I’m learning that experts disagree about whether the Shanghai Tunnels under downtown Portland, Oregon, were ever actually used to shanghai people.
After hosting both of our families for Thanksgiving week and badly fielding their questions about our new city, my wife and I decided we need to study up on the local history. The zaniest book we’ve consulted so far is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (2003). The author of Fight Club and eleven other beautifully twisted novels about American culture turns his attention here to the town he has called home since 1980.
Palahniuk’s book celebrates his favorite fringe elements in chapters that alternate between themed lists (like strange transportation, gardens, and sex stores) and vignettes from twenty-three years of his drug-propelled midnight encounters throughout the city. We learn where to find the self-cleaning house, the world’s largest hair ball, the best haunted places, the vacuum cleaner museum, the world’s smallest park (the size of a dinner plate), and a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge. As I read about these places, I make notes to look into them, and on the web or on a walk I find that some of Palahniuk’s Portland is gone already. Writing his tour of the city, Palahniuk warns readers that’s how it’ll be: “The trouble with the fringe is, it does tend to unravel. By the time you read this, small parts of it will already be obsolete” (173). On the next page he writes, “This book is not Portland, Oregon. At best, it’s a series of moments with interesting people” (174). Of course, in a strict sense it isn’t that either; it’s symbols on pages. But I get his point.
In telling about some of his favorite encounters, Palahniuk reveals some of Portland’s foundations. For example, the city’s sense of itself as a bratty little brother. One resident, Reverend Chuck, likes to glue things to his car—like bags of Twinkies or hundreds of rusted doorknobs—and blast annoying sounds out of the speakers. Sometimes it’s bedwetting hypnosis tapes from the 1950s, and other times it’s the sounds of crows fighting, a recording which actually attracts a huge cloud of crows following behind the car. The Reverend says the city has a “small man complex. … Portland makes up for its small size with its loud and obnoxious behavior” (130-31).
In my short six months as a resident, I’ve noticed this complex in the art scene to some extent. Some gallery owners, painters and designers seem convinced that the best artists always leave here for bigger and more polished cities, and they’ve told me nobody who’s really serious about collecting art lives here either.
Carl Abbott, a professor of urban planning at Portland State, just published a more scholarly work of Portland history, called Portland in Three Centuries, and his research shows that from its start in the mid-1840s, this town has both drooled over the prospect of being like San Francisco and jealously guarded its foothold as the go-to Northwest city against rivals like Seattle and Tacoma.
Abbott’s is a much drier read than Palahniuk’s, but one full of excellent names and dates to look further into. I didn’t know John Reed, the radical journalist (played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds), grew up here, and now I get the origins of the street names around our apartment: the names of early town promoters Asa Lovejoy, Benjamin Stark, Francis Pettygrove, William Overton, and so on.
As for Forest Park, that 5,000 acre beast of mossy greenery our family runs muddy through, sources confirm it is the largest city-owned park in the world. But Abbott claims, “The vast expanse of Forest Park is the result of public foreclosure of tax delinquent property during the Depression of the 1930s, not of systematic planning by the preceding generation” (85). Huh. And here I was led to believe all these tree-twisted trails came out of the 1903 plan by John Olmstead (stepson of Frederick Olmstead who designed Central Park in New York, a mere 843 acres). It seems every jewel in this city remains available to us through some combination of idealistic tenacity, hyped-up storytelling and accident.
It had to be so.