Who Gets to Brand a Place?
I was on my way to Portland, Oregon, for a 10-day trip when the news exploded. A branding war was taking place in Sunbird’s backyard.
It wasn’t exactly news to me. In Harlem, some businessmen and realtors have been trying to push the term “SoHa” since 1999, and many Harlemites hate it. What was new was the unified, public face against the insensitive symbol. Community leaders organized a demonstration, which got the attention of the media.
The Associated Press released the story of Harlem’s branding battle on May 25.* It resonated across the country, getting picked up by some of the biggest outlets: New York Times, U.S. News, Essence, and The Huffington Post. Even the U.K. seemed fascinated. The Daily Mail published the most in-depth article of them all.
It felt strange to read these stories from across the country. I was sad to see Harlem struggle against complex forces, proud to feel connected to a place worth fighting for, anxious to find my place in the fight, and curious about the mechanics behind it all.
A city, even a neighborhood, is made up of so many diverse people with so many different interests over so much time. How do the brands of places develop?
I decided to do a little digging, starting with the city I found myself in: Portland, Oregon.
Portland: An insider’s view
“I’ve always loved it. I don’t see myself living anywhere else.”
My cousin Louis was my local guide for two days. He’s bartender in his mid-20s who moved from Ohio to Portland, Oregon, four years ago. He now owns one man bun and a house with two fridges -- one dedicated exclusively to beer -- in a low-key neighborhood. Two of his neighbors have chicken coops in their backyard. Three are Vietnamese. He walks and talks like a man who is completely at home.
“The city wasn’t built for this many people,” Louis complains, with a hint of pride, when we get stuck in traffic on the way back from a hike. “People are moving here every day. The prices are getting crazy.”
Portland is one of the US’ fastest-growing cities. The Census Bureau guessed that 111 people schlepped their lives into the city every day between July 2014 and July 2015, and the population has been growing even faster since. What draws my cousin and the tens of thousands of migrants from other parts of the US to Portland--and then turns them into proud Portlandians?
Keeping it weird since 1806
You could reenact pieces of Lewis and Clark’s journey around Portland, if you wanted to. Signs mark landmarks based on their diary entries throughout the endless rolling nature that surrounds the city.
But there’s plenty of nature in the city proper too; it’s actually possible to get lost and stumble into a forest (it happened to me!). It’s hard to forget nature when you can see the intimidating outline of snowy Mount Hood from almost any part of Portland.
For urban folk, Portlandians have a tremendous respect for nature. I watched Louis rescue a snail in the middle of a hiking trail on a mission that took five full minutes. Days later, my husband witnessed a stranger do the exact same thing. In two weeks, neither of us saw a single piece of trash outside a trash bin. In Portland, green is cool. It always has been.
Industry has always been cool, too. Its first 800 residents were farmers, fishermen, and yardmen who quickly grew Portland into a huge transportation hub. A cutting-edge amusement park drew thousands of new residents. Soon after, the city built one of the largest electrified streetcar systems in the world. Distinct neighborhoods grew up around the rail and streetcar lines, much like in New York.
Portland entered the 20th century as the largest metropolis of the Northwest.
Portland’s brand today
It’s so strong you can almost taste it: Portlandians embrace entrepreneurship, respect nature, and enjoy life. It’s mind-boggling how many food trucks and how much craft beer one city can hold.
But the city’s reputation for artists and craftsmen makes perfect sense when you consider its history of explorers, farmers, and entrepreneurs. It’s a legacy of adventure, good food, and new ideas.
Like a strong business, Portland’s infrastructure and brand grew side-by-side. The city’s population doubled when Portland installed its first amusement park; that’s how many people were so enamored by their experience of the place that they decided never to leave. And the city responded with open arms, building new neighborhoods and transportation systems to accommodate them. The people who were attracted to the brand of Portland supported the brand, and the brand grew stronger.
Who gets to brand Portland?
When I think of Louis now, it’s hard to imagine him in Cleveland, Ohio, the place he spent 80% of his life and the only place I’d ever seen him before this trip. It’s even harder for me to imagine him talk about his hometown the way he talks about his adopted home. To me, he’s a Portlander.
As a visitor and outsider, I have some say over the Portland brand. What I tell my friends and post on Facebook will shift the dynamic of Portland’s reputation, if only in the most minuscule way. I have some power to build the place up or tear it down, to focus on one aspect or another. My opinion might sway someone toward visiting it or away from moving there.
But ultimately, Portland belongs to the people who love it. It belongs to whoever it means most to, to whoever will testify to what’s so great about it, to whoever it’s worth living in and fighting for. Just like Harlem.