Portland: High weirdness in Nirvana

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PORTLAND, Ore. --- Acupuncture is not just for people. It's also for cities -- if the city is Portland.

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Velvet paintings hang in the Velveteria.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Velvet paintings hang in the Velveteria.

Adam Kuby has stuck a 23-foot needle into the ground down by the Willamette River and hopes to plant more, choosing locations where he figures the city's "chi," or vital energy, needs some help.

Unusual? You bet. Unusual for Portland? Not really.

For several years, Portland has been reaping praise from lifestyle magazines, from Men's Journal to specialty publications, as one of the nation's more livable cities, listed among the best places to have a baby, grow old, go for a walk, ride a bike, take a jog, breathe clean air, own a dog, take public transportation, start a business (green or otherwise), go out for dinner or not get mugged.

The praises don't stop. Swing a cat and hit 10. On second thought, don't. Portland is rated the third-most humane city in the nation.

The magazines skim over Portland's quirkier qualities. They aren't bandied about, but they're not hidden, either. To some, they make Portland even more endearing.

There is what's left of the 24-Hour Church of Elvis (online only these days), the Voodoo Doughnut shop, nude bike festivals, the 5K Bare Buns Run in Forest Park and what was billed as the world's longest drag queen chorus line.

Public nudity is illegal in Portland, but in a state where live sex acts are protected as free speech, police involvement generally is limited to keeping order.

For kitsch lovers there's the Velveteria, a black-velvet-painting museum. Lots of taste, all of it bad in some eyes, unless you love it, and the owners do. Nothing is for sale. Open weekends.

A black-light room enhances your favorite Mack Truck Jesus, wahine, Elvis or bandito.

"You will never be the same after a visit to the Velveteria," the Web site promises. And it has "arrived." A monthlong show at Powell's Books, billed as the world's largest bookstore, begins May 1.

"Zoo Bombers" are young adults who race on kiddie bicycles down steep and windy roads starting near the Oregon Zoo. Speeds up to 50 mph are achieved. Details and photos of fractures and ghastly scrapes and bruises are posted on the Internet as badges of honor.

"I used to bomb until a friend of mine biffed it pretty hard. He was in a coma for two months," says Chris Banks, who works the counter at a pizza joint where the Zoo Bombers sometimes gather before starting their wild Sunday night rides.

There weren't any Bombers at the pizza joint on a recent Sunday night.

"They don't always start from here. They're probably up there getting loaded first. These guys are hard-core," said the well-tattooed Mr. Banks.

Among the latest additions to the panoply of Portland's oddities are Adam Kuby's giant needles. Mr. Kuby, an artist who arrived from New York four years ago, says the acupuncture project is an attempt to get people to see the city in a holistic way.

"It is a visual way of expressing what a lot of people already know," said Mr. Kuby. The city is "one organism, one body, one very complex, independent system."

Not to mention eccentric.

Ubiquitous bumper stickers proclaim "Keep Portland Weird." They were meant to support small local businesses to keep Portland from being big-boxed out of its identity.

They have become a focal point for what might be a counterculture elsewhere.

Portland has been called The People's Republic of Portland (land-use rules irk some developers), Beervana (it's loaded with microbreweries), the Rose City (they are nearly worshipped here) and Sin City, a salute, of sorts, to its frontier past and recent bouts of permissiveness that some people find a bit much. Others just shrug. That's Portland.

The first President Bush called it "Little Beirut" for the hostile receptions he could rely on, and his son hasn't fared any better.

PORTLAND'S QUIRKINESS is homegrown, as are many other things, some of them plants under Gro-Lites.

It never got set in its ways. Many of its residents came from somewhere else. You can pick a Brooklynite or a New Englandah out of a chorus, but there is no Portland accent, and people have no pounded-in traditions of doing things a certain way.

So they don't.

At first it was "Stumptown," a just-logged patch of rough riverside cabins in the mud. A wintertime coin toss in 1845 decided it would be Portland, not Boston.

Given the season, it probably was raining. Given Portland's reputation, many probably assume it still is.

It was always a little different.

Tavern-keeper and recent Mayor Bud Clark was photographed a few years back with a raincoat wide open in front of a statue. "Expose Yourself to Art," the poster read, a classic then and now.

Teetotaling lumberman Simon Benson, hoping his workers would show up reasonably sober, gave the city the ubiquitous "Benson Bubbler" brass drinking fountains a century or so back, promoting pure water. Portland's beer consumption plunged. Undaunted, Portland brewer Henry Weinhard offered to pipe fresh beer, 24/7, through a downtown fountain. He got a polite "no thanks."

There's more.

Portland's Skid Road was revered by loggers, sailors and miners flush with pay looking to "blow her in" on a spree.

Those who overdid it might wake on a sailing ship, "Shanghaied" as an unwilling crewman. In this, Portland put even wicked San Francisco in the shade. There's a tour available of tunnels said to have been used for the purpose.

It's Skid Road, not Skid Row, named for the downhill road that horse teams used to drag logs to the mills. Portland claims to have coined the term.

It included Erickson's Saloon, which claimed the world's longest bar. Historian Stewart Holbrook wrote that it measured exactly 684 feet, "a kind of symbol of local greatness and potency" worth fighting over.

The building still stands, duly marked, in the old district, which is reluctantly becoming gentrified, sort of.

The recent glitter and hype is no accident. Joe D'Alessandro, who headed the Portland Oregon Visitors Association for 10 years until 2006, said Portland lacked a large promotional budget so it focused on impact.

"We were determined to find the niches that were really unique about Portland and tell them to the world," he said. "We didn't try to make Portland something for everybody. We centered on what Portland's authentic strengths are, what Portland is really good at."

Now, about that rain: It falls just once a year, from October to about May.

Mobile, Ala., gets three times, on average, more rain a year than Portland, but Portland has three times as many rainy days.

Wettest? Hardly. Rainiest? It's up there. Bring an umbrella.


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