The Portlandia Effect: How Did the Show Change the City It Satirized?

The series comes to an end this Thursday. Photo: IFC

In August 2015, Willamette Week, the alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon, categorically declared to its readers that “Old Portland is dead.” Longtime residents understand what that statement means: that the city’s weirdness, which Portlanders hold so dear, has largely disappeared and is being replaced by sleek condominiums and chain stores like Room & Board into a place some say they hardly recognize. Rents have skyrocketed. Traffic is gridlocked. To be sure, this phenomenon is occurring around the country in cities like Seattle and Denver that attract a young demographic. Unlike most other places experiencing growth, though, some Portlanders maintain that a singular event catalyzed the change. In that story from August, Willamette Week also conducted a survey about when Old Portland died. Was it the day tourists insisted on taking selfies in front of Salt & Straw, the artisanal ice-cream store, indifferent to the crime tape at a recent shooting nearby? Or was it when a luxury apartment distributed a promotional video of tenants drinking gluten-free alcohol on the rooftop terrace? Turns out, it was neither. After hundreds of voters weighed in, the results came back. Old Portland died on January 21, 2011 — the day Portlandia debuted.

The series that many Portlanders thought would only run two or three seasons is now set to end its eighth and final season this Thursday. When Portlandia debuted on IFC in 2011, it immediately became a hit, winning an Emmy later that year and a Peabody the next. The show’s popularity decreased over time, but it put its network on the map. At the time of Portlandia’s debut, IFC was trying to make a name for itself in a comedic space that defied traditional sketch boundaries. It was looking for experimental projects that were, as its tagline says, “Always On. Slightly Off.”

When Jennifer Caserta, the president of IFC, first heard Armisen and Brownstein’s pitch, she wondered whether their idea would transcend Portland and the Pacific Northwest. But after seeing the pilot, she realized it tapped into the cultural Obama-era Zeitgeist, highlighting contrived lifestyles, emerging technology, DIY mentality, and the organic movement, by “poking fun at some of the things people were taking so seriously in their lives.” Brownstein, who resided in Portland in the early 2000s, told the Daily Beast in 2014 that the show’s setting was “more about identifying and exploring the minutiae of how and why people live the way they do. Portland just makes a really good backdrop and is a good stand-in for other cities.” Portlandia ended up attracting an audience of highly educated, affluent city-dwellers, mostly residing in the Northeast and along the West Coast. It also became rooted in the popular image of the city along the way.

“No other show on the network was so specifically tagged to a region,” Caserta told me. “I think there’s been probably various discussions when you put a magnifying glass over the city, and sometimes people love that attention, and some people probably not so much.”

Many Portland residents fall into that latter camp. When I visited Portland, my hometown, this past August, I attended a friend’s reading series held at a corner bar in North Portland, the neighborhood where much of Portlandia was filmed. The bar sells old cassette tapes and serves $5 local microbrews on tap. The host, who was in from Brooklyn and had never been to Portland, introduced a local comedian as the final reader. As he drumrolled her to the stage, he announced into the microphone, “And she played a part in a show, maybe you’ve heard of it, called Portlandia!”

The audience stared at him. Then a man sitting in back wearing an Adidas T-shirt cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, “Nobody likes that show!”

Portlandia was the moment something shifted and a new kind of person started showing up in Portland, who wasn’t the same kind of hearty doer, but more of a spectator who wants to be entertained by a city,” said Carye Bye, a former Portland-based artist who donated her hand-printed cards to Portlandia. She relocated to San Antonio two years ago after being priced out of Portland. (In July 2016, a Portlandia crew worker emailed her asking if she would donate her work again. She wrote back, “IN fact I closed my art biz and moved to Texas because the affordability of Portland changed AFTER Portlandia debuted.”)

“The Portland that existed before Portlandia is completely different from the Portland that exists now,” said David Walker, a Portland writer, filmmaker, and the curator of the Portland Black Film Festival. “Especially to long-term Portlanders, it felt manufactured. It brought people in who wanted to move here because of that. I’ve met people who said, ‘Oh I love it here’ and ‘It’s just like the show,’ and I want to punch them in the head.”

The day the sixth season aired, the Portland band White Glove flipped the mirror on Portlandia in a parody music video where they dressed as Brownstein and Armisen. The video opens with two girlfriends talking  in Valley Girl vocal fry about the city’s cute heart-foamed coffee and how the city is “so funky!”

“It’s just like that show Portlandia!” they chime in unison.

The band then sings, “We wish you’d never exploited this town.”

In September 2016, the resentment percolating among Portlanders peaked. I heard residents refer to the incident as both “the brouhaha” and “the drama.” The volunteer-run bookstore and site of the Women and Women First sketches, where Armisen dressed as a feminist in a gray wig, suddenly cut ties with the show. The staff penned a scathing blog post titled “Fuck Portlandia” that explained, “Portlandia is fueling mass displacement in Portland” and making the city “something twee and whimsical for the incoming technocrat hordes.” National publications picked up the story. (The volunteers declined to speak with me because, one told me, they only wanted to be heard as a unifying voice via the blog post.)

