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.

kpw-whats-weird

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

Weird.

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.

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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‑data.com:

Races: White Alone
white-alone-recent

Races: Black Alone
black-alone

Hispanic
hispanic

Races: Two or More
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?”:

kpw-about

From the Soy Candles page:

kpw-soy-candles-lorem-ipsum

Is this supposed to be part of their appeal?

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1Keep Portland … quaint?
2Keep Portland Weird

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Localism and Community

[F]aced with the unpalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t out-compete or destroy capitalism, localists cling to a fierce faith in communities to band together and do it yourself.

Localists yearn for community, freed from the uniform mediocrity of anonymous, corporate-controlled spaces. However, the petite bourgeoisie’s way of life precludes a community, since members of the class rely mainly on themselves for economic progress and emotional support. Community members are either fellow petite bourgeois competitors or customers demanding lower prices. Perhaps this is why so many localists have such a strong nostalgia for community as an ideal place where business happens and values take shape. Farmers markets aren’t just a place to shop, but a place to socialize: since “consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as the do at supermarkets… You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant.”

Why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversation? Alternately, you could appreciate the anonymity and speed of supermarket transaction if you have other ways to socialize. But it makes sense that the petite bourgeois, trying desperately to succeed in the marketplace or gain control on their own merits, would feel lonely. They try to re-forge the social connections lost in the marketplace in the same individual way they advance. Consumption is where they compete to achieve the symbols of habitus. The desire for friendly consumption is as close as the petite bourgeois get to stepping outside their daily antagonisms.

Just as ideology is a single class’s way of life generalized to all of society, community for the petite bourgeois becomes community for them alone. Wendell Berry criticizes corporations, governments and schools for concealing a “private aim (which) has been to reduce radically the number of people who, by the measure of our historical ideals, might be thought successful: the self-employed, the owners of small businesses or small usable properties, those who work at home.” This persecution of petty capitalists sets local community advocates against “Communists and capitalists (who) are alike in their contempt for country people, country life, and country places. They have exploited the countryside with equal greed and disregard.” The local community are “small farmers, ranchers, and market gardeners; worried consumers; owners and employees of small businesses; self-employed people; religious people; and conservationists.”

The inference is clear: the working class isn’t part of the community. [Emphasis mine.] The images are of the town square, the main street where everyone knows your name, the butcher, baker and small shopkeeper. These evoke market towns where residents distributed commodities made elsewhere. In contrast, industrial towns were often centers of intense class struggle between owners and workers. Not coincidentally, industrial towns created close community networks forged in that struggle. These close-knit communities of workers also demonstrated all the values of collective self-sacrifice, yet localists never mention them, preferring fuzzy invocations of consumerist fantasy.

The problem lies in how malleable the term community is, including capital, the state, and workers — groups whose interests are fundamentally at odds. By suggesting workers are at most another group making demands on the state, the designation of community hides power relations. It replaces class with innumerable differences of income, culture and other sociological categories, bounded by geography rather than a common exploitation. This blurring of conflict is fundamental to localism. By invoking community, localism attempts the political equivalent of Proudhon’s fair markets for small artisans, imposing a false social peace by eliminating the working class rhetorically.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 98–101.