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Portland, weird? Some say yes; others say we're only extraordinary in our normalness
by: L.E. BASKOW, Being green in Portland isn’t all that unusual, as street performer Wells Oviatt finds out riding MAX to work downtown.

The problem with having 18,000 'Keep Portland Weird' bumper stickers on display is that if you don't watch out, weird becomes mainstream. And then, it isn't so weird anymore.

Carl Abbott doesn't think Portland ever was. Weird, that is. The Portland State University urban historian says it takes more than a bumper sticker to bend reality.

'Except for a handful of 24-year-olds who ride funny looking bicycles, I don't think Portland is weird at all,' Abbott says. 'I'd call it sincere, earnest, outdoorsy, old-fashioned, and pleasant. If Portland were a person, you'd be delighted if your daughter said she planned to marry it.'

Hear that, zoo bombers? Are you listening, Voodoo Doughnut aficionados, naked bike riders, MarchFourth band members and believers in the Church of Elvis? We need to talk this out.

The five-year-old bumper stickers seem to suggest - and maybe some of us like to think - that Portland is uniquely and unquestionably weird among American cities. That we became that way. That we always were that way. Whatever. That we are weird.

What's needed here is an Urban Weird Index as a measuring stick.

Well, we're not going to get it. But we've solicited some ideas, and engendered a bit of controversy.

And for those of you who think Abbott is way off base, consider the fact that Keep Portland Weird isn't even original (and originality is one of the key components in our unofficial Urban Weird Index). About a half dozen cities have similar bumper stickers, and the first appeared in Austin, Texas.

So, let's start with some urban weird criteria:

• Weird should be unique to a city, and if something isn't, it should at least have originated there.

• Weird cities embrace their eccentricities.

• Weird shouldn't be self-conscious. If people do something intentionally trying to be weird, it doesn't count. Except sometimes it does.

The rest of our criteria take a little explaining.

Gary Knowles, a Wisconsin-based travel writer, says that all across Wisconsin, there are small towns with giant plastic animals. Hayward, Wisc., has the Fresh Fish Hall of Fame with a muskie the size of a T-Rex outside. DeForest, Wisc., (now there's a sustainable name for you) has a giant plastic elephant. And Mercer, Wisc., has a 30-foot-tall plastic loon.


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTOS • The problem with having 18,000 'Keep Portland Weird' bumper stickers on display is that if you don't watch out, weird becomes mainstream. (Slideshow includes photos from the Velveteria, clown car, guerrilla street theater, Pittman Addition Hydropark, a cheeky LUSH employee, Voodoo Doughnuts, street performer Wells Oviatt, naked bike jousting, Urban Iditarod, Zoobomb public art and Knights of the Realm.)

'Wisconsin is known as the home of the plastic fauna,' Knowles says. That's because Sparta, Wisc., has a factory that makes the animals. And towns display them to attract tourists. Intentional? Yes. Weird anyway? Probably.

'Maybe there's a subcategory, which is intentionally to make money, but still pretty weird,' Knowles says.

New York City-based Robert Reid is the Americas travel editor for Lonely Planet, travel guides that unearth the idiosyncratic all over the world. Reid says weird cities often have weird smells.

'Madison (Wisconsin) is a liberal college town that smells of cows,' Reid says. 'Des Moines smells of fried chicken.' Amarillo, Texas, Reid says, has the motto, 'Step Into The Real Texas.' And Amarillo apparently passes Reid's sniff test.

'The stench of cows is unmistakable,' Reid says. 'When I heard that (motto), my first inclination was that I had stepped into something else. That may not be the best slogan.' Reid probably wouldn't like the smell coming from Camas, either.

Reid also says look for places that are full of contradiction. Austin, he says, is weird because it's a liberal city afloat in a sea of Texas conservatism.

Other possible criteria for an Urban Weird Index, Reid says, include relative acceptance of bong use, strange monuments, public art and 'unexplainable festivals.'

'Portland is weird in a very sweet way,' says Becky Ohlsen, sometime Portland resident who co-wrote Lonely Planet's guide to the Pacific Northwest. Some of Ohlsen's weird Portland favorites include the Sang-Froid Riding Club (the riding takes place on motorcycles), and the local adult soapbox derby.

New York City has weirdness, Ohlsen says but it's 'scattered and in cohesive and money-obsessed.' San Francisco probably has more strange things going on than Portland, she adds, because of its size and history.

'Portland's weirdness has more to do with its characters,' Ohlsen says. 'Something about how cheap and isolated (Portland) is allows oddballs to explore odd behavior without being squished by economics or the harsh judgment of fashion people.'

Exactly, says John Averill, band leader of the highly alternative MarchFourth Marching Band, with their 35 musicians, baton twirlers and the like. MarchFourth and the city's possibly more infamous Get A Life Marching Band - with members from their mid-20s to their 70s who marched in Barack Obama's inauguration parade - are pure Portland.

Other cities have alternative marching bands, says Averill, but none with the staying power that MarchFourth has.

'I've been told by friends of mine in New York that there is no way you could put together something like this in New York,' Averill says. Portland's small-scale means band members scattered throughout town can make it for a Monday evening practice, Averill says. And there are plenty of potential band members around - creative musicians who just want to express themselves and don't care about celebrity.

