Even Spoon’s Britt Daniel relocated from the southern oddity. By then Portland was already home to Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, and Modest Mouse, too. The Decemberists launched from Portland, as did Blitzen Trapper, Horse Feathers, and Portugal. The Man (by way of Alaska). The city was at the forefront of indie musical culture thanks to both a strong history (Elliot Smith, Wipers, and Dead Moon to name a few) and an influx of talented transplants.
With the closure of such musical landmarks as Satyricon (where Kurt Cobain famously met Courtney Love) and The Blue Monk, and all-ages mainstays like Laughing Horse Books, Backspace, Slabtown, and clubs like East End, Someday Lounge, Berbati’s, Langano, and others, it’s harder to see Portland’s live music foundation as strong it once was. The upcoming opening of Revolution Hall at the long-vacant Washington High School is certainly something to celebrate. But at 850 seats, it will cater to more mainstream popular musical acts and will never be an epicenter for curating raw underground talent like venues such as The Know, which has only two years left on its lease. Portland is still home to world-class venues like the Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios, but that old sense of a live band being just around every corner seems to be fading. A mixture of socioeconomic factors that impact the entire city have shifted the culture of Portland in many ways, and the musical community is among the groups that have been hit by the changes.
First, even though we’re talking about the shift of music culture in Portland, a much more damaging shift has already impacted the African-American community in the city. St. John’s Glenn Waco has recently emerged as voice of hip-hop’s inherent connection to the damages of gentrification (and as an artistic leader in the demand for greater police accountability), but it’s nothing short of shameful that the larger music community took so long to listen. Displacement in North Portland happened at a staggering pace. From 2000 to 2010, nearly 10,000 people of color moved out of the Albina District, the only area the real estate industry would allow African-Americans to live in for decades. According to U.S. Census data, annual median incomes in the Killingsworth neighborhood have risen over $10,000 the last ten years. Meanwhile, the median net worth for black households was lower in 2011 than it was in 1984, according to a 2013 report. And between 2000 and 2012, the black homeownership rate in the city fell ten points to 29 percent.
In an in-depth study, Portland State Professor Lisa Bate created a map that shows nearly all of inner-SE Portland has become too expensive for vulnerable populations, and vast swaths of North Portland have already seen significant demographic shifts and will continue to gentrify in the coming years. Over the last decade the fastest growing part of Portland has been east of 82nd Avenue. (Next door, Gresham saw a 17 percent growth rate earlier in the decade.) Parts of East Portland lack basic infrastructure like parks, sidewalks, and even paved roads compared to other neighborhoods in the city. Still, an incredible 40 percent of Portland’s youth now live east of 82nd, despite that portion of the city representing only one-fourth of the city’s population. In many ways, much of Portland truly has become a young, white and proportionally rich playground.
While Portland has shifted dramatically in terms of wealth and housing in the last decade, so has the music industry; perhaps best summarized by the closure of the downtown Jackpot Records location. Listeners aren’t supporting music in the same ways they were twenty or even ten years ago. This year, Music Millennium’s best-selling album was Jack White’s Lazaretto – it sold just over 400 copies. Even if general spending on music is relatively stable, it’s increasingly going to a small number of international corporations, like Apple, that control the entire line of production. Streaming services, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, grew 28 percent this year and now account for nearly the same amount of revenue as physical sales in the overall music market. Though there have never been as many tools available for musicians to create, the democratization of wealth hasn’t advanced as quickly as technology.
Portland’s once cheap housing rental market (compared to other west coast cities) allowed musicians to have both a place to live and create even while technology was redefining how music was recorded, distributed, and consumed. Being a bartender or barista in a band was possible because you could pool meager earnings with other creatively inclined people to rent an older house and still have time to make art or host D.I.Y. shows.
By failing to recognize, organize, and combat the cascading forces displacing more vulnerable communities, the radical economic changes that swept over Alberta and Mississippi, have now spread across the city to historically more affluent neighborhoods like Division and Sellwood. Rents rise, houses are replaced by apartments and condos, and anyone who can’t afford to ride the wave of increased prosperity is forced out.