Photo: IFC

In local newspaper interviews, Brownstein and Armisen usually dismiss the idea that Portlandia led to the city’s change. “If anybody equates the depiction of a city via an artistic lens with the actual city, I think that sort of lends itself to a lack of imagination,” Brownstein told the Oregonian in 2016. A year prior, Armisen told the paper he didn’t think television has the power to transform a city. “I don’t know if people’s perception of New Jersey was changed by The Sopranos,” he said.

Around the time Portlandia first aired, national attention to Portland was just beginning to increase. The New York Times featured Portland in its 36 Hours travel section and dubbed it the “capital of West Coast urban cool,” a place that is “easy to poke fun at. It’s also hard to resist.” The city topped numerous “best of” roundups and underwent substantial population growth. In 2013 alone, almost 10,000 people moved to Portland, double from the previous year and almost quadruple from years prior, when yearly growth for the metropolitan area hovered around 2,000. A 2015 article in the Guardian, headlined “Is hip Portland over? How the rent crisis is displacing the city’s creative soul,” summed up the changes taking place: “Affordability, gentrification and homelessness are now the foremost political issues in a city in mortal danger of being loved to death.”

While gentrification is a complex issue with many components, Helen Morgan-Parmett, a professor at the University of Vermont who wrote a case study, titled “Site-Specific Television As Urban Renewal, or How Portland Became Portlandia,” argues that the show’s on-location filming paralleled city efforts to rebrand and revitalize marginalized spaces as enterprising hubs with “gentrifying implications.” Additionally, Portlandia became a vehicle for promotional opportunities in the city’s tourism industry; for example, Travel Portland’s website urges visitors to check out places Portlandia filmed.

“A lot of the production team in Portlandia that make decisions about locations they film, vendors they use, and people they meet up with, those folks considers themselves local in some way, transplants, or from there. It is this enmeshed, embedded production that directly implicates what ends up onscreen and becomes tied up with this insider’s view of Portland, which is, interestingly, tied up with common trends and tourist developments who want to promise a local’s view,” Morgan-Parmett told me. “[Portlandia’s] so deeply integrated into the tourism promotion that I think it’s sort of ridiculous to suggest that it doesn’t have an effect in terms of real-estate prices and gentrification.”

Portlandia also epitomized the idea that television sells better when shows recognize the real economy, but include aspects of an aspirational life — a notion put forth to me by Vicki Mayer, a professor of communications and media at Tulane University. HBO’s Girls is another example of this: living hand-to-mouth but drinking $8 cappuccinos. Portlandia’s opening sequence is filtered through a hazy green tint and set to Washed Out’s gooey song “Feel It All Around.” It presents a romanticized version of Portland with a montage of iconic landmarks, but doesn’t show the city’s homeless camps or gritty side, except for a fleeting image of Mary’s Club, the city’s oldest strip club, and even that is bathed in sexy neon. As Morgan-Parmett notes, Portlandia also largely excluded people of color in its depiction of the city’s quirky, creative class.

Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

I visited the Portlandia set in early September, when city officials hosted a small commemoration for the show at Arbor Lodge Park. Tobias Read, the Oregon state treasurer, stood at a podium before news station cameras and a heaping display of cupcakes to applaud Portlandia for providing the city with $36 million in direct spending, 200 annual jobs, and $18 million spent on in-state goods to Oregon vendors. The show “increased tourism and our city’s notoriety,” he said. Beside him, an easel was draped in black cloth, which later revealed a photo of Armisen, Brownstein, and Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the Mayor, sitting on a bench in city hall. The plaque, meant to be hung inside the actual mayor’s office, is captioned “Filmed on location at city hall.”

Afterward, Brownstein, wearing a red-and-white striped T-shirt, and Armisen, dressed in his uniform black jeans and button-down, sat in folding chairs beneath a white tent. It was one of the last few days of filming, and there was an air of nostalgia and the bittersweet mood of good-bye. The local press corps gathered around to ask questions. “You know what I’m going to ask,” began Kristi Turnquist of the Oregonian, voicing the question on everyone’s mind.

Brownstein laughed and took a sip of water. “No, I don’t,” she replied, shaking her head.

“What effect has the show had on the city?”

There was momentary silence.

“I have no idea,” Armisen said, shrugging.

Then Brownstein, in a more elaborate and thoughtful answer, began to speak about how the show had become an easy target and a focal point for Portland’s change, but said the city’s growth was bound to happen regardless, as it has around much of the country.

“It’s a show that’s in conversation with the city, and a city that’s in conversation with itself. It’s hard not to see it as intrinsic to some of the changes,” Brownstein said, then laughed again. “You’re going to have to find something else to talk about why Portland’s changing. Oh, it’s still changing, but Portlandia’s over.”

The Portlandia Effect: How Did the Show Change Portland?