PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – With so many questions surrounding Portland’s reputation in the current moment, some may wonder, is the city still “weird?”
“I think our reputation is tattered in a bit in terms of that ‘keep it weird.’ And we discovered it’s more like keep it isolated and myopic…my interpretation of weird is not what we’ve been experiencing in Portland the last year,” said Eddie B. Hill, a Portland-based urban planner and nonprofit organizer, during a recent street survey KOIN 6 News conducted asking residents what they think of the city’s reputation.
Portland saw a steep decline in the last year to near the bottom of an 80-city ranking that indicates real estate development desirability. And Portland’s downtown commercial district is grappling with a staggering 17.5% vacancy rate with projections that it will continue to climb. Issues like the coronavirus, its accompanying economic toll, protests, and homelessness were some of the main issues residents stated as some of the most major the city is facing.
So have all these challenges also negatively contributed to the spirit of the city, its “weirdness?”
To find out more about Portland’s weirdness, and just what that was supposed to mean in the first place, we spoke with the originator of the slogan, “Keep Portland Weird,” Music Millennium owner Terry Currier.
“When I was coming up with the phrase in the beginning, I was trying to think of something to say, keep Portland unique. But keep Portland unique didn’t really have a ring to it. And ‘Keep Portland Weird’ definitely did,” Currier said.
Around the late 1990s, Currier said he started to see big-box retailers popping up all over the U.S., making the country look more homogenous. He noticed them encroach on Portland as well. Worried the Rose City would lose its uniqueness and charm with the many specialized small businesses in town, like Cinema 21 and Cadillac Cafe, the record store owner wanted to start a campaign to help bolster local businesses.
After talking to a friend and fellow record store owner who lived in Austin, Texas, Currier took a liking to that city’s recently adopted motto, “Keep Austin Weird.”
“And one day he says, you’re so interested in this, you should just take it and do it. And so I did.”
From there, Currier made bumper stickers–500 which said “Keep Portland Weird” and another 500 that said “Keep Portland Weird — Support Local Business.” And he took out an ad in Willamette Week advertising the slogan, without drawing any connection to himself or Music Millennium.
“It took a few years ’til anybody actually figured out it was us. But we were the only people in town selling the stickers. And eventually, we got them to other businesses in town. Anybody who wanted to have them, we made sure that we had them for sale,” Currier said.
All these years later, has the city kept that quirky charm encapsulated by that late ’90s/early 2000s era? Currier said it may have faded a bit.
“I think Portland was more weird back then. Today, and especially at this time right now, due to COVID, due to some of what’s been going on in the downtown core that changed the whole landscape down there.”
Currier said the city used to be more inviting and unique, with stand-out characters like the “Silverman” human statue entertaining residents and visitors, and Portland’s Saturday Market. Nowadays, he said he doesn’t see as much of that around.
Currier said closed-down shops downtown are largely the reason for that. He added that the accumulation of garbage and graffiti that can be seen on the side of the freeway and in many areas of the city was not a common occurrence 20 years ago.
The city has also gotten more expensive than it used to be for artistic types to continue their thing, even if they never turned a profit before, he said.
But Currier added there are a lot of people still working hard to keep the weird spirit alive.
One of those people, who has garnered widespread views on the internet by dressing up as Darth Vader in a kilt and playing flaming bagpipes while riding a unicycle, is Brian Kidd, AKA “The Unipiper.”
“Is Portland still weird? I think that Portland is still weird because I don’t think it is something that can necessarily be separated from Portland. I think it’s part of our identity. It’s kind of like asking, is Texas a part of the United States? At least I think it still is,” Kidd said.
The performer thinks the city is at a bit of a crossroads, but that “it’s nowhere we haven’t been before.” He’s confident the people of Portland will come out of the other side of this current era “on the right side of history.”
“I think we have a chance right now to rebuild Portland in a way that might be a little bit better, a little bit more just. But when we come out on the other side, we’re going to want our identity in tact,” Kidd said.
To help preserve the identity of the city, Kidd also runs a nonprofit, called Weird Portland United, which he describes as “the only 501-c-3 dedicated to keeping Portland weird.”
As part of that effort, the organization gives $500 grants to artists and creatives who are doing something to put a smile on people’s faces despite the hardships of the past year. In addition, the organization has launched its Weird Portland Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the city’s culture of weirdness. And they’re soon to create a giant mural “that will be a centerpiece welcoming people to Portland and celebrating the weird and wacky things we love about the city.”
When asked what Portland’s brand of weird is exactly, he said that’s up to the interpretation of each individual.
“And that’s part about what’s so great about it, is that it does appeal to very many people and very many ideals. But yet it does still unite us. To me, keeping Portland weird is about embracing individuality and celebrating the diversity of people in interests and activities that we have in the Rose City.”
Kidd said he first moved to Portland in 2007 at a time when it was a city ripe for “self-exploration and just doing your own thing.” Since then, and especially after the 2011 release of the IFC show Portlandia, which parodies the city’s idiosyncrasies, that spirit has been chipped away.
“For example, you don’t see as many tall bikes around as you used to,” Kidd said.
But he said that’s why he’s working with Weird Portland United to help preserve the city’s uniqueness.
“I think right now in this moment, we have been given an opportunity to sort of have a second chance of the past couple years and maybe re-evaluate the rate of growth that Portland has experienced. And maybe do it a little more sustainably, without using our quirky edge.”