…a street-level exploration of the Portland social commons…

Most of the time I don’t even take pictures of all the interesting stuff I see around this city, but over the past couple of months I’ve snapped a few good shots. With these, let me weave my story… Here’s what I got:

Lyrik Cafe, SE 39th & Lincoln

One thing I like about this place is that neighborhoods are well-defined. It’s easy to know where your neighborhood is because you feel it around you. There are landmarks which clearly associate your area to it.

On my street there is a small artist cafe called The Lyrik. It’s mostly just people from my neighborhood who hang out there, exchange stuff, and invite people to their events. It’s not really a “popular” place unless you live nearby. Everybody there seems to be an artist, or musician, and hosts their own events. It creates a culture around invitationals and gatherings.

There’s also an anarchist cafe in Southeast called Red & Black — SE 12th & Stark.

the bike culture

I have a lot to say about Portland’s world-renowned bike culture.

An anarchist from the Modesto Anarcho Crew, whom we know as Crudo, once described the Portland anarchist scene as “vegan vegan bike bike”. This made a lot of sense to me when I lived in Tacoma. I’d look at cities with bigger anarchist scenes and it looked like a bunch of hipsters and cool-kids riding bikes around and getting laid. When you live in an “undesirable” place like Tacoma or Modesto, it’s easy to take a completely negativistic approach to places that look more exciting than yours — the “sour grapes” syndrome.

But in fact, Tacoma was a really negative place to live to begin with. People criticized others if they were “positive” and got excited about a frivolous passion. I enjoy myself at “non-anarchist” parties, I like eating certain kinds of foods. Some people, however, develop an “anarchist learning disability” as I like to call it, where they are unable to appreciate the impurities of life. They forget how to have fun, how to enjoy themselves in a non-anarchist setting. It’s difficult to share only the pure things in life with your comrades. Everday life is, after all, not pure in an anarchist sense.

So from these places everything can seem negative. There’s a feeling like, “Well what the fuck are they doing in Portland? Shouldn’t they [the anarchists] be doing more than just riding bikes and being vegan?”

The reality is, Portland is just a different culture. Just like how Tacoma has a culture of being alienated, coming from a military family, not trusting anybody,  etc. (A culture of no culture, basically.) Portland also has a culture that developed from people with roots here. There is more culture here, and riding bikes is just part of it. You see yuppies and grandmas riding bikes around just to save money and time. It’s not even “lifestyle anarchism” in the Bookchinian sense. It has nothing to do with anarchism. Unless you live further east than 82nd, the streets are pretty narrow and flat, which makes bike-riding fairly easy.

Does all this make people who live in Portland less revolutionary? No.

If you have a good situationist analysis of the places you live in, you see that each place has a different culture and each place has different hot-buttons. People react to the hot-buttons and they learn what makes everybody else tick, and how the culture behaves. You don’t have to look far to learn what affects people in Portland. It was hard to say what really affected people in Tacoma, it was like a sleeping zombie. Which is partly why I was intrigued by it. And partly why I had to leave.

SE Belmont Ave.

Every stop sign is covered with stickers and graffiti.

You know that there’s a lot more people who feel similarly to you, even if you can’t always find them. You know it’s not just yourself walking down the street, but hundreds of others too. You get the feeling that people take more control of their space, their surroundings, and that the police can’t really do shit about it. If you want to represent your crew, you post it. If you have something to say, you write it. If an eight year-old girl wants to sell lemonade without a permit, she can do it.

That’s why every city makes such a big deal about erasing graffiti, because it leads to this sort of thinking. For the centralized authorities, people taking control of their own lives is a bad, bad thing. It’s all the low level intensity conflict that finally adds up.

To paraphrase a point that Peter Gelderloos made, “Capitalism is based on cognitive dissonance” — capitalism trains you to continually betray your own desires. It trains you to think what is good for “the system,” “the country,” “the bureaucracy,” rather than what is good for you individually, what is good for you locally.

street corner in Southeast

This is a pretty good example of neighborhood identity. People own the tiny little blocks and corners they live on, even if they’re far away from commercial centers where (usually) all the economic attention goes.

Why should anyone put their energy into commercial centers? They don’t live there. But this is the street you walk on everyday. This is the intersection you pull out of everyday.

If you and your neighbors want to make it more defined, more interesting, more exciting, what else but “cognitive dissonance” is going to stop you from doing that?

Cathedral Park

People randomly call you up and say, “We’re throwing a free party in the park, wanna come?”

There was 120 people or more at this gathering, but it was nothing too special.

Monday Funday

A group of friends start gathering at a park, and each time – it grows. It grows and it grows and it grows. It soon extends beyond that group of friends to include other groups of friends. Now it’s a cluster of groups who are calling and inviting more groups. Before long most of the people there you have never met before, but now you know their faces. This is the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end.

That’s basically what happened with Monday Funday. Here people play dogdeball, double dutch, hula hoop, and usually somebody brings some music to dance to. It’s free “recess” for all the 20-somethings in Southeast.

Hawthorne drum circle

…same thing with the Sunday night drum circles under the Hawthorne bridge.

A psychogeographical map of your life starts to appear when you recount and relive your experiences. All the places you have gone, all the people you’ve met, make a social coordinate system everything in your world. This is also precisely what the military does to study the communities they’re trying to colonize and destroy.  They’re trying to recreate social networks and psychogeographies of pro-revolutionaries.

It’s interesting to imagine this for a moment. There are people actually sitting behind computer screens in American bunkers everyday, funneling information from the internet and the phone lines into their headquarters. They do this in order to understand and destroy the people who are nuisances to their alienated way of life. It’s a closed society, and we are its enemies. Don’t they know you can’t fight alienation through alienated means?

This is why I don’t even care about the information I put on the internet anymore. I think the best security culture is less of a security culture. Say everything you want to say. After all, it was the “glasnost” (openness) policy in Soviet Russia which finally did them in. Once the people could say what they wanted to say, the anti-Soviet sentiments were so generalized the security apparatus could no longer pinpoint its origins. Security became overwhelmed, then futile. Then, collapse. So no matter what we say, we are still ungovernable.

Addendum:

The psychogeographical method is really nothing special. A friend asked me more about this, and was curious whether about any academic studies of psychogeography. Psychogeography was merely a technique explained by the Situationist International about exploring spaces and places, to become more familiar with them as part of the revolutionary project. I don’t think it’s worthy of academic study. It’s more of a personal awareness of the spaces around you.

I suppose you could study the behavior of subjects in spaces, add more psychological and more geographical analysis to it. Even add GIS-layered maps to it. But I don’t think this was the original intention.