Weird, in Portland, is a compliment. And whether it’s based on an array of magical unexpectedness — like the world’s largest naked bike rides or watching adults zoom down an extinct volcano in soapbox derby cars — or perhaps because it has the most strip clubs per capita in the nation, or simply the rampant facial hair on anyone… it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s a town of misfits, and you might just be one of them.
The city, originally known as “Stumptown,” was frequented by settlers and traders in the 1830s and ‘40s. Named for the thick forest of fir, hemlock, maples, and cedars, the area was cleared for growing settlements. It was only officially founded in 1843, and then the name was decided by a coin toss between business partners Asa Lovejoy (from Boston) and Francis Pettygrove (from Portland, Maine). And you know who won. Also, these are just perfect names for these humans.
People were always attracted to Portland. They wanted their place they could call “weird” without judgment. Like the carpet at the city’s airport, with iconic geometric shapes on a teal background design (now famous all over the internet) that has become a weird moniker for the city.
I mean, what is “weird” anyway? I had to look at the etymology and thus found that in the Old English “weird” is wyrd — “destiny,” of Germanic origin. The adjective (late Middle English) originally meant “having the power to control destiny,” and was used especially for the “Weird Sisters,” originally referring to the Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) in Greek Mythology, later the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; the latter use gave rise to the sense “unearthly” (early 19th century).
I mean, why not?
Things may have been unofficially weird here in Portland for a long time, but the “Keep Portland Weird” movement began in 2003 when Terry Currier, owner of the famous music store Music Millennium, learned of the movement in Austin, to “Keep Austin Weird,” following that town’s increasing corporatization. He promptly brought it to Portland.
“I started to notice more and more boring big-box retailers opening across the country, and it all seemed so homogenous to me, and I was worried that my city would lose its uniqueness,” says Currier as we walk around his neighborhood. So in 2007, he trademarked the phrase and sold more than 10,000 stickers by the end of that year alone. And as Currier says, “What’s great about the slogan is that it’s open to interpretation.” So all over town there were stickers saying “Keep Portland Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird – Support Local Business,” and as if this was a rallying cry, the city came together.
Who doesn’t want to protect the things you love?
And when I say things, I also mean things like Mill Ends, the smallest park in the world, established in 1976 (only two feet in diameter, and it’s really just a small flower pot), and the Vacuum Museum, and the sensational Freakybuttrue Peculiarium. Or the Zoobomb, which takes place every Sunday, involves riding down a steep hill near the Oregon Zoo on kids’ bikes, minibikes, and even unicycles.
Brian Kidd, AKA “The Unipiper,” who dresses up as Darth Vader in a kilt and rides around town playing flaming bagpipes, says, as we sit on a picnic bench chatting over iced tea: “Portland always drew a certain mindset — the creatives and the artists wanted to be here. As much as New York has no culture, because it has all the culture, Portland has that very specific intangible culture.”
And unlike Nashville and Austin, trust me, Portland has maintained that weirdness.
And maybe this is because the locals will fight anyone for it. “We will preserve this weirdness over our dead bodies, and that is the impetus for Portland,” shares drag performer Jinkx Monsoon, somewhat semantically clumsily, in our interview. Monsoon moved back to Portland, where she was raised, before the COVID pandemic. She (when in drag Jinkx uses she) is the winner of both the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.
Worth also mentioning is the phenomenon of “put a bird on it.” (Portlandia’s second episode offered this hard jab at the hipster-craft pretension we have had to live with for too long.)
“The show Portlandia is the best thing and the worst thing,” says Kidd. (Like that genius episode about the knot store with Jeff Goldblum.) “One of the things it did do is [turn] the spotlight onto Portland, and it started to grow at a pace it wasn’t necessarily ready for.”
By 2017 new people were moving into the city without necessarily fully understanding that essence it was protecting so well. To help preserve the identity of the city, Kidd also runs a nonprofit called Weird Portland United, which he describes, perhaps redundantly, as “the only 501-c-3 dedicated to keeping Portland weird.”
Part of understanding this city is looking at the way it deals with gentrification. And as Monsoon points out, when it does take place, it’s a “muted version” where things are upgraded but not destroyed by corporate monsters. “I know it’s a loaded topic, but I will share this as my experience. My neighborhood has certainly displaced marginalized families — and the gentrification that has taken place here are witch shops, weed dispensaries, queer centers.”
Just walk around town and see for yourself. There are even Chase banks with no signage. No visible branding. Because who needs to see that anyway?
And of course, the gayborhoods and LGBTQ community and how they are able to live says a lot about a city. “Portland is such a queer friendly city. Queer people are not completely safe anywhere, but in Portland there are more resources,” adds Monsoon. “I was able to come out early and meet people who are like me. The city gave me this queer education, which I realized — as I started traveling the world — doesn’t happen everywhere.”
But a space in Portland doesn’t have to be queer-specific to be queer-friendly. And as Monsoon says, this is so unique. “There are so many places all over the world where the moment I leave the gayborhood, I feel like I am in a completely different city, and safety becomes an issue.”
