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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”

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan. Maybe devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning.

Hearing of Joni’s health in jeopardy earlier this week made me realize that the long-dreaded day that Joni is not in the world any longer is getting closer. It feels much like when I finally started realizing my maternal grandmother was not going to live forever: I understand it intellectually, that no one lives forever, but my heart seizes in objection nonetheless.

joni mitchell with guitarI still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, and from there I discovered altered tunings.

If not for Joni and her exotic tunings, I probably wouldn’t have become a guitarist, maybe wouldn’t have even kept going with music.

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums. It wasn’t only the musical aspect, of course; it was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics, which gave an intriguing glimpse into a grown woman’s love affairs, independence, politics, opinions, and struggles–not something that is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, even today.

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe entirely; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities.

Today when I look back at those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses” (it’s too long a list)–I see how this entire musical vocabulary was internalized into my playing and my eventual songwriting. Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant: her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then); her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality.

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved. Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that too often undermines authentic expression.