Understanding the Portland Pathology

Bruce Ely/ The Oregonian

Portland had a beautiful summer. The driest in some years, I was told. I moved here in April, during the final throes of the rainy season, and after just a few weeks of intermittent showers, I was living in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. I got in the habit of running up to the International Rose Test Garden, which is about a mile directly uphill from my house. From there, among the roses, you can see out over the city to the peak of Mt. Hood on clear days. The best part, though, is the air. Portland’s air has a year-long winter sharpness to it that feels perpetually pine filtered and mountain chilled. It’s extremely refreshing. Turns out, it’s also crazy toxic.

When outsiders think about Portland, they see a sort of American Sweden, a place where, crummy weather aside, everything pretty much works. Food trucks and bike lanes and public transit and community gardens — a veritable carnival of yuppie better living. Those things are here, but focusing on them exclusively misses the point. Portland is an industrial town on a river, overstuffed with the homeless and runaways. Pointing this out is not an effort to claim some sort of Philadelphia clichéd “grittiness,” but to highlight how unlikely the identity of this city is.

Portland has a river, yes, but so does Cincinatti. There is no beautiful coastline here, no top-tier college. The mountains, though visible, have little impact on the town. It really does rain for at least seven months a year. What I’m saying is: this town of gourmet cuisine, of overeducated 27 year-old baristas and graphic designers and urban farmers — it could not have happened here by accident. It has happened here because it is aggressively, effortfully curated by Portlanders. And it takes a while to see it behind the façade of ironic self-awareness, but most Portlanders are extremely proud of the town.

When you conjure up the human Portlandia sketches that most imagine crowd the streets here, you picture, perhaps, an artisan moustache wax manufacturer, or somebody asking about the origins of their poultry in a restaurant. In a certain sense, you’re not far off. Sometimes it seems like every shop here has been impossibly be-twee’d, or that every restaurant is an overwrought evocation of arcane foreign cuisine. But this is all of a piece. In Portland, there is the sense that everything that can be done — literally, everything — should be done as an extension of the doer, should be “artisanal” or “thoughtful” or “sustainable.”

Often, this produces people and things that are easily cast-off as ironic trifles, but all that irony is really a protective gloss over an enormous chasm of earnestness. Those people who are growing that biodynamic cabbage? Repurposing old factories for organic cotton mills? They’re not doing it because it’s a big joke to them — they’re doing it because they believe in the almost laughably innocent notion of an economy of thoughtfulness. All that hipness, all that post-post-postness, that’s just self protection for a town full of people naively, sometimes bravely trying to prove that individuals have near total control over the quality of their environment.

This is as good a time as any to point out that many — or even most — Portlanders don’t fit neatly into any kind of crude regional sketch. Given the way Portland is characterized broadly, this post included, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every single resident has gauged ears or smokes a pipe. Which of course isn’t the case; it can be surprising just how many reserved Midwestern transplants you encounter here. But they’re here precisely because of the vocal weirdos and vintage crusaders — the weirdos steer this rainy cruise, and the rest of us imbibe hand-crafted Old Fashioneds on the deck.

Which all makes the town’s sports fandom complicated. If this is a town driven by intelligent control freaks seeking to shape their environment to their wills, then professional athletics pose some natural vexations. This is not a town naturally suited to an NBA franchise. Oregon is not overtly culturally drawn to basketball, and Portland is neither particularly large nor the lone northwestern town of significance. That the Blazers have become a signature franchise here is a product of Portlanders’ sense of civic responsibility to support their institutions. But that same tendency is why Blazers fans are so insane.

It seems crazy that so intelligent a town would have fans like the Blazers do. The widespread lack of perspective here is positively Heinsohnian: fans still remember Rudy Fernandez not living up to “All-Star” potential, I have read a BlazersEdge comment saying Will Barton might be the next Allen Iverson, and every single time anybody eats anything with more than a dozen calories in it, a nearby Blazers fan makes a Raymond Felton fat joke.

Blazers fans’ continuum of expectation and disappointment is utterly polar. Raymond Felton was a franchise point guard before he was the most reviled local athlete in recent memory. Damian Lillard is already being compared to Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving in earnest. The team is either once again contending to add to its already considerable legacy, or it’s losing because of a series of curses no other franchise could hope to understand.

And once again, this phenomenon is not steered by the staid suburban Blazers fans. Loyal though they be, those kind and gentle souls are not the reason for the warped perspective. It’s the farm-to-table set here again, the exact people you’d think would be too self-aware for true mania. My hunch, though, is that these are precisely the sorts of fans who are least apt to understand the NBA’s ways. Portlanders support institutions like restaurants, markets and bars with the expectation that their support is a sort of engagement; they will good establishments to succeed, and that establishment comes to reflect a little bit of its customers’ ethos. Consumers are partners and guardian angels. NBA teams, of course, are totally insulated from this symbiosis, and the Blazers are a particular affront.

Portlanders expect the team and its players to be shaped in their development by the collective will that shapes everything in this town, and failing to do so is a betrayal. But even by the standards of a legalistic and impersonal league in which all fanbases must make concessions to the machine, the Blazers are a cruel and fickle mistress. Paul Allen’s superyacht style of leadership is not exactly a seminar in community engagement, and his vindictiveness is such that the Blazers reportedly avoid dealing with teams over even the stupidest of beefs. That this man, with his secretive, petty ways and his megacorporate success, would have ultimate control over a team in this town is so incongruous as to be absurd.

The ideals of Portland, in the context of NBA basketball, are rendered non-sequitur. And yet, even amidst the media manipulation, mismanagement, financial unpredictability and personnel incompetence, fans have kept coming. Tortured though it is, the idea that Portland might put the Blazers on its shoulders is too ingrained for the fans to just let it die.

Of course all fans are, at some level, irrational. But the disconnect between the intelligence of Blazers’ fans and the degree of the irrationality is truly shocking to a transplant, even one who comes from a place where Tobacco Road fandom rules. And the better I get to know Portland, the better it seems to me I understand the pathology. Portland is a place striving to foster and reward thoughtfulness, where the ideas of random injury, vindictive ownership, and the whims of moody or introverted millionaires stand as an affront. Too proud to stop showing up, too naïve to get jaded, Blazers fans are locked in an ambivalent embrace with a team they can’t seem to figure out whether to love or loathe.

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