I don’t think I truly love where I live until another describes it as a den of horrors.
Blame my Cleveland childhood. Going to school meant boarding a bus with the windows stuck open in winter and stuck shut in summer at 5:30AM. The bus took a snake’s path through the industrial parkway, before crossing the Harvard Avenue Bridge, which felt like crossing Mordor. Steels mills spouted fire all around us, dragons singing their death song. Between swallowing fat mouthfuls of this air and swimming in the grim green of Lake Erie, to the instant mashed potatoes and cardboard and ketchup pizza of school lunches, my body programmed to thrive on poison; too much organic material leads to rashes.
I’ve often wondered if the Cleveland Browns call a segment of the stadium “the dawg pound” because of the perpetual underdog status of the team, and the city itself, with hard to swallow nicknames like “the mistake on the Lake” and “city of the burning river.” Media (and movies) focus on the ongoing failure of sports teams, the staggering poverty, the government corruption. It’s also one of the only major metropolitan areas with a totally free art museum thanks to unusual commitment to the arts. It’s a city where I was able to get a scholarship to college, a city that supported the earliest days of my writing career, and provided opportunities that I happily took. It was where I got to be in a crowd shot of the movie “Major League” courtesy of free tickets distributed to Cleveland Public School students, where I stuffed tacos and burritos for $4.35 an hour, where you can still get a donut for under a dollar. It’s also where my great uncles were Saloon owners until prohibition (where they ran “soda shops” instead), where my great aunt worked as a secretary for Elliot Ness, and where my great great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warzawa neighborhood. It’s a city thick with history from 1796, and long before, where walking in older places means Rockefellers or fossils or rust, where the portions in restaurants are ridiculous and shopping malls don’t have to make fake snow. I love it. I hate it. You think it’s terrible; I like it more.
Then there’s Portland, the cuddly darling of the New York Times, the top place to move for San Francisco’s rent-suffering residents and small town sorts strangely dazzled by the douchery of D-grade TV shows. It’s described in squeals and exclamation marks, with the O replaced with a heart shape by thousands of starry-eyed people desperately seeking exodus. None of these adoring articles championing bicycle culture, liberal politics, and excellent public transportation mention the massive homeless camps that recall the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the rapid rent increases that sharply contrast with salaries that have been stuck since 2000, the high unemployment and heavy reliance on food stamps, the lack of support for the arts and the ridiculously low corporate contributions to struggling nonprofits. They don’t mention how sickly so many become in a climate where mold and fungus thrive, how agonizingly long and grey the winters can be, how difficult it is to form community when so many are transplants in transition, and unlikely to stay. These affectionate declarations rarely note that the street fairs that once celebrated regional culture are constantly under threat, that New Seasons and Little Big Burger have kinda become our Walmart and Applebee’s (they’re everywhere), and the artists and strange sorts that once kept Portland “weird” are now being exiled to neighboring suburbs. I have loved and hated everywhere I’ve lived, but this is the first time I felt that the city hated me. After 12 long years I’ve been feeling ready to leave, my eye on just about anywhere else.
Then the New Yorker article happened, the great panic button reminding all the excited new citizens that they’ve moved into the Ring of Fire. In Cleveland, you know that the Cuyahoga River is the one that famously burned; in Portland, most of the new citizens and many of the old don’t understand that those mountains are also volcanoes, and there’s a little thing called the Cascadia subduction zone. When Hurricane Katrina happened, internet know-it-alls liked to scoff about how the whole city was built below sea level, so what did they expect? In the case of Portland, the whole city is doomed…and yet people keep moving here like the streets are lined with gold.
And yet this coming-doom thing isn’t new to me; I’ve been dreaming about Portland’s forthcoming boom for years. In the dream the ugliest part is that the skies darken in warning of a coming storm, which inspires many to hunker down in their houses and seek shelter in basements, when they really need to be running for the highest point they can find. This is what I do in this dream, and when I reach that high point I look over at what used to be my city and all I see is water. I’m an unexpected island dweller, clinging to an old cedar, flanked by a few friends who also remembered to run high. I’ve been writing about it for years, and wrote a young adult book around it that perhaps now is ready to be read.
If the promotional tide has finally turned and the golden city is one waiting to rot, I can’t help but love it just a little bit more. There are no heroes and no villains, and as soon as the hero shows his weakness or the villain outs himself as soft, they suddenly become so much more relatable to me. If these great trees and glorious hills are not the promised land, but soon to sink into murky waters, with internet blow-hards lying in wait to tell us all the reasons we should heed the warnings and run, isn’t that a very good reason to cling to those cedars a little bit tighter so that they’re loved all the way down? This is not the sort of thing someone seeking out an easy life will develop any affection for, but someone who was born and raised an underdog biting for every scrap might thrive in such a climate. If there’s any climate left to thrive in at all.