The lack of affordable housing regulation allows rents to rise with little restriction, and Oregon law prohibits local governments from enacting almost all rent-control policies outside of special subsidized units. But regulation, like Portland’s famous urban growth boundary, has also enhanced the number of multi-unit buildings being constructed inside a limited zone to avoid suburban-like sprawl. Although Portland’s rental rates are not skyrocketing at the speed of San Francisco or even Seattle, the U.S. Census ranks Portland as having one of the tightest markets in the nation. Despite tax-abatement programs for luxury neighbors like the Pearl District and the South Waterfront supposedly tied to affordable-housing units, the city Housing Bureau says they won’t even meet 2003 goals, much less expand and continue programs. Meanwhile, the average condo price rose 41 percent last year and the average apartment rental has climbed at a steady pace of six percent in 2012 and again in 2013.
For all the presumptions of Portland being a liberal haven, business, especially big business, still has a great deal of influence in government. Before the end of 2013, Nike threatened to cease expansion, pressuring Governor Kitzhaber to back a special state law in a special one-day session that would lock-in companies that could create 500 jobs and secure $150 million in investment to a special, single-digit, 30-year tax rate guarantee. And if those jobs are not created for some reason, the special rate remains. Intel was the only other company to get this limited-time agreement.
Large companies like Intel and Nike also benefit from the shift in Oregon tax policy over the years. The state used to calculate corporate taxes based on in-state payroll, property and sales. But both payroll and property were dropped in 2005. Plus, sales are calculated on a “single sales factor apportionment,” which means corporate sales rates are based only on the amount of product or services sold within in the state itself.
The rise of “Silicon Forest” (the nickname given to the technology firms sprouting in the area) has brought-in companies like Airbnb while creating startups that now populate the Pearl District and Old Town, mimicking the hubs that have transformed San Francisco. Perhaps nothing highlights this trend of new-wave tech expansion and arrogance like Über’s recent willingness to flagrantly violate local taxi regulations in order to push the city council to change the laws regarding cabs.
Imagine a similar scenario involving music venues this year when Portland fire marshals were closing and fining concert venues over capacity issues, most notably at the Illmaculate & HANiF (former Portland resident LuckOne) show at the now-closed Blue Monk. The place was overrun by police, a department in which less than 25 percent of officers live in the city. The massive show of force for a concert was claimed to be in response to gang activity, though at first the marshal said he just happened to “be in the area.”) There was public outcry and finally an independent investigation in which musicians and bookers shared their accounts of Portland police targeting hip-hop shows. Before the independent report was released, but soon after the outcry, fire marshals started hitting indie-rock clubs like Kelly’s Olympian to try and prove the practice of citing bars for capacity issues wasn’t overtly racist. Yet, all the while Assistant Fire Marshal Doug Jones was letting Ron Jeremy’s Club Sesso get away with Fourth of July crowd-capacity violations, even telling other inspectors to give the place a pass.
Imagine if music venues acted like tech startups and entrenched corporations during this ordeal. Instead of quietly letting shows close early and limiting crowds, imagine if artists, bars and coffee shops threatened to suspend operations altogether or hosted packed houses with music going long into the night in direct defiance of the city’s clear hypocrisy. Better yet, what if they banded together to influence law in the same way the Portland Business Alliance does for property management firms, chain restaurants and hotels.
We’re living in an era when rapid transformation powered by technology and framed by culture can reshape society in monumental ways. Unfortunately, we acquiesce to the same cadre of entrenched, wealthy corporate interests that maintain an oligopoly over our lives as previous generations, if not worse. The average income of the top 1% in Oregon has risen almost three times over since 1980, while the median income has stayed the same and in some cases dipped. Portland economist Joe Cortright has argued that it’s this growing concentration of poverty that is damaging communities more than gentrification.
It’s not objective to solely blame companies like Über, which has the potential to help change the admittedly terrible state of post-midnight cabs in this city. Nor Intel, which employs around 17,500 people in Oregon. Nor new apartment complexes that are serving to provide housing options to at least a portion of the nearly 10,000 transplants that come here each year. People are forgoing physical media, paying monthly fees to streaming services like Spotify out of ease, not spite. Huge corporations like Amazon and Microsoft are overhauling Seattle, too. San Francisco has become so gentrified that a white, Mission District band like Thee Oh Sees have skipped out to Los Angeles. Williamsburg’s mainstay DIY venue Death by Audio is being driven out by VICE magazine. The shifts in culture, housing, and wealth aren’t unique to Portland, and they aren’t simple.
These shifts are not affecting people in the same way, though. Interesting, intelligent art can’t be created in a monoculture, and the disproportionate impact to different communities can’t be ignored. If Portland has any hope of keeping some of the weird, artistic culture it claims to celebrate, we have to understand its complex and sometimes embarrassing history and protect the conditions that foster diversity and affordability for everyone. Unfortunately, it may already be too late.