I spent seven years as a Portland tour guide. It was my job to escort groups of tourists through Downtown, Old Town, and the Pearl District and professionally yell facts about whatever was in the area. That job, professional fact yelling, changed my life.
I was born in Portland in 1980, grew up in Northeast, and went to Lincoln High School as a magnet student. In high school I was the kind of kid who skipped class to hang out at coffee shops. My friends and I talked about how Portland was great. We also talked about how Portland sucked.
Portland was great because it was easy to live here. Portland was uncrowded and okay-smelling, and we had a nebulous idea that we were good at something called “urban planning.”
But Portland also sucked. Other American cities seemed to have a definitive identity, and Portland didn’t. We weren’t an important grunge hub like Seattle. Ours was just a fairly pedestrian town/city of little import, and that perceived lack of status bugged the hell out of me back when I was an angry teenager.
I left. I went to college (in the distant land of Eugene), lived abroad for a while, and moved back in my late 20s. I became an unlicensed teacher, got laid off, and found a tour guide job on Craigslist. That was in 2010, and it ended up being one of the most formative gigs of my life. I learned more than I ever thought I would about the city I used to complain about. I learned that teenage me was an idiot and that this place does have a sense of identity. And I learned it by seeing my hometown through the eyes of a tourist.
The Good Stuff
I gave several different kinds of tours, but for the most part I’d walk people through Downtown, where we’d talk about planning, transportation, and mostly positive stuff. I also took them through Old Town, where we’d talk about crime, homelessness, and racism.
The vast majority of people on my tours were on vacation. People who are taking time off from work or are on their honeymoon are predisposed to having a good time—so talking about the positive stuff was easy. If someone’s in vacation mode it’s very easy for a tour guide to tell them that something is good, and they will agreeably think it is good. (You should probably know that I tend to drift toward contrarianism—so if there’s a thing a lot of people like, I will look for reasons why it is actually bad. It’s something I do.)
But here’s the thing: Portland actually does have a pretty functional urban core. A big part of my job was reading up on how Portland went from being relatively dormant in the mid 20th century, to having the downtown we enjoy today.
For instance, Portland formed TriMet, which, as much as we gripe about it, remains one of the better transit systems in the US, and is legitimately impressive to people visiting from elsewhere. Portland created pedestrian-friendly public spaces out of areas that had previously been reserved for cars. Pioneer Courthouse Square used to be a parking lot. Waterfront Park was a highway. Ripping up parking spaces and highways in the name of public accessibility was unprecedented in the 1970s, and it worked. Portland resisted the construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have destroyed Southeast as we know it, and we used that money to fund MAX. Tourists found this fascinating. On several occasions they said their city would never do that, or when their town was talking about pedestrian accessibility or mass transit, they would bring up Portland as a good example.
With all the bitching that comes from residents like myself, it’s easy to forget there are bits of your hometown that actually work, were actually pretty dang cool in their day, and that one would do well not to take for granted. I never really cared about the existence of Southeast Clinton until I told tourists about how Portland resisted the Mount Hood Freeway. I walked through Waterfront Park without a good idea of where it came from, but showing visitors old photos of Harbor Drive made me appreciate it.
Life as a tour guide also means that you get asked a constant stream of dumb things.
Tourists are remarkably adept at avoiding the part of Portland where most people live. Frequently, most often on the Waterfront, tourists would ask if the area east of the Willamette was Portland.
“Yes,” I would say, “that’s the East Side.”
“What’s over there?”
“Most of Portland,” was my usual reply.
Portlandia (the show) came up a lot. Tourists very frequently asked if I’d seen Portlandia or what I thought of Portlandia or what people thought of Portlandia.
“My feelings about Portlandia span a spectrum,” I would say, “a spectrum all the way from hate to apathy.”
Or that’s what I said when I was feeling punchy. Some days I would just reply that I didn’t like Fred Armisen very much, which is also true.
I was also asked why Portlanders wear backpacks, why our seagulls are so fat, what’s our dominant religion, and why and what was quinoa.
Tourists constantly asked why Portland is so liberal. I never had a really good answer. I would say that population density was a good predictor of political outcomes. Dense areas go blue. Low-density areas go red. Portland’s a high-density area, so... there you go. I don’t think anyone ever found this answer all that satisfying.
People also asked me if I ever made stuff up on my tours. “No,” I’d always say, “I don’t.”
“Why not?” they would often respond.
“Because,” I’d say, “that would be lying.”
Aside from breweries, the local businesses that most tourists associate with Portland are our strip clubs. People often asked why Portland has so many, and I always got the sense they were hoping I’d answer with something salacious, or something about the character of people who lived here. Perhaps they wanted me to say that Portlanders were all free-spirited polyamorous fuck nudists who would take any opportunity to either aerate their anatomy or experience the naughty bits of another for dollars at a time. Something like that.
