So, Westbrook To Falmouth was started in reaction to a lot of things. It was started in response to the consolidation of Portland’s media market. It was started in response to the death of the arts and culture scene in Portland. It was started in response to the wave of class warfare that we’ve seen coming from City Hall and the State Government alike.
But the moment of crystallization came when The Portland Phoenix was purchased by the Portland Daily Sun, and went from being a fairly progressive alt weekly written about Portland, by people who live in Portland, with interesting and timely articles… and then began it’s slow transformation to a tourist brochure for Portland, written and edited by people who do not live here.
The missteps made by this new Phoenix have been a mixture of hilarious and terrible. Hot Trash has already enumerated many of them. For instance: in a recent feature article on how cover bands have taken over the Portland music scene, a photo of Kate Beever (mallet percussionist with Jeff Beam and Friends) was given a caption that indicated she was playing a Jay-Z tribute concert. But the thing is, Kate Beever has never played a Jay-Z tribute concert.
The question naturally arises– are they trolling us– doing this on purpose? Or are they just that bad at what they are doing?
We are going to argue for the latter rather than the former. The new Phoenix seems to totally lack any sense of self-awareness, or notion of what their purpose is. Every issue we have picked up gives us a sense that they are just sort of bouncing around blindly in a dark room, unthinkingly and ceaselessly ramming their face into things at full speed. Like the roomba of alt weeklies.
This first came to a head with their article “What’s Cool?” which we responded to, in a flippant but good faith effort, in the hopes that we’d see the Phoenix do right by themselves.
They took it really badly. Since WTF is published anonymously they started publicly accusing past writers and editors of the Phoenix of having written the article, and insulting them. Which was hilarious/sad to watch.
They got publicly dressed down by those they accused, and it seemed like, with egg on their face, they were going to make a more serious effort to heed the community’s advice instead of publicly lashing out at their readers. (Really, we don’t hate you, we just really wish that Portland had the alt weekly that the Phoenix should be.)
But that effort to improve didn’t last long. With their featured article, “Portland on Portland” we at WTF were initially hoping that the Phoenix finally figured out why they exist– to be a mirror for Portland, to build community around a shared space, to provide a gathering spot for counterculture, to clarify and crystallize the material reasons for our shared feelings about our city. Not a bunch of “Portland is so great let’s pat ourselves on the back” stuff. A good mirror shows us what’s wrong with us so that we can do better. A good mirror shows us to ourselves fully, warts and all.
“Portland on Portland” was not that. “Portland on Portland” turned out to be an article on what Portland OREGON thinks of Portland Maine. Let us repeat that. OREGON. And the answer? Unsurprisingly, it was exactly what you’d expect: They don’t care about Portland Maine. Every reaction the author received from the handful of people he asked was something along the lines of “What? Why are you asking me that? Leave me alone!” *
Not exactly the most solid basis for a featured article. One imagines if you went around to people in Portland Maine and asked them about Portland Oregon, you’d get similar results.
Somebody at the Phoenix should have killed that article for having no meaningful content, and no reason to exist. But instead it was the front page feature.
More recently, the Phoenix had a feature article about the outbreak of the cover band plague that Portland is currently afflicted with. But again, it had little insight to offer.
Not living in Portland, some just having moved here, not having any meaningful contacts with people in Portland’s music scene, the Phoenix staffers probably don’t know how much harder it is to make a living as a musician in Portland today compared to just 5 years ago, let alone 10 years ago. They likely have no understanding how it used to be the case in Portland that you could work some shitty and terrible minimum wage job 4 days a week and spend the rest of your time playing gigs, writing music, rehearsing, all while still managing to (barely) eat and pay rent. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was possible. That made it possible for a lot of artists and musicians to live here and spend time honing their craft.
That’s why Portland was such a cool place to be– the people. In addition to an abundance of creative people honing their craft, there was also an abundance of abandoned or neglected spaces that we artists could infest like cockroaches to share what we were up to. These were spaces that we built community in. No longer. The property bonanza has driven spaces like these to a premium, and frankly, the free market has “better uses” for them, like a fitness center, or restaurant that only serves locally harvested moss on artisanally crafted saltines.
The Portland You Moved Here For Is Gone
The neglected spaces artists could congregate in, and semi-public spaces where you could have chance meetings with people you know, by and large, do not exist here any longer. No longer are there abundant spaces for people who suck at what they are doing (but are trying really hard to get better) to go out and share what they’ve been working on with other people who are also working on that same thing, unless it’s in a privatized space. There’s no opportunity to suck, to fail, to experiment. And that’s what drives cover bands. It’s safe and it is pretty much guaranteed to make money. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that matters now, not art, not insight, not music, not poetry, not community. Just money.
The Meg Perry Center (evicted), the Apohadion (gone?)**, the Dirigimus Collective (gone?), Mama’s Crow Bar (evicted), the rehearsal spaces in the mill in Biddeford (replaced by offices), the old Public Market building (replaced with offices), 5 bedroom houses that you could pile 11 musicians/artists into and split the $1700/mo rent (mostly gone), these spaces we built community in, it’s gone. And what’s replaced it is a cold soulless yuppie culture that tries to reap the benefits of living someplace ‘cool’ without putting in the work to build the community that makes a vibrant art and culture scene possible.
In the past it was possible for any working class schmuck to hone their craft and support themselves working minimal hours at a “real job.” Today, it’s nearly impossible to make rent and eat while working full time– which leaves basically no time for writing music, making art, writing poetry. So people are moving out of Portland to live in places where they can afford to spend a couple days sitting around and doing nothing and thinking about life so that they can actually be creators. And that means moving out of the city and into isolated suburbs devoid of community. Community is completely atomized. Today there is also little time to think about anything, only time to continuously scramble on the treadmill of bills and work.
Making It Work In a Cultural Wasteland
But what of those who have stayed behind? People who like playing music and are willing to play cover shows because it’s close enough to the real thing, they have fallen into the velvet coffin– because that shit pays, and so you can sort of halfway live the dream of playing music, and not be completely crushed by the forces of capitalism while doing it.
The Phoenix has demonstrated a total lack of insight in the way they’ve covered the issues of the day. They treat them all as though they are isolated and unrelated trends. They ask no hard questions, and as such, offer no meaningful insight. But they don’t fail completely 100% of the time.
The Phoenix once again came really close to almost understand the purpose of alt weeklies (like the one they are supposed to be running) in that article. While it did point to the problem, it didn’t really scrape the surface as to what larger forces are pushing this trend. It did note that “people don’t want to waste their hard earned money on a band that nobody has ever heard of.”
Yes. Indeed. IF ONLY THERE WAS SOME WEEKLY PUBLICATION WITH PAID STAFF THAT COULD SEND THEIR WRITERS TO SEE SHOWS AND REVIEW THEM AND LET US KNOW WHAT THE ORIGINAL BANDS THAT PLAY IN PORTLAND SOUND LIKE.
If only such a publication existed. But it doesn’t.
*Which to be fair, is an appropriate response to a stranger walking up and asking you about a city on the other coast.
**UPDATE: the Apohadion just recently held a yardsale/bottle drive. They may be looking to do some good stuff in the near future. Stay tuned. And support the arts, you twits!