I felt that I came away even more engaged with the concept of commonality among disparate communities, such as native born farm hands in Eastern Oregon; low income workers and unemployed throughout the state; and people of color here in Oregon, particularly in urban areas.
–Arlena Barnes, student in MLC, 2015
…. I didn’t know that cities strategically try to recruit the “creative class”. I feel that on a whole, society marginalizes artists and art, placing the creative sector into the realm of luxury and frivolousness when in reality it is the artists and makers that help enliven culture.
–Chanin Santiago, student in MLC, 2015
The University of Oregon in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts | Arts and Administration Program’s intensive six day workshop, Mobilizing Local Culture: Portland asked students and community members to learn from the Portland experience—the artist | maker movement, the built environment, the community culture—and to think about how that can inform the growth and vitalization of other communities. The course sought to connect students with engaging discussions with a range of civic leaders, organizers, cultural entrepreneurs and arts managers to unveil issues of sustainability, equality, economics, planning, cultural development and neighborhood change. The course brought speakers who addressed issues both from an historical perspective (the how and why Portland sustains a maker | creative | artisan economy) as well as the current and possible future of this economy remaining in place and thriving.
On May 29, 1973, Senate Bill 100 was signed into law and the Land Conservation and Development Commission was created. It was a glorious step in the direction of statewide planning programs to protect and enhance agricultural investment, and would eventually prove to allow a steady move towards greater citizen involvement in land use decisions, and to establishing methods to preserve Oregon’s land for food production rather than development. At its fundamental core, Senate Bill 100 was in defense of farmland and with the goal of retaining local food production. Thus began the historical perspective on how and why Portland has a food culture, and a propensity towards fresh and local, explained Katherine Deumling, “slow food” advocate and author of Cook With What You Have. Deumling was one of the many presenters who came to the week-long workshop to address students and add to the simmering conversation exploring Portland’s artisan economy. As an avid gardener, cook and food activist, Deumling depicted Portland’s food culture as one cultivated and solidified with the passage of Senate Bill 100—much of Oregon’s farms and ranch land was to subsequently remain with an agricultural focus
Fast forward forty years or so, it’s now 2015 and Portland is a vibrant place and still surrounded by a countryside of food production from Eastern Oregon and Hood River to the Willamette Valley and surrounded by hillsides to the west teeming with grapes on the vine. It’s a veritable food mecca blending the ingredients of farmer’s markets, food innovation centers, super-chefs, foodie festivals both large and small, beer brewers, coffee roasters, chocolatiers, bread-bakers, culturally specific marketplaces, and neighborhood blocks devoted to parked “food trucks” with a noteworthy amount of the meats, vegetables, grains, and fruits served grown within the region. Into this ambrosia comes the fresh ingenuity of makers and artisans who turn out fantastically unique goods among many varying items: handmade furniture, or a welded creation (think ADX) to a handcrafted bike, to a forged iron ax, to a hand sewn leather briefcase, to a New York runway worthy dress (think Portland Garment Factory). Add in more than just a few literary-inclined afficianados who love to print with press and ink and are willing and able to show you how to do it (and have the 100 year old equipment for you to work on—have you been to the Independent Publishing Resource Center?). Toss with creatives selling from collaborative shopfronts or online forums (ScrewLoose Studio and SoapBox Theory) to vanguard artists experimenting with what the term “public art” really means (try Surplus Space where artists open their home and invite you in with the cozy temptation of baked cookies or a neighborhood BBQ—after all, what a better way to get you to visit a private home and a chance to preview the Watcher Files in their make-shift garage). To “Know Your City” here in Portland it soon becomes apparent that while a relatively small metropolis, Portland has something unique to offer the world in the way of urban growth and vitalization.
Instructor of Mobilizing Local Culture, Bill Flood is a lauded Northwest consultant who specializes in the areas of planning and facilitation, teaching and training, equity and outreach, network and coalition development, and program development, management, research and evaluation in the area of community cultural development and has had a prolific career reflecting his ability to strengthen and utilize local culture toward community improvement. Flood’s interest and love of Portland makers and creatives clearly shows in his carefully crafted syllabus for the workshop—a schedule and itinerary that keeps students on the move all five days exploring, meeting, eating, and conversing with a selection of Portland’s friendly, interesting, and articulate artisans, crafters, writers, bakers, builders, artists—the DIY’ers who are with their own hands and ideas creating a city that utilizes and upholds the power of local culture.
