I am a reluctant fan of television's Independent Film Channel series, "Portlandia."
I worried the sitcom's creators would not get the grass-roots counterculture of Portland today.
The comedy series is based in my hometown of Portland, Ore., with comedians Fred Armisen from "Saturday Night Live" and Carrie Brownstein.
The Portland I grew up in was a small city compared with larger cities like Seattle or San Francisco, and rather plebian as cities go. But within the past decade, Portland has become a hip, cool place to live, work, bike and visit, even with the inevitable gray day and slight sprinkle of rain that comes regularly from October through May. Thankfully, the show's creators caught some of the funkiness that makes Portland "Portlandia."
"Portlandia" reminds me of Portland's fantastic music scene, be it in classical music or alternative genre that echoes in performing venues. Like Chapel Hill, Portland has an openly gay mayor. Portland is home to Powell's bookstore, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Universities and colleges provide public intellectuals who debate the issues of the day in various venues. There was "Occupy Portland," which ended with a series of altercations with the authorities.
The self-dubbed "Rose City" is an international city, with many people representing various parts of the Pacific Rim nations, along with Indian Americans and African Americans who blend easily into the diverse cityscape. Trendy loft apartments built from old warehouses abound. Public art fills numerous rose gardens. Mount Hood and hiking trails offer a chance to flee from city life. Light-rail system "Max" makes it easy to move in the downtown area. Ribbon-like bike trails meander along the urban streets. Theaters turn out one world premiere after another. There are many farm-to-table restaurants, along with many fine ethnic restaurants opening up every month.
The granola-eating, Birkenstock-trotting, tattoo-bearing, skin-piercing and Stumptown-coffee-drinking Oregonian is a person who embraces a certain casualness. There are many who break out of this stereotype, opting for a "live and let live," pioneer ethos, too, where an individual can do his or her thing, come what may.
Moving away from this forward-thinking city, I felt instantly "at home" when my family first moved to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area in the mid-1980s. Chapel Hill and Carrboro are the "Portlandia" of the South. With the university providing a stable supply of alternative thinkers, performing artists, writers and public intellectuals, there's a sense we live in an alternative universe that exists alongside a church-saturated landscape of the South. The large Intimate Bookstore is still missed. No one would mistake liberal Chapel Hill-Carrboro with the more conservative parts of the Research Triangle, politically or culturally.
Cheap housing in parts of Chapel Hill, especially among Carrboro's mill houses, used to make it possible for artists, musicians, and dreamers on a tight budget to thrive and express themselves in small venues that dot the area. After all, artists are like crab grass, able to grow wherever there may be even a bit of soil, rain and sun. There are plenty of independent weeklies covering the diversity of issues that roil us up as a community. Coffee shops and art galleries still sprout easily off the beaten path. People work tirelessly on easing racial and class tensions. City parks provide cool shade on a hot, muggy summer's day. And the tallest buildings in the area used to be churches on Franklin Street with their tall spires, though new apartment and condominiums compete for tallest edifice on the block.
Amid recent election discussions and long-range strategy meetings about Chapel Hill in 2020, the question before Carrboro and Chapel Hill is simply this: How will we not only preserve, but enhance the counterculture zeitgeist that drew my family, and many others, to this area? Amid new developments, allocating low-cost units in condominiums, and preserving a studio or performance space for artists and musicians is part of the solution.
The more daunting challenge is nurturing that almost ethereal creative, zany spirit of Chapel Hill-Carrboro today that reverberates in an imaginative sitcom called "Portlandia."