An Ode to a Disappearing Portland

The City of Roses used to be funky and offbeat and working class. No more.

Photo credit: Photo by George Rose/Getty Images.

Talk about a Friday news dump: Chopsticks III, the “How Can Be Lounge,” a Portland, Oregon, karaoke institution will close this weekend, it was announced on Friday. (“How can be” was not a Mickey Rooneyism circa Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but a phrase uttered by proprietor David Chow.) It’s another nail in the coffin of the funky, offbeat place that the City of Roses used to be.

Portland was once fun. When I moved there in the mid-2000s to attend Reed College (another declining institution) it already had undercurrents of hipsterism, to be sure. Stumptown Coffee was there; as was its far superior competitor Ristretto. But the delightful charms of Olde Portland still coexisted, happily, with the legions of Bay Area transplants and twee moustaches. These days, it seems, the manicured handlebars are increasingly ousting vestigial Portland.

All through my college years, up the hill from Reed on Woodstock Blvd. sat Country Bill’s, a classic, windowless “American restaurant” with red vinyl booths and electric candles. OK, the food was terrible—but the smoke-filled lounge poured strong drinks and there was usually an open video lottery machine. If not, you could easily strike up a fun conversation with the codgers huddled around the bar. Country Bill’s shuttered in 2011, after 48 years of service. Further up the block was Putter’s, a delightful dive bar populated by mechanics and welders from Precision Castparts Corp., the aircraft-part manufacturer that mile or so to the east. Putter’s was demolished a couple of years ago, replaced by… an organic grocery store.

Fred Armisen fantasies aside, Portland was always a working-class town, built on logging (hence “Stumptown”) and shipping (hence, uh “Portland.”) It boasted a large, blue-collar middle class, which populated its pleasant neighborhoods of modest, single family homes, many of them bungalows or craftsman gems. Those too are increasingly being demolished, making way for generic looking apartment buildings. Today the economy is more weighted toward tech and health care than building and moving things.

It’s foolish to pretend everything forever remains the same, of course. Even we conservatives have to accept that. But I confess to a certain sadness as I monitor from afar closures of establishments that I once knew and loved. And when I was back in Portland last year I drove around and tallied up my now-closed haunts. It felt a bit ghoulish.

Nor is this story wholly unique to Portland. Lately, when I tell people where I grew up—Providence, Rhode Island—I’m told what a “cool place that is.” I have to stifle a guffaw; in my youth, it was known (correctly!) as the “arm pit” of New England. Here in Washington too, the pace of change has been remarkable. And don’t get me started on Beijing, which is literally unrecognizable from how it was even a decade ago…

So, yes, I know the abolition of Olde Portland is just the way of the world. But please … can we at least save Rich’s? Since 1894 it has sold cigars and a truly incredibly selection of magazines from around the world. Now, I realize tobacco and print media are hardly growth industries these days, but were Rich’s to close it would feel like something approaching a death blow. We’d all be saying: “How can be?”

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