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Portland: is it taking 'The New Yorker' by storm?

A recent issue of the magazine of Manhattan sophisticates writes familiarly and repeatedly about Portland, once not even bothering to distinguish for its readers between the Northwest city and that place up in Maine.

The Feb. 7 edition of The New Yorker may have made certain readers wonder whether the mag is morphing into The Portlander. The issue features book-end references to the Rose City, though with inconsistent style.

The first mention is up front in a “Talk of the Town” item about “the Portland-based band the Decemberists” (playing Friday, Feb. 18, at Seattle’s Paramount Theater). It’s an odd phrase because generations of writers and editors have found it necessary to clarify any reference to “Portland.” Is it the Portland of the Pacific Northwest or is it the smaller version just a six-hour drive to New England from Manhattan?

The two burgs, similar in many ways, are inextricably linked because of a certain coin toss that happened more than 160 years ago. A Mr. Lovejoy had dubbed the infant Oregon city “Boston,” after his Massachusetts home town. A Mr. Quimby preferred “Portland,” the pride of his natal Maine.

Obviously the coin flip was won by Quimby (both competitors actually won in that their names are on Portland, Oregon, street signs five blocks apart). The other inadvertent winner would someday be the National Basketball Association, which, because of the luckless Lovejoy, hasn’t had to reconcile having the Boston Celtics play games against the Boston Trailblazers.

The “Talk of the Town” item, by John Seabrook, seems to assume a prevailing New Yorker-reader familiarity with the Rose City, odd to some of us Portland-born souls who don’t really remember visits to New York City as occasions for the locals to demand to know what’s going on back in P-land.

Seabrook makes reference to a “Portland flannel shirt” (as though the apparel only is worn in that town). He also mentions the new “Portlandia” TV comedy and finds room in his final ‘graph for the phrase “Portland state of mind” (no word yet as to whether New York-bred lyricist-singer Billy Joel is claiming copyright infringement).

Fifty-eight pages later, film critic David Denby provides the right-side book-end. The new movie “Cold Weather,” he notes, is set in Portland. Denby and his editors, however, stipulate that the place is Portland, Oregon, lest anyone try to imagine such characters and plot as he describes ever existing in Maine.

Having twice visited Portland, Maine, however, I could easily see it lending well to the atmospheric needs of the “Cold Weather” producers, who “make dramatic poetry out of Portland’s winter dankness,” according to Denby, who no doubt lives somewhere devoid of winter dankness.

In any case, the many decades of confusion caused by having a pair of notable Portlands could be a lot worse. Imagine readers trying to reconcile city references all these years if the winning Mr. Quimby had not hailed from Maine but from New York City.

Beaver State subscribers may be waiting to see if their next issues of The New Yorker are rife with Portland (Oregon) references.

Meanwhile, as a matter of fairness, perhaps the editors of Portland Monthly Magazine will deign to make the occasional effort to reference something pertaining to New York (or New York City, New York, if some editors prefer). There must, for example, be several new Midtown restaurants featuring the cuisine of Portland served by flannel-clad staffers.

Since 1994 Senior Lecturer Mike Henderson, a veteran writer and editor for The Times, Post-Intelligencer, (Everett) Herald, Seattle Weekly and Crosscut, has been a member of the faculty of the University of Washington Department of Communication. He considers himself to be the only journalist ever to interview actor Gene Hackman inside San Quentin prison while wearing a pair of Hackman's pants. He can be reached at mikh48@hotmail.com.


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