Pushing Back Against Cultural Cynicism: A Catholic in the Northwest
Portland ethnicity is not "a hipster with a food cart selling nouvelle Asian-fusion jerk chicken"
Paul Martone, Humanities Department Chair, Northwest Academy
March 15, 2012I’m a native New Yorker raised in a Catholic family, and I lived in Oregon for ten years before attempting to write about the city of Portland. It’s unfortunate that William Deresiewicz, author of “A Jew in the Northwest,” an essay published in the winter, 2012 issue of The American Scholar, reduces Portland’s cultural landscape to a paradise for homogenous hipsters and well-intentioned naifs.
Like me, Deresiewicz is a Northeasterner who relocated to Portland—I moved here in 2001; Deresiewicz in 2008. Undeniably, Deresiewicz is a talented writer, but in “A Jew in the Northwest,” his analysis of Portland, and the people who live here, is grossly inaccurate. The subtitle of his essay says it all: “the search for the perfect futon.” What Deresiewicz knows is the mythology of Portland, the one perpetuated by shows like Portlandia. Deresiewicz, of course, isn’t writing comedy, and readers expect the essayist to study his environment before describing it—lest he distort that environment, or worse, diminish it.
Ethnicity in Portland is not “a hipster with a food cart selling nouvelle Asian-fusion jerk chicken,” as Deresiewicz asserts. He ought to veer off Hawthorne and visit Lents, Powellhurst-Gilbert, Boise, Vernon, King, Portsmouth, Kenton, Piedmont, and other neighborhoods in Portland that shatter this haute bourgeoisie characterization.
While urban planning in Portland is “genius” in comparison to Northeast cities in which white flight was the norm for decades, it has little to do with “making room for other people.” Like many small cities in the Northeast, Portland is pluralistic, but racially segregated. Gentrification has priced working class Portlanders out of their neighborhoods for years. When Deresiewicz asserts that Portland “makes room for other people,” what he actually means is that Portland makes room for people like him.
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I have taught English and composition courses in seven counties in western Oregon. I’ve worked with Asian, Latino, black, Indian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish Oregonians. When I lived in Northeast Portland’s Sabin neighborhood, many of my neighbors were black; when I lived in outer Southeast Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood, many of my neighbors were Latino and Asian; when I lived in close-in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, one of the hippest neighborhoods in town, I rented an apartment from a Buddhist church—everyone in the congregation (save one white couple), including the church’s reverend, was Japanese American.
Oregon is a high-ranking U.S. state in total number of new refugees. According to a 2005 scholarly journal published in American Geographic Society, many refuges migrate to Pacific Northwest cities, particularly Portland, from places like Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Every weekday I ride TriMet buses with black, Asian, Jewish, and Latino Portlanders. On Feb. 24, a Korean judge married my wife and me inside the lobby of Portland’s Historic Central Library.
Who does Deresiewicz think publishes The Skanner and The Portland Observer? Who attends Sunday services in the Albina District and sings soulfully in its gospel choirs? Who publishes the weekly Asian Reporter? Who are the members of Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Neveh Shalom?
What’s sad is that Deresiewicz doesn’t know what his biggest problem is: the city he describes doesn’t exist.
Portland’s ranking as one of America’s whitest cities must be considered in proper context: the United States is increasingly less white. When Deresiewicz says “nothing much has happened in the region” since the 1940s, he overlooks a seismic shift in the state’s demographics. According to the most recent census the Latino population in Oregon has “surged by 63% since 2000,” the Asian population by 41%, the "multicultural population" by 33%.
Deresiewicz doesn’t see people of color hogging space in the Pearl District; therefore, he assumes they’re not here.
When Deresiewicz characterizes Portland as a “Midwestern city,” because many young Midwesterners move here “to wear their hair spiky and put rings in their eyebrows,” he loses sight of the fact that people of all ages move to Portland each year—from every region of the country, from all over the world.
I have friends and colleagues in Portland who are native Midwesterners—few tattoos, no spiky hair, no eyebrow rings—and none moved to Portland to “escape Jesus.”
Deresiewicz talks a great game about irony, but here’s something he missed: Jesus is everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, on billboards, bumper stickers, TV, and radio. Christians canvas every neighborhood in Portland, some with megaphones.
Moving to Portland to escape Jesus would be like moving to New York to escape Jews.
The real story: Midwesterners “flock” to Portland for the same reason as Deresiewicz: They fall in love with the city.
Deresiewicz refers to himself as “Judeo-Catholic.” New York Catholics, he tells us—Italian Americans like me—are members of his tribe. Most of my childhood friends were either Catholic or Jewish, so I embrace Deresiewicz’s blending of the faiths.
But my native Midwestern friends are family, too. Many are artists and educators like Deresiewicz, who defines himself as a “would-be New York intellectual.” Deresiewicz earned a Ph.D. from Columbia and served as professor of English at Yale University.
As a writer who graduated from public universities, and taught at public universities, I must ask: Who is the American scholar? Which institutions encourage young intellectuals to empathize with everyday people?
In “A Jew in the Northwest,” Deresiewicz compares himself to Bernard Malamud, who relocated from the Northeast to the Northwest in the 1940s.
Malamud was one of our best fiction writers (I say “our” best, because Malamud wrote for all of us). He crafted narratives that challenged racial and religious divisions. His art, as expressed in his short fiction and the novel "The Assistant" radically suggested that everyone is a Jew.
Deresiewicz defines himself as a “good Northwesterner,” and then narrates his encounter with a “typical 40ish Portlander” at an organic supermarket. The Portlander said, “Excuse me,” and then asked if Deresiewicz was a Jew. It was Purim, an annual Jewish holiday, and the Portlander was trying to connect. When I lived in New York, strangers asked me scarier questions, but I don’t blame Deresiewicz for feeling uncomfortable. What’s baffling is his immediate assessment of the Portlander’s intelligence, or lack thereof. No one would remark, "You’re a Jew. Aren’t you?" at Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side; therefore, to Deresiewicz’s way of thinking, the Portlander lacked awareness.
As a Jewish protagonist in a Malamud story, Deresiewicz wouldn’t be permitted to dismiss this “goy” so easily. What’s more likely is that he would encounter the man again and again until something emerged between the two of them, something, perhaps, that neither anticipated.
The Portlander who addressed Deresiewicz didn’t have an “innocent” face, his eyes didn’t “shine beatifically.” We learn more about Deresiewicz from these descriptions than the “goy” himself. Reconsider, too, the “remarkably naïve” and “blissful hippie couple,” who praised Deresiewicz’s perennials. Two human beings stood outside his house, and Deresiewicz saw no one.
Everyone is a Jew in Malamud, because all of us suffer. Jews, Catholics, New Yorkers, Oregonians—all of us. That’s the magic in Malamud’s barrel: He showed us a world in which everyone deserves our attention.