Instead I told them we have a lot of strip clubs because of the Oregon Constitution and how the Oregon Supreme Court has interpreted it. The state constitution protects freedom of expression, and our local Supreme Court has deemed that this includes strip clubs. Tourists probably wanted a suggestive or pervy answer—not legal stuff. I enjoyed shutting it down. I liked telling them about legal stuff when they wanted to hear about boobs.
People asked about Voodoo Doughnut all the time. Honestly, I’ve always had complicated feelings about Voodoo. At various times I called Voodoo okay, pretty good, a tourist trap, and great. Eventually I just settled on telling people that it’s fine and a fun novelty experience, which I think is close to what I believe.
Visitors had also heard of Salt & Straw and asked me what I thought. I said it was not worth the line, and other local ice cream like Ruby Jewel or Fifty Licks was just as good. Same thing with Nong’s. It’s great, I’d say, but there are a lot of comparable places you haven’t heard about.
At every opportunity I would take people to the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, a famous public art installation. It had a variety of incarnations, but was nearly always painted a garish pink and green, with a display of mannequin heads, Barbie dolls, and flickering monitors behind glass. The whole thing was coin operated. If you dropped in a quarter the screens and mechanical dolls would tell your fortune or give you advice via a dissonant electronic voice. Sometimes it dispensed prizes.
Some people had heard about it from pamphlets or websites, and they were delighted to see the brightly colored bric-a-brac that surrounded a series of old flickering CRT monitors. I showed them the card that I still have in my wallet that ID’ed me as pope in the Church of Elvis. I’d always pop a few quarters in to make the Church do its thing—like displaying the Gospel of Elvis or horoscopes. Tourists asked me what the 24 Hour Church of Elvis was for. “This,” I’d say, pointing at the flickering screens and animated Barbie dolls. “This is what it’s for!”
Powell’s was the one Portland landmark I never felt ambiguous about. It’s a bookstore. It has books inside. Books are good.
I was also asked if various locations were haunted. When I said “no,” folks would ask how I knew. “Because ghosts aren’t real,” I’d say. If I deadpanned this well enough, it was funny. If I didn’t, I just sounded like an asshole. If I didn’t feel like being a jerk, though, I’d just say that ghosts were on another, different tour. We were on a tour during the daytime, and ghosts only worked the graveyard shift. (Again, the correct delivery was essential.)
The Dark Stuff
Tourists asked about the Shanghai Tunnels all the time. I told them they were an urban myth. They were disappointed. Then I told them about really fucked up things from Portland history, like systemic racism and persistent homelessness. They got even more bummed out. Since I took their Shanghai Tunnels away, I had to offer some other egregious denial of humanity to have fun with.
Speaking of which, talking about African American exclusion in Portland and Oregon (or Japanese internment, or Vanport, or redlining) was always challenging. I’m white, and at first I didn’t feel qualified to talk about it. I got more comfortable with the material as I learned more about Portland’s history of racism and exclusion. I saw that the topic made people (well, white people) uncomfortable, and at first I minded that. Eventually I didn’t mind that. I got used to making people a little uncomfortable.
I think some tourists imagine Portland as a place birthed fully formed from the forehead of Zeus as a city where everyone was riding bikes and making craft coffee from day one.
I think some tourists imagine Portland as a place birthed fully formed from the forehead of Zeus as a city where everyone was riding bikes and making craft coffee from day one. It’s not, though. Portland has a history and, like quite a lot of American history, it’s often unpleasant. Tourists found out this place is also a city with all the sins and filth of any other American city. People looked at their shoes when I talked about this, but they also knew I wasn’t bullshitting them.
When I was talking about planning in the 1970s, I was commonly asked who the mayor was at the time, and that was never a fun question. I always tried to talk around Neil Goldschmidt, which was hard. When I had to specifically bring him up I mentioned that he was a brilliant politician who helped make Portland what it is today. However, I didn’t want to leave out the important detail that in 2004 it was revealed that Goldschmidt was also a rapist who took advantage of a teenage girl. Portland’s 1970s wunderkind mayor was also pretty personally vile, and that was a shock to a lot of people who’d maybe assumed that urban reformers were all nice people who enjoyed mass transit and bikes.
I’ll Always Miss It
I loved being a tour guide. I was a combination teacher, researcher, and performer. It was a way for me to actually make money (well, some money) off being a history nerd, and on good days when the crowd was into it, I felt energized. Exhausted, but energized.
But it wears on you. You tell the same stories again and again, and you get the same reactions from the same groups of people. You get mechanical. I tried to keep it fresh by jumping around to different topics or ideas, but during my last year or so I found myself acting like a robot. That’s a problem for the audience, who are always experiencing it for the first time. But, there were only so many times I could get excited about the defeat of the Mount Hood Freeway or mixed-use zoning.
I got a new job in February and I don’t work on the West Side anymore. However, it’s impossible to walk in the vicinity of Downtown and not think of the beats of my old tours, or what history or anecdotes I could hang on each statue, building, and intersection. Seeing the city like a tourist was like seeing my hometown annotated. Everything has footnotes and digressions now. Everything is deeper. Even after living here for years, everything seems new and worth talking about.