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Outsiders In: “Song To My City”

I wrote “Song To My City” in the summer of 2015. Portland had been changing for a while, but 2015 was the year I felt like I no longer recognized it. Being both a long-time Portlander and originally a transplant from California, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the rapidity of Portland’s growth.

On one hand, I’m saddened that the Rose City’s sudden popularity has led to the displacement of so many people. But on the other hand, the venomous attitude often hissed towards newcomers (especially, as always, towards Californians) feels not only small-hearted, but dangerously teetering towards the same xenophobia and Othering that has led many people to want to “Make America Great Again.” The term for this is Portland Provencialism, the cute small-town attitude that “native Oregonians” (which is of course not a thing unless you descend from an indigenous tribe) belong in Portland, and no one else does.

At a show that summer, some guy in the crowd was shouting his views on Portland’s changing demographic, with intensity but at no one in particular:

“Anyone who wasn’t here before 1980 needs to get the fuck out!”

Well, that counts me out; I had arrived in 1990 with my mom, from, of course, the Bay Area. But I had spent the better part of my life in Portland, to the point where a friend from Connecticut couldn’t accept the idea of me leaving, arguing that I was “the most Portland person ever,” (a comment which might have pushed me to leave all the sooner, just to be contrarian–which is, of course, so Portland.) I had been rooted in the Pacific Northwest, the backdrop of my life grey skies, lush temperate forests, the landscape decorated by so, so many dudes drinking craft beers in flannel shirts, for a long time.

I needed other places.

Unrealistic though it may be, Drunk Dude was expressing an attitude that lurks not too far down in the depths of many a longtime Portlander’s psyche: That some people “deserve” Portland more than others, and, of course, have a special claim on the city’s iconic “weirdness.” I’ve even heard the not-so-longtime residents, with only about a year or so under their belt, wax sentimental about how much the city has changed.

“It’s not how it used to be,” is a good catch-phrase to help you blend in better amongst the locals.

Talking shit about Portland’s gentrification with friends who also used to live there has become a new past-time. My friend José who visited from New Orleans couldn’t get over that there is actually such a thing as “personal isolation flotation chambers,” which felt like the ultimate symbol of how strongly Portland has become “Liberal Disneyland.” I told him he better believe it. That cushy indie Portland of yore, now infused with a fat wad of developmental cash, has been rendered into a kitschy Port of Portlandia consumable version of itself.

My friend Kirsten recently observed, on a trip back to the city from Idaho, that “Portland about a decade ago was like a 10 year old, playing in a sandbox, just trying things out. Now it’s like a teenager, it’s changing and going through that awkward, cranky period.” If Portland is a teenager right now, it’s her party and she can cry and be snotty if she wants to.

My friend Lydia who now lives in Oakland wanted to make sure I remembered, after living in Portland so long, that, “Portland isn’t a Real City. You know that, right?”

But if the results of gentrification–skyrocketing real estate prices and the constant mushrooming of traffic in places it never used to be–are qualifiers of city-hood, then Portland has now definitely become a real city (I mean, right? Kind of?) And as convenient as it would be to blame this all on Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the “sudden” growth is not Portlandia’s fault and not really so sudden; it was apparently always the city’s vision to build up the central core and maintain the urban growth boundary as best as possible–in other words, for the city to get more dense, and with greater population, more commercial. A worthy goal, to prevent suburban sprawl and protect natural spaces. The less forgivable glitch is that this plan seems to require moving all the poor and brown and black people out–what many people of color experience as part of a longer history of displacement at the whim of white Portland and its evolving vision of the city (see Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like). 

Though Portland likes to think of itself as uniquely progressive, the truth is of course that we do not have much to be proud of in terms of how redlining and other exclusionary practices shaped the racial history and overly-white modern demographic of this city. In this sense, the “Portland provincialism” of today is really only a short hop from the anti-black, anti-outsider attitudes of the past.

Portland’s increased housing crunch mirrors the larger nationwide crisis in housing and homelessness; we have to remember this is an issue across the country—not one that Portland is being uniquely struck with because it is just so damn special.

What has happened in Portland, and San Francisco, and Oakland, and Seattle, and Cincinnati, and Denver, and what continues to happen in New York City, and what is driving residents inland in Miami, is still often defined by issues of class and racism. It is no mistake that it is usually poorer residents who are of color who are driven out of “up and coming” neighborhoods by extreme rent spikes; “up and coming” is code for, “Black people won’t live here anymore in about a decade.”

I lived in one such neighborhood in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn (where I learned the difference between a typical, aggravating post office and a truly underfunded, neglected one). When I lived there, Ditmas Park hadn’t yet “tipped” to trendy, without the name recognition and unreasonable rents of other parts of Brooklyn. I often found myself wishing the process of gentrification could be frozen in place where it was, because many of the longtime residents actually welcomed the area getting cleaned up a bit, and were tired of feeling unsafe and ignored by the city government. I often found myself wishing that the elderly black people who had lived in the building for thirty years, and the younger families with kids and teenagers, could feel safe and not have to worry about drug deals going on in the lobby–without having to then worry about tons more young white people (like me, of course) moving in to enjoy the newly safe neighborhood. I mean, since our rent was low, perhaps it’s true that my roommate and I weren’t contributing as directly to gentrification; it’s not like we were opening a posh art gallery in the building or something. In fact, we were doing what musicians in New York City have done for generations–making a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom, hauling instruments and gear up the six flight walk-up stairs when the elevator broke down, alternating our practice times across our variegated schedules, making it work.

Before anyone gets too high and mighty about being the O.G. in their particular neck of the woods, it’s good to remember that, since most people move somewhere new at some point in our lives, we all have or will contribute to gentrification somewhere, in one way or another. In fact you might move because gentrification itself causes you to find someplace more affordable, to a place where other people have lived a long time, who see you as a newcomer or outsider.

In Brooklyn I had some good conversations with people who had lived in Flatbush or BedStuy their whole lives. Their feelings about gentrification ranged from anger and resentment on one hand, to a detached weariness, on the other.

“That’s just change. You can’t stop change,” one man said. Some might say that’s apathy, others might say it’s realistic.

Regardless of the political lens one takes on gentrification, perhaps it is everyone’s job to be open-minded, curious, and accepting towards new people. If we’re going to create solutions to the problems raised by increased density, we have to at least start with a basic attitude of common ground, an assumption of humanity. If we can’t do that, we’re buying into the Trump vision of America, one where people cause problems for each other more often than they generate solutions, where it is acceptable to simply reject other people up front, branding them a socioeconomic problem that is taking jobs or housing or resources of one kind or another, rather than getting to know them over time, come to understand what their life is about, who they are, where they’re going.

My ambivalence about seeing my own “home” cities–Portland and the East Bay Area–change so rapidly, is why I originally wrote this song. Moving to other cities and being the newcomer on other people’s home turf added a new layer to the song’s meaning for me. On the track, that’s me on guitar, keys and vocals, and that’s my friend Max Johnson on upright bass. Victor Nash at Destination: Universe! helped me with mixing, and then I added some more parts at Virtue & Vice Studios with Rocky Gallo in Williamsburg. The song is available through my new album, The Dreamer & The Dream, streaming now on Spotify and available on iTunes and all other places music is sold.

And here is some more food for thought on gentrification:

Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like

De-Gentrifying Portland

Is $20 Million Enough to Reverse Gentrification?

“Listening Through White Ears: Cross-Racial Dialogues as a Way to Address the Racial Effects of Gentrification”

Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.
The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.
My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.
Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.
Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo
xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.