Just read William Deresiewicz’s recent column “Think Again,” in which he makes the excellent point that Oregon’s de facto capital, Portland, functions well not just because of deft and visionary urban planning (water resource mania, light rail, tough zoning, etc.), but also because of “simple decency.” Couldn’t agree more; after 22 years as a Portland resident, I do indeed find a generosity of spirit here, some general openness of mind, a notable lack of interest in social class and flashy cash. If ever there was a good example of what Wallace Stegner called the geography of hope in urban terms, it’s Portland.
The usually gracious Bill Deresiewicz, however, goes hilariously off the rails when he says (under the aegis of the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa no less!), that “Portland is not exactly bursting at the seams with intellect … the people are too provincial, too poorly educated, and too apt to take personally arguments about ideas. … It takes you longer to explain a question than it would for people in New York to answer it. There are guys who work in baggage claim at LaGuardia who are more on the ball than most of the people I encounter here.”
I laughed out loud at that. Some cheerful thoughts in reply:
- Last I looked, Ursula Le Guin still lives here, and there’s no one smarter in New York than Ursula Le Guin—Cynthia Ozick lives north of New York, in New Rochelle.
- Comparing the intellectual wattage of cities is silly. Are we measuring by brainpower per capita? Percentage of residents who earn patents? Speed of witty replies from baggage-claim guys? The only guy who ever earned two Nobel Prizes was a Portlander. I work with a woman who has earned six chemistry patents, so far. There are some 20 colleges in a city of 600,000 people. This is absurd.
- My experience as a native New Yorker, and a guy who has lived in Chicago and Boston, is that people in the East are much more likely to bristle about ideas that don’t fit their ideas. People in Oregon, in my experience, are more interested in ideas than in arguments, more interested in creative solutions than in power struggles, and less interested in being right all the time than they are in being right enough to earn more time to hit the beach, the mountains, the forests, the brew pubs, the wineries, the library, or the bookstore.
- The best independent bookstore in the world is in Portland, not New York. No less an authority than Jan Morris said this, and who would argue with Jan Morris? Not me.
- The highest circulation of any American library system serving a city of less than a million residents, for eight years in a row, is Portland.
- I would bet a beer that there is more creative and revolutionary cancer research being done in Portland than in New York.
- “Provincial” is an interesting epithet, isn’t it? Does that cover New York residents who deface mosques and attack rabbis?
- I have worked for two universities now, for a total of almost 30 years, and the one thing I am absolutely sure of is that your level of education doesn’t mean you are smart. I know lots of people who never went to college who are smarter than lots of people with doctorates. I bet Bill does too.
- Maybe it takes Bill longer to explain a question here because Portlanders are actually listening to the question before answering; a rare and lovely habit.
Listen, no one has more respect for Bill Deresiewicz than me—you want to read a very lively mind at work and play every week for fun and stimulation, read his Monday column on this site. And I think he’s right about the essential decency of Portlanders being a crucial aspect of the city’s generally healthy life. But the intellectual slam—nah. That’s silly talk, as my grandmother (from the Bronx) liked to say.
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