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 the only people who belong in Portland are “native Oregonians” (which is of course not a thing unless you descend from an indigenous tribe).

At a show that summer, in 2015, I noticed some drunk guy in the crowd was shouting his views on Portland’s changing demographic:

“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.”

“Personal isolation flotation chambers,” he restated the words carefully, in amused disbelief. This, to him, felt like the ultimate symbol of how strongly Portland has become “Liberal Disneyland.” And he was right. That cushy indie Portland of yore, now infused with a fat wad of developmental cash, had 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 of course code for white people moving in and finding a previously-undesirable neighborhood newly appealing.

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 or aggressively 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. But still, I know that in the shifting sands of time, the arrival of someone who is “so Portland” like myself in the 6-story-brick landscape of Ditmas Park is a flag marking the likely-inevitable shift towards gentrification. I hoped that during my time there I made the smallest negative footprint possible, by paying a low rent and supporting as many small businesses as possible (Jamaican jerk chicken from the Caribbean deli and fruit smoothies from the Korean juice shop outside my subway station being some of my most consistent methods).

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 others 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 “Song to my City.” 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 of Joni Mitchell. More like 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. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I 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, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

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 Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; 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.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums: https://www.jonimitchell.com/music/

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. 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 back to standard and then back into my slack tunings 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. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

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. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued 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), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; 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 also 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 (which is part of why she’s great). 

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 worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.