One of the trailblazers in the LGBTQ movement of the city is Darcelle. Spending time with this Portland legend — a drag queen, an entertainer, cabaret owner, and sort of mascot for the city — enlightened me. In 2016, the Guinness World Records certified Darcelle as the oldest drag queen performer, with a career spanning 56 years at the time of her death in March. Before she sadly passed, I sat with her in her bar, having clear fizzy drinks, laughing at life, and watching amateur night unfold in front of our eyes. “In 1967 –- before the Albina Riots — Portland was different. We were gay inside the clubs, but once we went out the back door, we were not dressed up,” said Darcelle. “I remember when we used to be the weird ones. Now we’re just part of the fiber of the city. I say this to all young people: Please bring your weirdness; you’re welcome here. And everybody is here.”
“Of course, you can’t swing a cat in this town now without hitting a drag queen,” adds Poison Waters, drag queen extraordinaire, who joined us in the bar. “Everyone is weird in their own and unique way here, and the ones who are not are voyeuristic and happy to watch the city be weird.” As a performer with full beard and a short little white dress comes on stage, she says: “Portland doesn’t caricature any of its weirdness — it just celebrates it. It’s just a completely open place.”
“I received the most amazing drag education here in Portland,” Monsoon told me. “I grew up watching radical drag king cabaret shows, and pageant drag on the weekends and club kids on Saturday nights. I did it all here. And Portland has room for all of that. Old school camp drag dripping in rhinestones, and then Katya’s Klip Klop sexy queer dance parties.”
But as Darcelle told me, it’s not just queer people supporting queer creativity: “I predict that within two years there will be a National Holiday for Gay Pride. It’s not just queers going; everyone is coming.”
When you’re cruising around the city, you’ll see things like a piano just sitting on a corner. Ready for anyone to play it. That’s Piano Push Play, a piano rescue mission. Even Weird Al Yankovich found a Prince-themed one and played it. Just for Portland to keep smiling, of course.
Or you’ll see these cartoon sloth plywood cutouts all over town. Made by artist Mike Bennett, they’re the “Slow Down” sloths asking people to be a little more mindful when they’re driving around. At some point the city was nicknamed “Little Beirut” for its efforts for change through protests and marching. And that little nugget of history started when George H. W. Bush came into town in 1990 and “anarchists” protested his arrival by vomiting red, white, and blue around his hotel.
“Portland is like touching an electric fence,” says Currier. “It creates a space that can hold all this creative juice. Here, for most people Starbucks is the antichrist, and I have seen so many of them close in this town. People want small independent local coffee roasters.” There is no way Charleston or Nashville will allow that. And New York, I am side-eyeing you here.
“People gravitated to Portland in the 1970s because it was inexpensive. But the big acts would come into town — like Santana and John Denver, they all came. And around 1974, the laws changed and the ordinance that said you were not allowed to dance in a club was abolished. You weren’t allowed to stand with a drink; you had to sit down. And when this changed, the city changed. Live music then became a big thing, full-on seven days a week,” says Currier. “In 1972 the mayor came up with a law: You could have half an ounce of marijuana with you with only a $25 fine. It was not illegal. It was a great benefit for living here in this city.”
Today it’s weed central, and soon to be the mushroom mecca. There is even an Adult Soapbox Derby, and the World Naked Bike Ride, plus that Vegan Strip Club I love. Whether it’s at the Saturday farmers market where there is someone painted silver juggling balls, or the city’s unofficial Elvis impersonator, John “Elvis” Schroder, with his cardboard cutout guitar, it’s about having a passion and commitment for a thing, your thing.
“I just want Portland to remain the type of place where anyone can come and do their creative thing and make a living — and with the support of the city,” says Brian Kidd.
Another project Mike Bennett recently worked on, inside a former Banana Republic store downtown, is Dinolandia, a pop-up museum filled with cut-out cartoon dinosaurs.
Yeah, that’s weird — it’s not something you might expect, wouldn’t seem to be precisely commercial, and that’s perfect.
One of my favorite places on the planet is Powell’s, Portland’s legendary independent bookstore. There I people watch. Because all of weird Portland comes through this giant, big-as-a-city-block store, looking for unusual, out-of-print books, the classics and everything in between.
“I’m hoping we can attract more funky places to open up downtown in this post-pandemic world. It wasn’t just the businesses but also the people. Like the Pearl district is where the artists would be doing their thing. I want affordable rent for everyone,” proclaims Currier.
Although Portland has suffered from some seriously unfair judgment, the city does have serious concerns, like the homelessness, the Antifa explosion and consequent violence. What started as a social justice movement quickly evolved into debauchery. And then the media ran amok with it. For better or for worse.
“Another unique thing about Portland is this liberal mecca surrounded by these very conservative areas,” Monsoon tells me. “What shocks me is the audacity of people coming into our city from outside places and treating people like they are the outsiders, just because their beliefs don’t align with yours.
“But they’re daytripping in our communities. I am sorry — you’re in Portland now, and we’re a bunch of freaks.”