Of Sunny Hell and Soggy Hell
Why is it that so many of us are inclined to believe that cities other than ours stink?
By BARRY GLASSNER
As a sociologist, I’ve spent much of my career debunking overblown fears about adolescents, racial and religious groups, and psychiatric patients, among other people who are regularly demonized in the public imagination.
Only lately, through firsthand experience, have I come to appreciate the extent to which entire cities get typecast in much the same ways. To hear it from many of my friends, neighbors and colleagues here in Los Angeles, I am moving to a soggy hell. Awaiting me in a few weeks when I move up the coast to Portland, Ore., I’m warned, are endless rain, depression-inducing cloudiness, and a place so small and provincial that it doesn’t deserve to be called a city.
If I’m to believe many of the folks I’ve met in Oregon, on the other hand, our relocation is not so much a move as the end of a sentence, a release from a prison of spirit-crushing traffic, surly people, sky-high crime rates and living costs, and a sun so monotonous and glaring it can leave you blind.
When something is demonized in the popular imagination there is usually a kernel of truth in what is being said. But it’s just that—a kernel. Far more important and worthy of attention are how and why a people or a place is condemned.
In truth, Portland is far from the dreary backwater some Angelenos imagine it to be, just as living in L.A. is a vastly more pleasant experience than Portlanders’ nightmare narratives would suggest.
Yes, it does rain often in Portland. But as you discover if you’ve visited in July or August, the weather is often reliably gorgeous in the summer. During those eight months a year of frequent precipitation, the rain falls lightly, more mist than downpour. The golfers, hikers and bikers I’ve met there—and they’re plentiful—enjoy their outdoor pursuits nearly year-round.
The gloomy skies can get to you, I’m told, but Portland has an antidote on seemingly every corner. Those ubiquitous coffeehouses, and the devotion with which Portlanders prepare and consume their offerings, are no mere coincidence. A challenge to connoisseurs: Find me a better cup than I buy at Spella Caffe in downtown Portland, and I owe you a double latte.
Portland is dwarfed by Los Angeles, but—get this—it has vibrant theater and music scenes, some venues of which rival any in Los Angeles, and with less attitude. They even have opera and ballet. Portland has big-city problems, too, including conspicuous homelessness that can surprise even the most jaded big-city eyes.
I have found Portlanders a reasonable and friendly bunch, but a less generous side tends to emerge if you get them talking about Los Angeles. The contempt extends beyond the Lakers, I’ve learned as I work to embrace the Trail Blazers. Did you know that Los Angeles is so crime-ridden that major swaths of the city must be avoided at all costs? Chief among them, supposedly, is the area around the University of Southern California campus, where I have worked for nearly 20 years.
Portlanders are incredulous when I attempt to set them straight with statistics that confirm what my experience has taught—that Los Angeles is, by and large, among the nation’s safer cities, and the area in and around USC has crime rates lower than those at many comparably sized Midwestern campuses. As I tell the people in my soon-to-be home, I have rarely if ever felt unsafe in Los Angeles. And never have I said to myself, “How sad, another bright, sunny day.”
Why is it that people in Los Angeles feel compelled to ridicule Portland, and vice versa? I suspect it has everything to do with making ourselves feel better about our present circumstances, and holding off the upsetting thought that the grass might be greener, or the sun brighter, on the other side.
As much as we Angelenos convince ourselves that we live at the center of the universe, life can be hard here. It is crowded, expensive and traffic-choked, and the air is anything but pristine. The fact is these problems are not as acute in Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, Pittsburgh or most other midsize cities. Los Angeles residents console themselves with the knowledge that those other places are too rainy, cold or small, but each offers certain undeniable advantages over a megalopolis.
But here’s a secret I’m uncovering as I become more familiar with life on the other end of Interstate 5: The grass, figuratively speaking, is pretty much the same shade of green. They have traffic and crime in Portland. There, too, governments are struggling to keep up with their obligations and public needs. The people are also going through the daily challenge of fitting too much into too few hours, and facing too many financial pressures with too few dollars.
Lest you doubt that L.A. and Portland are in much the same boat, remember this: Residents of both places have to settle for watching other cities’ pro football teams on Sunday afternoons.