The workshop was open to enrolled students at UO as well as anyone (registering via Academic Extension) interested in better understanding how to work in ways that incorporate, enhance and appreciate localness here, in Portland, where a quality of life and a creative economy can be found that is fostering a lively, livable city. As Flood explained, this is the main dish of Portland, Oregon –a city that with open arms embraces those who come here (or are from here to begin with) and are brave enough to try and make a living off ideas. It is a certain commonality of these ideas, a shared interest in creative and maker pursuits that has spawned sectors of cooperation and collaboration and has begun to define Portland as having an ethos all its own. It is this ethos embellished with the amuse-bouche novelty of naked bike rides at night; bridges gritty in steel or bathed in glowing light; world-class galleries, opera, ballet, and symphony and theatre; First Thursdays, Last Fridays awash with openings, celebrations, faires, and festivals; hipster flair and a comfortable just-be-yourself vibe that greets the resident and visitor alike. It is the Portland distilled essence that has captivated a global audience (many thanks are also due to Travel Portland, Portland’s own in-house advocate and the tireless entity working to let the world know what’s going on here). And while the fun extras, the icing on the proverbial cake, as it were, might at first seem to be merely the embellishments on a city’s economic vim and vigor, a deeper examination and a closer conversation reveals—all these aspects are what converge to make Portland a special place. A place others can learn from and adopt this city’s approach to “influence public planning, the built environment, the artist\ maker movement, community cultural development, local economics and neighborhood change” (Flood).
This is the story of Mobilizing Local Culture. Flood, himself a long-time Portland resident with vast knowledge about Portland’s culture and places of interest, has brought to the University of Oregon a chance for students and community folks to join together and experience what the world-wide phenomena of “Portland” or “Stumptown” really is. Knowing enough about the city to connect the students with formative makers and thought-leaders, Flood has designed a course that relishes in the Portland spirit. Within a few days, Flood led students to numerous locations throughout the city. Here are just a few illuminating the depth and breadth of the workshop’s scope:
- ADX where students received a first-hand tour of the facilities guided by owner and founder, Kelley Roy and Matt Preston, marketing director.
- Independent Publishing Resource Center with a tour of the facility by director, Pollyanne Birge.
- Portland Garment Factory with a tour of the maker space by co-owner, Britt Howard.
- A tour of public art and an introduction to several Portland-based artists including, Garrick Imatani, Gabe Flores (with Surplus Space), Screw Loose Studio’s Cleo Davis, Kayin Talton Davis of Soapbox Theory. The introductions were facilitated by Public Art Manager, Kristin Calhoun of Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council,
- A tour of the new Portland Mercado with Jamie Melton, marketing coordinator for the Hacienda Community Development Corporation
- Tabor Bread with owner, visionary and founder, Tissa Stein
- In-class presentations included talks by Lola Milholland, Creative Projects Manager at Ecotrust; Katherine Deumling, food activist; Raf Spielman “Portland Eater;” Portland State University’s Charles Haying, author of Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy and Portland’s Artisan Economy—Beyond the Myth of Romantic Localism
- Presentations from Ron Paul, executive director of the James Beard Public Market; Laura Guimond, PR manager of Travel Portland; and John Connor from Made Here PDX
These are only a sampling of the site visits and presentations that took place during the week. Students also experienced a community arts discussion with the Alberta Neighborhood, visited the Community Cycling Center in Northeast Portland, the Portland Farmer’s Market, and engaged in conversations on equity and sustainability at Velo Cult Bike Shop, Know Your City, Jade District.
By the end of the week, students expressed a sincere appreciation for the connections they had made and the conversations they had engaged in. Five days into the intensive study of Portland culture, it was now evident that a monumentally important factor of the success of Portland’s artisan economy is the willingness to be collaborative and extensive in both business focus and reach: the business or project must support or be connected to the sense of neighborhood, a sense of care or compassion for those doing the work, and the people who live here.
