What Austin Can Learn From How Portland Keeps It Weird
They say the grass always looks greener on the other side, but that maxim has always seemed a bit optimistic. The grass isn't always greener, it just always looks weirder.
People think that Austin's beloved weirdness is gone, that the counter-culture quirks were a natural resource buried under Red River St, mined to depletion, and replaced with a Holiday Inn Express. At this point there have been so many obituaries written about the death of Leslie-style Weirdness that you'd think the city burned to ash while Stevie Ray Vaughan ghost-soloed from the top of the UT tower. So rather than squeeze out a masturbatory riff on Old Austin losses like outdoor live music and reasonable rents, let's talk about Portland.
You guys, Portland is way weirder than Austin
I didn't want to admit it for fear of losing my Loyal Austinite Card (a member since 1995!), but after a week-long trip to Portland I can honestly say that in a naked bike ride, they'd beat us by a mile, and not just because of their luxurious bike corridors.
The first thing you notice is that the streets are packed with businesses so weirdly specialized that they wouldn't last a month on East 6th. It's like a piñata of niche commerce exploded and the landlords were too busy sipping sour beers and eating artisan crackers to sweep up the mess by raising the rent on the roast-your-own coffee store (Mr. Green Beans!) and ham-only restaurant (Hamlet!).
Sure, you might say we have our own vintage synthesizer store and light bulb shop and artisan ice cream flavored with seasonal root vegetables. But my y'all-saying friends, let me tell you, the grass is weirder and better. The beer bars have digital displays showing keg levels. The dealer's choice cocktail bars are serving Asian nachos on wontons and they taste fantastic. The arcade bar has a Tron-themed bathroom so elaborate it costs more than all of Kung Fu Saloon's racist lawsuits combined. Portland's always going for the extra credit, and like any brown-nosing student, it makes you want to punch them.
Not even organic electrolytes will quench Portland's thirst
To an Austinite visiting Portland, this gumption seems a little silly. I couldn't help but thinking of all the time and money spent on the elaborate bathroom at this arcade bar. Shouldn't they be busy fighting city regulations? Where did they find the energy for all this effort?
Austin's charm has always been in it's effortless appearance. Just look at our patron saint Willie Nelson. His rugged individuality, stoic humility, and default distinction as cooler than his peers (in our city's case, Dallas and San Antonio) means you're never going to see him sweat, no matter how hard he's working. Same with an Austinite, unless they're on the way to Barton Springs.
Portland has more strip clubs, but Austin is naturally au naturel
Just like our swimming holes, we like our eccentricities to be natural. When a man on horseback trots down Cesar Chavez or South Congress, he's just a guy that owns a horse. It's a product of cultural heritage and geographical context, and it's weird as hell. Portland has their own legitimate legacy of horse-riding, which remains today in metal hitches embedded in the sidewalk. People latch tiny toy horses to them and post the photos on Facebook. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Texan who'd give that a like.
What I'm saying is that they're nerds! They pick their boogers and put them on fancy toast and eat them!
But while I'm busy loading spit-wads into my hollowed out Bic, Portland is rolling a legal joint. They've applied the same industrious geekiness to their vices, going so far as to temper a serious driving culture (we justifiably ranked them #1 beer city) by requiring bars serve hot food until closing to sober people up. Gentlemen's clubs are so socially acceptable that there are three all-vegan strip clubs. Strip clubs in Austin believe vegans probably exist, but have not yet seen proof. Things that an average Texan would find morally reprehensible have been made totally fine in Portland. It's. So. Weird.
Do we really want to be weird anymore/were we ever weird to begin with/can't we just go swimming?
Now before you hop on the first plane to the Suicide Girls strip club, Portland has problems too. A highlight reel of my PDX week could be sold on late night cable TV under the title “White People Gone Wild”. There's terrible gentrification, racial homogeny, rampant unemployment, rising costs of living, three hour waits for brunch, no place to park at hiking reserves, and an eventual earthquake that's going to kill thousands. But the dream of weirdness is as healthy as a hydroponic kale salad.
So what's an Austinite to do when it seems impossibly hard to do even normal things in weird ways? The answer isn't to buy an umbrella [Editor's Note: PDX doesn't actually use umbrellas] and move to a place that's so thirsty for individuality that they literally stole another city's slogan (est. 2000, hijacked in 2003). Maybe it's realizing that our weirdness hasn't disappeared, it's more like an old shirt that doesn't fit well anymore. Eeyore's birthday just doesn't look good on us these days (trust us, we tried it on for size). As the slacker mentality gets squeezed out by growth, maybe we need to pivot our mindset and accept that the only way to Keep It Weird is through frustratingly normal channels, and we might have to wear our hard work on our sleeves.
Or just move to California! I heard that even though they're out of water, the grass is still as green as ever.
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Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national eat and drink team. In 2011 he scrawled “I'm moving to L.A.” on a T-shirt in neon marker and wore it all week during SXSW. Follow him to more jokes about California at @Dannosphere.