What makes Portland a haven for geeks? You could probably ask a dozen people and get a dozen very different answers.
Both geeks and non-geeks are aware that we’ve been undergoing a cultural shift lately, where the character traits, style aesthetics and hobbies associated with geeks and nerds are no longer shunned by the majority. When I was a kid, I could have never imagined living in an age where wearing glasses was cool, or where nobody would look at me twice for admitting I love Star Trek.
But instead of focusing on the details of geekdom, I think back to that scene in 21 Jump Street where Channing Tatum is giving Jonah Hill advice on going back to high school. Tatum, whose character was a popular 1990s jock, advises Hill’s character, the overachieving nerd, that people will like him more if he doesn’t care about anything and makes fun of people who do. Much to their surprise, they return to a 21st century high school where the popular kids are into environmental issues, gay rights and getting serious about college applications. Suddenly, it’s cool to care.
In Portland, it has always been cool to care. That might be one reason why the city has entered the mainstream alongside other geek staples, and why interest in the culture here has risen exponentially. Geeks are people with passion, no matter what the passion is. Portland has made room for quite a few different passions along the way.
Are you a comic book geek? Obviously, the city is overflowing with comic book shops, local artists and conventions. Music geek? The local scene has a devoted following. Theater geek? The live theater scene here is fantastic. Gamer? Portland is full of opportunities to meet (and play) with people who love the same video and tabletop games that you do. Film lover? Enjoy the Northwest Film Center and dozens of events at historic cinemas. Literary geek? The home of Ursula K. LeGuin and Powell’s Books is overflowing with culture for readers and writers.
None of the offerings are necessarily big and flashy or made to court national attention. They’re bands, books, graphic novels and game tournaments by geeks for geeks.
The plethora of small communities that thrive in this city aren’t limited to the arts, either. We have cyclists, hikers, activists, conspiracy theorists and more. For any kid who spends their awkward adolescence wishing they could find people who share their interests, Portland is a dream come true.
The definition of “geek” is definitely evolving as Comic Con culture becomes mainstream, and Portland is a part of that. No longer the Northwest’s eccentric hidden secret, the way of life here has become somewhat commodified by things like Portlandia, which is a fascinating mix of the old world and the new.
The show manages to poke fun at the city for being overly earnest, strange and sometimes ridiculous, but there’s also an air of total reverence. It seems to be saying, “Isn’t this really where every geek would choose to live if they could?”
Keeping Portland geeky might seem like a complicated issue when geeky hobbies and passions are more popular than ever before. Bput being true to the spirit of the city means avoiding elitism. Geeks should be as free of judgment as they always wanted others to be toward them.
If more people want to learn to play Magic the Gathering, so much the better. Remember that 12-year-old you would have been thrilled. It’s more than possible for your passion to inspire passion in other geeks who are ready to embrace their full potential.
Now is the time to decide whether being a geek truly means being welcoming, and whether the beloved hobbies that once made you feel isolated can become tools to make friends, understand the world and even build a career.
We live in an age where being a professional geek is no longer a fantasy, and an area of the country where it’s easy to believe that’s possible. The hundreds of geeky subdivisions in Portland need leaders and innovators, and in this town, you’re always taken seriously.
So smile. Portland is a city where you can fly in the face of convention. Literally, you can dress up as Howard the Duck and go flap your arms at a convention. People will love it.