Salem, the awkward middle child of urban Oregon

An alienated insider’s guide for those who have never been, those who will never be, and those who will never leave.

written 082915, dedicated to the memory of David Rakoff

Geographically, the desertifying lump of civil concrete we call Salem sits in between Portland and Eugene, the other two largest concrete lumps of capital accumulation in the once-lush Willamette River Valley of the Pacific Northwest. Neither the largest nor the smallest, Salem seems to disappear comfortably somewhere in the cozy middle of nowhere. People arrive in Salem for two main reasons: 1. They are passing through on their way north or south along the I-5 transportation corridor, and perhaps hope to find a serviceable gas station bathroom and sandwich shop that doesn’t serve as a front for a child sex trafficking operation or 2. They have economic or political business with the State or its minions.

We might call Portland the eldest of three siblings. While New Yorkers call Portland a “quaint little town,” Oregonians know it as the Big City of Oregon. Rose City, Rip City, P-town, Stumptown, PDX, Pornland, it has more nicknames than some of the most renowned narcissists in the annals of history, and wears them with ironic — if solid — pride. Eugene, the southernmost of the metropolitan siblings, serves well as the youngest of the three, right on down to its liberally-entrenched sense of baseless entitlement to everything Portland has and more.

Eugene is the seat of the University of Oregon, the second-largest of six state universities. Eugene finds much of its cultural and economic footing in the College Town trope. Hip, cool, perpetually young. Likewise, Portland houses the most-populous Portland State University, while Corvallis (a fourth, adopted child of Oregon we will not concern ourselves with in this essay) houses third-largest Oregon State University and as such will forever play second fiddle to Eugene.

In contrast, Salem itself has no large university. A malnourished Western Oregon University cools its heels rather quietly on the inconspicuous outskirts of the Salem Metropolitan area, in a suburb known as Monmouth. Instead, Salem houses Willamette University, a small private liberal arts college that every year attracts into the crystal clear waters of its cozy little pond a new school of well-funded (if deliberately under-dressed) “middle class” Big Fish who, as a general rule, throw four years’-worth of their parents’ ample money and misguided attitude at Salem before they inevitably migrate north to the cooler waters of Portland, whereupon they find that they fit in better with others who share their dialectical mix of disaffected optimism disguising a deep-seeded sense of personal discomfort (for all their feigned classlessness, Willamette graduates don’t dare stay in Salem, with its affordable rent, for as every trendy new Portlander surely knows, if you can afford to live there, it’s probably not worth it).

Who can blame them? Whatever the bottomless soul of the consumer-citizen desires, Portland claims to have it (as the kombucha capitol of the country, in some parts of the city you can spy small gentrifying neighborhood collectives cooperatively raising goats and chickens in lieu of children). Portland, in its manic-depressive attempt to be Everything to Everyone(1), sprouts coffee shops at densities approaching one per caffeine-addicted resident (this much-romanticized colonial drug commodity trade manages to avoid a clash with Portland’s self-styled counter-culture couture in large part through enthusiastically ubiquitous ejaculations of signage everywhere proclaiming, “local brew!” which, if we take in their sum totality at face value, apparently means that the coffee plant somehow now grows somewhere in the the Pacific Northwest! Why aren’t there more people talking about this revolutionary breakthrough in plant breeding and post-colonial economic practice?). This constant flood of caffeine mixes with tattoos and irony to provide ample chemical and social fuel for arm-chair politiking and micro-entrepreneurial efforts to further subdivide already severely-dissected market niches: If enough people continually throw themselves at bad ideas, then those of us outsiders who watch with an air of overwhelmed confusion will inevitably miss their stale crash and burn after a few months (normally) or years (for the relatively successful ones), buried somewhere amidst the endless incoming torrent of newly-minted bright-eyed, bushy-tailed micro-entrepreneurs fresh off the printing press. Collective failure starts looking like a grand success in the apparent-absence of unexamined attrition rates. Suddenly, someone’s childhood dream (from three weeks ago, fueled in equal parts by caffeine and disaffected desparation) of opening a Micronesian Tex-Mex “ethnic fusion” grocer catering specifically to smartphone app-wielding ride-thru bicyclists might not seem like such a bad idea after all…A specialty store focusing specifically on salts and chocolates? Sure! What the casual, outside observer might call a grab-bag collective of random mishmash specialty trends, the Portlander affectionately refers to as, “inspiration!”

