doubt I can handle 70 days of rain in a row like hearty Portlandians did this year, but I’ve got enough in me for another 72 hours. This is your thing if you love hiking, appreciating nature, crazy landscape views, legal cannabis on demand. Pick a sunny week and you’ll be in love. I did this solo but I think it’d be a cool romantic weekend, too. Good grub: pan-asian at Saucebox, burgers at Portland City Grill, chicken and cheddar waffle at Loyal Legion, pear and blue cheese ice cream at Salt & Straw.
Are you from Portland? Did I get it wrong?