Pollyanne Birge commented on how her Independent Publishing Resource Center folds into the Portland neighborhoods and shares an approach of cooperation and collaboration making itself an integral part of the city’s fabric and well-being:
There are many facets of the IPRC outside of our studio on SE Division Street. We are a maker space focused on literary and visual arts, to be sure, but we are so much more than that. We produce a dynamic yearly Certificate Program in creative writing in collaboration with Marylhurst University, employing many notable and renowned regional writers as instructors. We also have two outstanding outreach programs: the Media Action Project that focuses on youth gaining the tools to constructively critique media and work through issues of body image, bullying, gender identity, masculinity and equity. From a Number to a Name is an IPRC prison writing program in collaboration with Columbia River Correctional Institute where we engage soon-to-be released inmates in a skills-based writing course that also acts as a cognitive therapeutic practice with students working through lived experiences through the written word. The IPRC is located in the SE industrial side and is very appreciative to be amongst some very inventive and talented folks hell-bent on community development and collaboration like ADX, Scout Books/Pinball Publishing, Newspace, Milagro Theatre, Revolution Hall, NARA, Nutcase Helmets, and many dozens of restaurants and cafes. Businesses and nonprofits alike, these independent and synergistic organizations create a rich cultural and community-minded landscape, that while gathered in a specific geographical location, also reflect the “collaboration instead of competition” attitude of Portland’s maker scene.
Birge also draws attention to the people her organization has served and made a difference with as a prime reason for their success, and testimony to how Portland’s artisan economy has far reaching and broad influences in an array of social and economic situations that exist in this city. Being open, being friendly, being receptive seems to be a part of Portland’s collaborator aesthetic. Extending the opportunities in the creative corridors of Portland to a diverse audience brings a feeling of goodwill as well as contributes to a sense that we are all here together and the maker economy needs, also, to be a helper economy.
Birge says the idea of helping as a socially grounded community goal is far reaching and cites as an example of IPRC’s impact in the larger context of community…
”Nathan McNair, a recent From a Number to a Name IPRC Prison Writing program graduate who was featured in the recent Oregon Cultural Trust “Voices of Oregon Culture” campaign: ‘Prison has a way of deadening all of the senses. I went through a program at the IPRC while I was incarcerated…it really put me in touch with humanity. You kind of shut that off in an institution. On a practical level, I spent the last six months of my incarceration writing everyday. So when I got out and started looking for work I was writing cover letters. I wanted to explain the reason why I was incarcerated. I did that very effectively; in fact, 30 days of my release I found a good job, one that can become a career. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the program—it reminded me of who I was.”’– Nathan McNair”
MLC student Chanin Santiago expressed similar views commenting that:
“I feel the most transformative piece to the class was the realization of the positive impact artisans can have on local economy.”
Further articulated by Portland Garment Factory’s Britt Howard as she explained part of their reason for their close-in east Portland location was to ensure their workers could remain employed with them and have easy access and transportation to and from work. This sense of artisans expressing an appreciation for the people that their business depends on, for the people who make the projects happen and are the workers who bring the ideas to life, was a prevalent, and tightly interwoven thread. Not obscuring the cultural backgrounds of neighborhoods was particularly evident with the Mercado project—the creation of a living room-like marketplace geared towards the Latino community but open to all. There is an attempt to have the predilection here to develop places and think about being successful while keeping in consideration the cultures that exist with the people who are here and to provide what is needed as well as what is wanted. There is also an appreciation for a learning ethic, and a prevailing encouragement of those trying to succeed with new ideas.
That might be one of the lessons of this economy, Portland as a micro-climate of Oregon’s greater economy, wears its heart on its sleeve: projects, movements, organizations, businesses can seem idealistic, quixotic at times, but if a neighborhood is supportive, a community comes together and talks together and shares goals, and resources exist to help create and realize dreams, and if the place remains affordable, the ascent could continue.
Laura Guimond of Travel Portland cites five essential elements to Portland’s continued success:
- Shared values (continued obsession for quality and cooperation)
- A willing and present audience
- A citizenry willing to spend money on products made here; a citizenry that loves the place and has an appreciation of the place (the role of nature and access to green space)
- An authenticity and a genuineness of spirit
Portland, as a city, is moving forward at a great rate, in development, in urban growth, in popularity; it remains to be seen if it can sustain a maker economy and preserve a special corner of idealism. So far, it seems very willing to try.
Flood is already making plans for Mobilizing Local Culture 2016, slated to be offered next summer here at the University of Oregon in Portland. Interested in the uniqueness of the Portland cultural and artisan landscape and how that can be applied to your own community? Join Flood and his insightful journey across the city next summer!
Following is a photo essay with images from several excursions: