Keep The “East Village” Weird?

Back in April, Reverend Billy came to preach in Tompkins Square Park.

Anyone who’s seen the show Portlandia is no doubt familiar with the unofficial slogan of the town that’s shown in the opening credits: Keep Portland Weird. It’s the slogan on over 18,000 bumper stickers1 in the Portland area, and many more t-shirts, no doubt. What people probably do not know is that Keep Portland Weird is a marketing campaign:

    Keep Portland Weird is about supporting local business in the Portland Oregon area. We want to support local business because they make Portland stand out from other cites and make it a more unique place to live. They do this by providing consumers a wide range of products that represent the different cultures that make up Portland.2

Culture is expressed through one’s purchases. The web site itself is an online shop, where KPW tchotchkes can be bought.


Weird umbrellas! Weird soy candles! Weird keychains! Weird stickers!
Weird refrigerator magnets!


This campaign is modeled on a similar one in Austin Texas, with a surprisingly similar name: Keep Austin Weird. The campaign was launched by the Austin Independent Business Alliance, with the same goal of promoting shopping at small businesses in Austin.

But this isn’t about Portland, it’s about the “East Village,” and what could be the development of a similar strategy here. Reverend Billy says “We’re not the product of a corporate marketing campaign,” but to what degree is the “East Village” the product of a small-business marketing campaign? To what degree does someone “make themselves up” when all of the accessories are already on the shelves, ready to buy?

It may not be a concerted effort yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The sensibility is there, and so is the language. Key words are: sustainable, responsible, local, community. You almost never see one of these words without the others. Once you see the word “weird” in this mix, you’ll know it’s started.


Probably the most insidious thing about the Weird movement is its racism. A resident of Portland, Linda Ueki Absher, wrote a piece for Counterpunch called Keep Portland White!

    But as I wander pass the organic coffee houses chock-full of thirtyish men with full-on lumberjack beards and defiant beer bellies, or boutiques filled with mock Goodwill cardigans selling for prices once considered exorbitant monthly rent, the message is unmistakable: I am not a member of the Keeping-it-Weird club.

After retiring from the Univesity of Pennsylvania – Johnstown, former Economics professor Michael Yates spent some time travelling around the country, and wrote about his adventure in a book called “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue.” About Portland, he wrote:

    The most distressing thing about Portland, and the fact that most belied its liberal image, was its racism. A writer once called Portland the “last bastion of Caucasian culture.” It is certainly a white town; less than 7 percent of the population is African-American. Even the city’s homeless are nearly all white, as are all the young people asking for money. Blacks who gravitated to Portland to work in the wartime shipyards were housed in a flood plain of the Columbia River and were soon enough driven out by high waters. The ghettoes where they were next allowed to live were destroyed by highway construction. Today the tiny black community is scattered over several mostly poor neighborhoods. Despite the small number of black residents, whites were inordinately hostile to them.

    There is a growing Hispanic community in both Portland and the rest of Oregon. … Not surprisingly, anti-immigrant sentiment resonated in Portland. A history of racism – Oregon had anti-miscegenation laws until the Supreme Court overturned these in the late 1960s – and high unemployment made workers susceptible to immigrant-bashing.

Maybe this is a Portland thing, but the group that showed up to see Reverend Billy this day was entirely white. The neighborhood is changing. According to the always-helpful city‑

Races: White Alone

Races: Black Alone


Races: Two or More

If you click on the maps it will take you to the site, where you can get a better sense of things.


While I’m on the subject, I never cared for Reverend Billy. The whole evangelist schtick was played out a long time ago. I remember when he first went into the Disney Store in Times Square. It may have been the first time but maybe not. I have a friend who was very excited about it and went. I was curious, but for some reason I couldn’t make it. I’ve seen him all too many times since then, but I’ve never been won over.

His whole spiel is to stop shopping, but here he is exhorting people to do exactly the opposite: Go to “these small shops you can’t find anywhere else” and buy crap. What exactly can you not find anywhere else? Let’s not forget that the stuff sold here is manufactured first. It’s only then that the small shops you can’t find anywhere else stock it. There’s no factory churning out commodities that are sold in only one location, or that can’t be bought online. And Alphabets isn’t any different than Spencer’s Gifts, found in every mall.