Portland contains PDX, that is to say, the Portland International Airport (whose abbreviated name the city took for itself during a period of narcissistic identity acquisition). If you, Dear Oregonian, want to fly anywhere else of “significance,” you have to go through PDX first. The bus and train run through Salem, though. Economically, Salem is neither really rural agricultural nor mercantile nor based on the presence of a large education institution nor culturally hip. Not even Burgerville, a local staple of the northwest fast food landscape with the odd outpost in rural Monmouth(!) and Albany(!), will bother with Salem-proper. Instead, Salem possesses the unique political burden of housing the State capitol of Oregon, including many of its State administrative offices (the rest reside deferentially in Portland because…well, “it’s Portland”). That is to say, Salem’s economy depends almost entirely upon the State administrative class, that is to say, upon pedantic rules, their robotic followers, their eery enforcers and the bureaucratic hives they inhabit for the exact equivalent of eight hours five days a week minus vacation and sick days. Lobbyists of both well-funded private and unfunded public interests also play a vital role in the nested parasitism of the State political economy.

While Salem may lack the “higher” (than thou) educational institutions of its younger and bigger siblings, it does not generally lack in the presence of state-run educational institutions per se. Salem serves as the bed and breakfast for nearly half of Oregon’s euphemistically-labeled “correctional” facilities (Mill Creek Correctional [sic] Facility, Oregon State Correctional [sic] Institution, Oregon State Penitentiary, Santiam Correctional [sic] Institution, Hillcrest Youth Correctional [sic] Facility, and Oak Creek Correctional [sic] Facility) as well as the Oregon State (psychiatric) Hospital, housing well over a quarter (27%) of Oregon’s total inmate population.(3) When the convicts and mental patients get released, they find their way into Salem first and foremost, alongside its similarly-disproportionate slice of the growing homeless and discarded veteran populations. Strategic on their part as social outcasts, for in the shadow of the government, they will forever remain the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the general populace.

The anglicized word “Salem” comes from Hebrew/Arabic “Shalom”/”Salaam,” meaning “peace.” So we might accurately (and redundantly) call Salem the “City of Peace.” While I don’t dispute this label, I will probably quibble with the exact vision of “peace” that Salem supposedly pursues.

On the one hand, the municipal corporation of Salem itself exists in the shadow of the State capitol, creating a perennial “mini-me” Napolean Complex for those who, if we wish to believe the bumper stickers, “give a shit about Salem,” and want to “Make Salem Awesome.” If we see the cities as siblings, and the State as their parents, then Salem and her inhabitants become the pitiful Offspring Who Never Left The Nest, remaining intimately mired in all the familiar baggage that drives the other siblings to keep their distance. In return, Salem residents receive the dubiously over-funded services of eerily-reliable, empowered Meter Maids and enthusiastically-zealous Code Compliance Officers who role out of bed every morning with a smile on their face as they start another day of diligent and rewarding work to make the City of Peace the “most compliant place on earth.” The host City, after all, must remain friendly to the State parasite.

On the other hand, when the State collapses, so will Salem’s economy. Call it a co-dependent, love-hate relationship, and you might be right. Nevermind its independent history before the rise of the state — Salem now exists, in large part, as an empty shell, a host for the bureaucratic parasite, although sometimes I question exactly who parasitizes whom.

Both Portland and Eugene have well-established and well-hyped reputations and identities. They have branded themselves: hip(ster), young, trendy, green(washed). “Sustainable.” “Progressive.” Tattoo’d. Spectacled. Unwashed. Gentrifying. Bereft of Adult Supervision. This branding has infected the minds of their youngest, whitest, trendiest inhabitants, many of whom brought the infection with them in the first place. Both cities have proudly developed proprietary rebrands of pseudo-radical politics, something they seem to pull off quite effectively given the glows of admiration and glares of derision they receive from the political left and right, respectively. The ruralites tend to stay away from these places, except to do reluctant business with them, giving only occasional pause to wonder where the money of their more cosmopolitan counterparts actually comes from (nevermind legality or inflation — is it hip and trendy enough for Portlanders to print their own?).

Many people in Salem reject these trends in conflicting fits of ironic jealousy. “We want those things…we just don’t want to work for it.” In all fairness, trendiness entails an awful lot of work — more weekly work than most of us want to do, already exhausted from six days’ worth of oiling creaky gears and hinges and servicing the stiff pistons of the State apparatus all the while feeding its busy (if not necessarily productive) worker bots and bees. The willful self-exploitation of micro-enterprise is sexy right now, and Salem is simply not hot enough to pass muster after a hard day’s work. Instead, Salem’s philosophy of “peace” may rest more in a spiritually-cynical faith than raw, material sex appeal. Those trends that Salem finds unavoidable, thanks to an endemic “Me, too!” chorus of Napoleonic Mini-Me’s, receive a particularly half-assed implementation of the “too little, too late” variety. Food carts? Sure, we’ll do those. Days late and dollars short, Salem and the suckling State will milk a few food carts for all they are worth (or maybe it’s vice-versa) before the trend (and perhaps the economy itself) collapses completely.

A peculiar pathology of a more mundane sort infects the minds of Salem residents, encapsulated in the Krishnamurti quote, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Many of us exist mired in and subservient to myriad State bureaucracies and their municipal minions and Mini-Me’s. Others want to (sort-of) do the awkward “me too’s” of trendy Portland and Eugene. And a well-trained semi-professional militia of yawning mouths stands ever-ready to meet, patronize and sabotage any earnest effort (no matter how small or slight) toward optimistic change, even those of the “too little, too late” sort. Mental patients and convicts take note: the inmates run the asylum. It seems salient that I found some solace in a famous sociology study entitled, “On being sane in insane places,”(2) upon moving to Salem so many sleepy years ago.

Cities entice us through a Mumfordian Magnificent Bribe. As centers of accumulation (in Portland’s case, specifically the accumulation of trends), they offer us the potential of access to copious resources (people and stuff), but only if we accept the myriad shitty downsides as well. The City looks down at us, folds its arms and says, “All or nothing.” When we see cities as bodies of sorts, then we might recognize the Religion of Urbanism as a particularly repressive form of Catholicism treating “that icky stuff coming out the other end” with fear, shame, loathing and disgust. Yes, everybody poops. Cities like Portland and Eugene ignore, minimize and externalize their shit (City of Roses, you say?). Deep Green Navel Gazing and other so-called “sustainability” practices help as cities pimp themselves into positions of ever-greater accumulation in their willing pursuit of All. Show me a city that offers you All the benefits yet None of the drawbacks, and I will show you a perfect marketing lie immersed in the inverse magic of low expectations (How’s your marriage? Is it “sustainable,” as well?). This strategy works for a time but, as every good Catholic knows, it catches up with us eventually. Things seem great, then suddenly you find yourself neck-deep in the mountains of shit (yours and others’) that you can no longer ignore and should have dealt with years ago. While Portland and Eugene make vain-but-valiant Johnny-come-lately efforts to hold their nose and compost their new-found (and growing) backlog of excremental output, Salem takes a different approach to this same problem: As realistics, we take the All or Nothing resolution for granted, and err on the side of Nothing. We don’t want to deal with the shit, so we just won’t eat. Less accumulation, less opportunity, but also, in the long run, less icky stuff comes out the other end for us to deal with down the road. Nutrient cycling be-damned.

A small-but-committed group of Salem residents seem to see opportunity and resilience within this self-imposed austerity. This phenomenon manifests as a mutual refusal to feel well-adjusted to the profoundly sick urbanizing rat race. Many of these people seem to have strong spiritual foundations grounded in the material realities of everyday life. And therein lies the realist promise of Salem: less shit than Portland and Eugene. Salem’s promise lies not in its race toward utopia, but toward the potential it has to avoid dystopia (inasmuch as we can find any meaningful difference between the two). Salem lives not with a longing gaze toward the Heavens of Unlimited Possibility akin to ambitious sister cities Portland and Eugene, but in an abject aversion to Hell, perhaps because those who live here feel like we’re already there. Whether Salem will live up (or down, as it were) to this potential remains to be seen…but if cities must exist, I like the apathetic odds of Salem better than the even fates of Portland and Eugene, cities that thrive in denial even as they drown in the shit they produce while trying to keep their heads above the rising tide of shit (that they produce).

“Salem” may mean “less awesome” when projected through the insecure eyes of her more ambitious siblings, but it also means, “less shitty.” I propose a new bumper sticker for Salem, more suitable to the city’s tendencies: Keep Salem Sleepy. To Hell with Municipal Ambition. I say, abandon the rat race, coddle the state parasite if we must, embrace the awkward self-conscious confusion and get rid of the self-imposed Napolean Complex confining Salem to the lumpy whims of Portland, Eugene and the predictable grind of the State machinery. Salem will survive in some manner and find its salvation in a special form of sloth representing its strategically-cynical resistance to the shitty pathology of Urban Optimism. When cities the world over finally fall apart in the coming years of the apocalyptic collapse of pretense that eventually consumes every civilization, Salem will yawn, pull the covers up and promptly return to the pleasant dream it was enjoying before something so rudely disturbed its peaceful slumber. Salem will not fall into the abyss and break, because it’s already at the bottom. Salem, like The Dude(3), abides.

The author resides in an unremarkable place approximately 45 miles south of Portland, where they enjoy spending time outdoors burning large stacks of Portland Monthly magazines in effigy as part of their small effort to make the world slightly less disgusting.

FOOTNOTES
(1) Except black people, homeless people, or especially, homeless black people, of course
(2) Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, 1973
(3) data from Wikipedia
(4) (of the Cohen Brothers’ eponymous Big Lebowski)

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