Talk about 'weird Portland' always turns to biking sooner or later. We've got naked bike rides and naked bike jousting, zoo bombers and the urban Iditarod, although the latter's grocery store shopping carts might be stretching the concept of biking. Anyway, we've got them, but they aren't original to Portland - except for the zoo bombers.

But that's missing the point, says Jonathan Maus, publisher of Quirky biking events take place all over, Maus says, but in Portland 'there are more of them more often and more people are involved.' Naked bike day is a national event, but Portland's has by far more riders than any other city, according to Maus.

The point isn't just what's being done, but who is doing it, Maus adds. 'Here zoo bombers and naked riders are not part of the fringe or a subculture; it's average people doing it on the side,' he says. Score one for Portland is weird.


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • The annual Urban Iditarod (mushing down Burnside Street with not sled dogs but shopping carts) is not unique to Portland. But it is unusually popular here.

But then consider that even the zoo bombers have been mainstreamed. Last week, the city of Portland unveiled its Zoobomb public art - a light pole tall statue with a bike on top and storage for zoo bombers' mini-bikes below.

Bob Baxter, editor in chief of Skin and Ink magazine, says he's heard Portland has a higher percentage of tattooed residents than any other city, and he believes it. And while tattoos are becoming more mainstream than weird, Baxter, who moved here from Los Angeles, says his introduction to Portland sold him on the weird.

Four years ago Baxter came to Portland researching his book, 'Tattoo Road Trip,' which often involved late nights in places where he could find people with tattoos.

'There were so many people that said, 'You're looking like you're getting a little tired. Would you like to come over to my place for breakfast?' Baxter says. That struck him as strange. Polite, but strange.

PSU's Abbot, however, is not sure well-mannered and weird go together. People who build oversized Willamette River mansions here get ostracized, Abbott says. Even this desire to be self-labeled as weird by putting it on a bumper sticker, Abbott says, is classic Portland.

'Maybe it's the Portland version of rebellion,' he says. 'Very tasteful and controlled.'

Abbott sees some Portland weirdness as part of 'a subgroup of a subgroup who have become kind of a cutting edge.' The first subgroup includes zoo bombers and such, the second subgroup is the creative class of young professionals that has arrived in Portland in recent years. But neither subgroup has changed Portland's basically conservative nature, Abbott says.

If a city's spirit is revealed by its architecture, Portland's spirit is decidedly un-strange, according to Jonah Cohen, managing principal architect of downtown firm THA architecture.

'It's conservative, actually,' Cohen says. Cohen is hard-pressed to name one Portland building that might be considered avant garde. But he's not willing to give up on the weird label completely.

'Consider the irony,' he says. 'Other cities have taken bigger risks, but you can turn that around. What makes Portland weird is it doesn't go out of its way to grab attention by architecture.'

Jim Fullan, director of marketing for Broadway Across America, which books touring Broadway shows to play in Portland, says if mainstream Portland is defined by his market - women 35 and older - weird is not exactly what they are looking for. Two years ago, his firm brought in the musical comedy 'Urinetown,' an edgy Broadway show, and their suspicions that it would sell fewer tickets than classics such as 'Fiddler On The Roof' were quickly confirmed.

Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin haven't quite figured out what form of weird it takes to catch on here. The couple opened the Velveteria Museum on Southeast Burnside Street four years ago, about as quirky a museum as you're likely to find. But nobody has welcomed them or their collection of more than 2,000 paintings on velvet into the cultural mainstream. Nationally, they're a hit, with stories in Newsweek and on CBS Sunday morning. But only about two of 10 visitors to the museum are local, according to Baldwin.

'People will walk by and say, 'I saw you on the Tonight Show,' and keep on walking,' Baldwin says.

Anderson says in another city, the museum would likely become a cultural landmark. 'What it says about Portlanders is, I don't think they're as curious as they think they are,' she says. 'I think people here are too comfortable and they just stay in their neighborhoods and hang out with their friends.

'I've been here almost 30 years. This city is provincial. I don't care if you ride a bike nude.'

Lonely Planet's Ohlsen says she recently showed off Portland to some visitors from the small Colorado town in which she grew up.

'One of them said, 'I keep seeing these bumper stickers around saying 'Keep Portland Weird.' (I've) got to say, You all are doing a damn good job,' They'd seen Elvis, and panhandling teens and vegan donuts, and all of it freaked them right out. I love that. Those people would not want Portland to marry their daughter. No way.'

Keeping Portland weird, if unoriginal

Maybe the weirdest thing about the Keep Portland Weird bumper stickers is how they originally weren't really about weird at all.

Terry Currier, owner of Music Millennium on Burnside Street, says he got the idea for the Weird bumper stickers from a friend in Austin, Texas. His friend owned an independent record store in downtown Austin, and the city was encouraging Borders Books and Music to move in across the street. The bumper stickers were designed to get people to support local independent businesses, which Currier says leads to a more diverse and unique city landscape.

Still, when Currier brought the bumper stickers to Portland, his intent had more to do with commerce than quirky.

In fact, Currier originally made 500 bumper stickers that read, 'Keep Portland Weird, Support Local Business.' They didn't sell.

'The thing with 'Keep Portland Weird' is, it is open to interpretation,' Currier says. People have bought more than 18,000 of them from Music Millennium, at $2 a bumper sticker. In Austin, they gave them away.

And Currier thinks the label is accurate, even if it wasn't intended. 'Weird to me is also unique. If I would have written, 'Keep Portland Unique,' that wasn't going to make it,' he says.

- Peter Korn

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