Finally, while researching this piece, I discovered that KPW’s web site is a do-it-yourself mess! From “What’s Weird About Portland?”:


From the Soy Candles page:


Is this supposed to be part of their appeal?


1Keep Portland … quaint?
2Keep Portland Weird

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 11:43:05

    There’s a interesting book by Miriam Greenberg called “Branding New York” that looks at the marketing campaign that aimed to change the image of the city from being synonymous with urban crisis to being about an interesting place to come visit and spend money (“the big apple”). Similar campaigns were undertaken by localities in any number of countries hit by economic restructuring after the 1970s. To take two examples, Michael Moore’s film “Roger & Me” looks at some of the — often absurd and ultimately unsuccessful — attempts undertaken by local development interests to create a new growth model for the city of Flint, Michigan. In “Loft Living” Sharon Zukin looks at how the media turned the new loft dwellers in Soho into a desirable lifestyle to be consumed by the middle classes. She also has an interesting discussion of how the arts have become a primary focus of urban redevelopment efforts.

    I mention the above because at the center of these discussions of re-branding/redevelopment efforts are interests far more powerful than No 7-Eleven, an organizing effort that has struggled to transcend its 11th street block association roots (witness the low turnout in April). To equate No 7-Eleven with an official citywide re-branding campaign effort like Keep Portland Weird is misleading, as is your suggestion that they share some broader, insidious racial agenda to whiten the local community. At the most obvious level if they had such an agenda it wouldn’t make sense to highlight support for bodegas. From what I have seen and read No 7-Eleven looks to preserve what’s left of the alternative cultural past of the EV that has been commodified and sold to more upmarket consumers by powerful development interests. It’s that larger project of commodification (now in its 4th decade) that is whitening the EV, not the localist, self-defense efforts of No 7-Eleven.

    On the subject of the Reverend Billy (Talen) I’ll begin by noting the coincidence that yesterday (the day your post appeared) I happened to pass Talen as he was exiting an Amalgamated Bank branch here in Brooklyn where we apparently both do our banking. Whatever you may think of how funny or unfunny his act is I don’t think there’s any question that politically he’s a very solid guy. I’m dismayed to see you trying to tar and feather him as either a covert racist or a supporter of a group with an alleged racial agenda: “the group that showed up to see Reverend Billy this day WAS entirely white”. Reverend Billy deserves credit for taking time to stop by and lend support to a new organizing effort.


    • shmnyc
      Aug 05, 2013 @ 00:00:24


      I think you should re-read the piece. Your claims are not supported by what I wrote. The first line beneath the video says that Keep Portland Weird is an “unofficial” slogan. The Keep Portland Weird campaign is not an official branding campaign. It’s not even citywide — there are parts of Portland that reject being considered weird. It’s a campaign designed to promote localism. I doubt if it’s even as organized as the Austin campaign.

      I make no claim that No 7-Eleven is trying to “whiten” the neighborhood. I don’t see where you get that from. This piece was not about No 7-Eleven. They’re in the video only because I can’t blur out just the area where they were standing. (Actually, I just found out how to do it, but it’s time-consuming, and in any case, there is nothing to identify the group in the video as N7E.)

      Any time I’m in a group of people who have come together for some purpose, I always take a look at the makeup of the room. How many women are there? What is the ethnic makeup? Are people there to represent themselves, or are they being represented by others? If it’s too heavily skewed in any direction, why is it so? Lack of outreach? Lack of awareness? Do the questions raised and solutions offered reflect a privileged position, especially if being offered as a general solution? I have no doubt you do this too. So one thing I noticed is that this group is white, in a neighborhood that is increasingly white, that may be borrowing a slogan from a city with a history of racism (not that NYC doesn’t have its own). It bears watching.

      Finally I think there’s something at the heart of localism that dovetails with racism. It’s exclusionary. I don’t think it’s something that localist adherents necessarily think about. I may end up writing more about this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: