[Welcome to our "Say Nice Things About Portland" guide to the city! Did you know that this feature package is also in PRINT?? That's right, this is our first print product since the start of the pandemic, and we're psyched to produce a lot more. Find the Say Nice Things guide in over 500 locations around the city, and if you'd like to see more guides you can hold, please consider making a small contribution to the Mercury, please and thank you!—eds]
Sure, let’s chat about Portland. But first? Let’s chat about…
In 1974, there were 714 reported homicides in Detroit, Michigan—a shocking statistic that spawned an unwelcome nickname: “Murder capital of the world.” Despite the city’s many positive aspects, the name stuck and soon went national, frightening away potential new businesses and tourists from the downtown core. At the time, Emily Gail owned a camera and gift shop in Detroit’s downtown shopping district. She was dismayed by the lack of downtown foot traffic as well as the overriding negative perception, because Gail saw more than “murder” in Detroit. She saw a thriving, multifaceted city filled with interesting people doing interesting things. Yes, absolutely there were problems. But this “murder capital of the world” narrative was acting in direct opposition to any attempt at a solution.
Even while vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Gail was barraged with “concerned” fellow Detroiters asking her, “Aren’t you glad to be out of Detroit?” So, fed up with this negative attitude, Gail did the obvious thing: took $400 out of the bank, rented a small plane, and paid someone to fly it over Fort Lauderdale trailing a giant banner that read, “Hi Detroiters. Enjoy Florida. Say nice things about Detroit.—Emily.”
It was kind of a hit. Upon returning to her home city, Gail used her newfound media popularity to organize fun runs in the downtown core—against the wishes of cops and city government who wanted her to hold the event somewhere “safer.” Within a few years, what started as a small group turned into thousands of runners flocking downtown, most of whom wore T-shirts and pins emblazoned with the slogan Detroiters now wear and speak with pride: “Say Nice Things About Detroit.”
That’s an interesting story! Okay, now we can chat about…
As Portlanders in 2023, we’ve learned the hard way how narratives can be dangerous to the health of a city. The abiding “Portland is dead” narrative was originally created by the city’s wealthy real estate developers and police union as a direct response to the racial justice protests of 2020. Despite a pandemic that emptied downtown and a homelessness crisis that unsurprisingly exploded after being ignored for decades, wealthy business owners aimed their ire at those marching in support of Black lives and against police violence—and the police union, whose sole purpose is to “protect and serve” their own, were only too happy to hop on the anti-Portland bandwagon. And so? Screeching, pearl-clutching articles were published locally and nationally that primarily benefited the wealthy, alongside damaging op-eds penned by shameless (and now shamed) enablers and even our own chief of police. Meanwhile, back at home, slanted push polls were purchased by the Portland Business Alliance and repeatedly platformed by local media, while conservative consultants were hired to form cynical lobbying groups and sham “grassroots organizations” (particularly People for Portland) to plaster billboards and bombard email in-boxes with one clear message: “Portland is a shit-hole, and our local government is doing nothing about it.”
It was creatives who built Portland into the bustling, world-renowned city that made these developers and opportunists so much money in the mid-2010s: the bands, the comedians, the artists, the restaurateurs, the writers, the filmmakers.
Anyway, the irony is that this carefully constructed anti-Portland narrative only partially worked—while these wealthy real estate developers and business-owners were able to trick a now-furious city to fill the mayor’s seat and city council with their nodding minions who made sure the police budget returned to its previous “un-defunded” status, there was a price to pay. Too many Portlanders bought into the lie, and are now firmly convinced that the city government cannot be trusted, houseless folk are demons, and they should avoid downtown like the plague. Meanwhile the rest of the nation has come to accept that the entire city of Portland—not just downtown—is an unvisitable, dangerous cesspool. And since Portland was recently identified as one of the slowest cities to recover from the pandemic, you can almost hear those same narrative-creating, wealthy hand-wringers in the Portland Business Alliance screaming, “HOW COULD THIS BE HAPPENING???”
So… yeah. They fucked up. And in the course of fucking up, they fucked the rest of us as well.
Ultimately, it doesn’t help to scream about how these opportunists tanked the city’s reputation because, as usual, it falls upon the rest of us (the much-less wealthy) to clean up after their mistakes. But let’s be super clear: It was creatives who built Portland into the bustling, world-renowned city that made these developers and opportunists so much money in the mid-2010s: the bands, the comedians, the artists, the restaurateurs, the writers, the filmmakers. It was a city that earned the loving parody known as Portlandia—the success of which opened the floodgates for incoming transplants and tourists (who brought along pockets filled with cash). And how did Portland’s increasingly rich folk repay these creatives? By replacing affordable housing with expensive mixed-use apartments (because you must have kombucha on tap and dog-washing stations!), thereby pricing the culture’s originators out of the city’s core, and into the waiting arms of communities that appreciate them. (Hello, Beaverton!)
We can’t change the past or what’s been done to us. What we can do is realize who the true enemies of Portland are, never believe a word they say, and begin counteracting their city-killing narrative. How? By starting with something simple. Or to coin a phrase….
SAY NICE THINGS ABOUT PORTLAND.
We can do the hard work of counteracting Portland’s terrible reputation by spreading the good word to our friends as well as out-of-town relatives. But first, this daunting task demands gaining perspective—reminding ourselves about what makes Portland so amazing and worthy, and being grateful for it. Yes, we can work on fixing the decades-long crisis of homelessness and crime, while ALSO recognizing and celebrating the creatives who made the rest of the world want to live here. And with the Mercury’s “Say Nice Things About Portland” guide to our city, we’re striving to remind you about the people, places, and things we’re collectively proud of and which continue to attract people from around the globe.
You’ll hear from the Mercury’s resident experts (all card-carrying Portland boosters) on the artists, musicians, craft makers, oddballs, activists, chefs, queers, sports stars, comedians, performers, and countless others who are the real reason behind Portland’s past and future success. If you’re like us, you’ll be inspired to continue fighting for, and SAYING NICE THINGS ABOUT, the city we’re committed to saving. Since day one, the Mercury has been “ride or die” for Portland—so join us as we shout our love from the mountaintops.
Portland needs ambassadors. Portland needs you. So be like Emily Gail. Be the ambassador Portland needs, and say nice things about the city we love.
Wm. Steven Humphrey