Tag Archives: tourism

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Ghosts of the West in Jerome’s Public History

Jerome Jerome, Arizona, is one of the oddest, most colorful towns in the state. Its history is rich, and its public history is thriving. Now a major tourist destination, as well as a small artists’ community, one can see Arizona history, and indeed U.S. history, in every corner. At a wine tasting one can see a passing motorcycle gang maneuver up the narrow streets, while a ghost tour marches downhill toward one of Jerome’s many historic sties. Jerome is itself a museum, an exercise in public history, but it is caught along the fault lines that make public history a contentious endeavor.

ruins

Ruins of a primary school.

Many go to Jerome to see the Old West as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, and others portrayed it. By the time How the West Was Won debuted in 1963, the Jerome Historical Society, founded a decade earlier, was already busying itself purchasing saloons, churches, mining equipment, and other property to advertize Jerome as a ghost town. Today, the Jerome Historical Society tends to dominate public history, and their goal from the beginning was to draw a crowd. Popularizing the town’s title, ghosts are now a prevalent motif. One can go on a ghost tour, visit a haunted hotel, then eat lunch at a ghost-themed restaurant. The Wild West narrative appears in the ruins of Jerome’s schools, jails, brothels, and saloons, and a past rife with outlaws, sheriffs, and western debauchery in a lawless city where anybody can make it big with the swing of a pickaxe.

The Cuban Queen

Entrance to an abandoned brothel, The Cuban Queen.

Jerome is haunted by this history, but by other histories as well. History is contentious, often snagged between fragmented political agendas. Today, several state legislatures want to change AP U.S. History curriculum to emphasize American Exceptionalism, a word that makes most historians cringe. Jerome may not be as fraught with politics, but the ghosts that haunt it are more than the usual characters in a typical western.

 

BenchThere is Charley Hong, who emigrated from China in 1880, two years before the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. He became a wealthy businessman, owner of the popular Bon Ton Restaurant (later the English Kitchen). Though a local celebrity in Jerome, the xenophobic climate in the west persisted, to the point that his restaurant was bombed in 1909. Miners haunt the town as well. Making it rich by mining may sound appealing, but the work was arduous, usually deadly, and compensation was minimal. To make matters worse, in 1917 corporate managers rounded up miners suspected of affiliating with workers’ rights organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), forced them onto cattle trains, and deported them out of town. Meanwhile, the local hospital witnessed approximately 9,000 deaths.

Ruins of a prison

Ruins of a prison

It is impossible to fully capture the diversity of Jerome’s history, and here I fail to do it justice. Public history, however, is an important venue for historical inquiry. The ghosts that haunt Jerome are more than just a handful of quirky characters. Jerome is haunted by the miners, the migrants, the unnamed lawbreakers, the women who worked in the town under challenging and dangerous conditions, the indigenous communities in the area. Jerome is indeed haunted, but most of its ghosts remain unheard. I intend to conduct more research, because for me history is about listening past the vast silence of time to let the old voices speak, and Jerome is shaking with eager voices.

Jerome Landscape