We know, we know. Portlanders love bicycles and microbrews. Portlanders love all things artisan. Portland loves Portland, and the city is making a name for itself in the world.
But does that mean anything apart from providing unique options for an afternoon out?
It means plenty, according to Charles Heying, the author and editor of Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy. Heying is an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, and his book posits that Portlanders’ way of working and spending money is reflective of a larger economic trend—one that brings liberals and conservatives together in support of local, and often small, businesses in order to enhance their own quality of life.
Brew to Bikes was released this month by PSU’s Ooligan Press*, which is hosting the book’s launch party with an artisan exhibition from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 16 at Art Department, 1315 SE Ninth Avenue, in Portland's Central Eastside Industrial District.
We talked with Heying about his book in the heart of downtown Portland at his office in PSU’s Urban Center.
Neighborhood Notes: What is the premise of Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy?
Charles Heying: The basic premise is that work is changing. This a story about how people live and work in a different way in the urban environment. It’s about how economies are changing. We are moving out of a Fordist economy, where there are industrialized, large central cities and large manufacturing plants producing homogenous products that are all identical, where there was very little connection between the designer and the product itself.
NN: And what are we moving into?
CH: A post-Fordist economy is like super-modernity. ... There’s the ability to make products on small scales with quick turnaround. Before we had hierarchies in-house, and now we’re moving to where everything is sourced out and networked. The best example is Hollywood. Rather than working only through big, centralized studios, they now pull together independent professionals on a project basis. Each person is managing their own network of relationships. That’s the model. Portland artisans themselves are working in this new era. They are exemplars and they are the grassroots cutting edge of this movement.
NN: Does this partly come from our nation’s shift out of manufacturing?
CH: If you look at the numbers, manufacturing isn’t declining, it’s just declining in relation to the other services we’re now providing. We still make a hell of a lot of things [in the United States]. We’re shifting into making more particularized products. ... Some artisans believe they are now competitive with mass produced products. If you buy quality mass produced products, you can probably buy it cheaper handmade in Portland. They don’t have the overhead. Langlitz Leathers [of Portland] is known all over the world and maybe half their sales are in Japan. They use the web to reinvent the close connection to patrons.
NN: What do these ideas mean for an everyday consumer?
CH: It’s a high-touch world where the distance between the product and designer is being broken down. The divisions of management and labor are breaking down, along with the divisions between social life and working. This whole idea of new urbanism, mixed use, retail sectors are closer to the pedestrian. The commercial and residential are being reintegrated. The idea that we have a fixed work time—nine-to-five is gone. But along with this are gone some of the reassuring parts of the old economy, like benefits packages, a regulated work life, a career instead of a vocation.
NN: Why is this happening in Portland, particularly?
CH: There is a peculiar taste, location and production method that is specific to the place you are in. There are industries that have grown up in a place, that are particular to a place, like our bike industry. There’s a whole set of skills, relationships, trading of ideas, and that doesn’t happen without place, without getting people together there. Once a place like Portland comes to be and it draws a set of sympathetic people. Their tastes have been enlivened and their expectations raised.
NN: What does this type of economy offer to people who are looking for opportunities in Portland?
CH: There is the question that if Portland has such high unemployment, is this approach really helping our economy? Or why shouldn’t we try to do the things that get better paying, living wage jobs [with large companies] here? But people really don’t believe in that anymore. With the blowup of the bank system there’s a level of distrust, especially younger people. ... In the artisan economy you see people anchored in locality, who understand the systemic aspects of what they’re doing and they make an effort to sell a product that has a deeper moral connection. ... People in Portland are willing to drive an old car if they can go out and have a good meal.
NN: Is this kind of economy dependent on liberals?
CH: No. If you look at what’s going on in the political world, you’ll see the most effective activists on the whole continuum are the ones who look most like artisans. ... Conservatives see the large, centralized government as the declining icon of the industrialized economy, and the evil for progressives is the large business. In a funny way, both of them are looking at the same problem, which is the end of the political economy of the modernist state. They’re just looking at different parts of it.
NN: How much does this kind of economy depend on businesses and consumers keeping their money local?
CH: One question that came up a lot was that of place—is this a return to the earth, local good, global bad? No. The artisans are intimately connected to the global economy. They sell their products all over the world. ... We had many different responses for the question of scaling up. Grand Central Bakery says they would never want to be in Salem, that their system works well with their location, but there are physical limits to their system. Some bike people want to control touch and design and don’t want many people working in their shops. They see Portland as their brand. ... Even within the bike people, some want to scale up. So they make a model that can be customized. It’s a stock model for a custom-made bike so they can do mini-mass production of those.
NN: Several writers contributed to this book. How was it created, and how did you research these ideas?
CH: The concept work started in 2006 with research on the local fashion industry. Then I sent a call to all the students I’d had since 1995. I had a meeting to invite them to each write a chapter in this book. By the end of the summer [of 2009] we got chapters from about 15 of them. We held weekly sessions and talked about how to write for each kind of product, how to set a scene and craft a narrative. I gave them my chapter on the thematic core, then gave them tape recorders and told them it was up to them to find the key people to interview. They turned in their chapters and I began to edit them with a couple of assistants. ... When I sent out the call for authors I had a tremendous response. Immediately I knew that young people would respond to it, and this gave me a sense that this was an idea whose time had come.
NN: Is this book a way of Portland tooting its own horn?
CH: Yes. [Laughs] But there’s a group of people that like to hear about Portland because they’re looking for models. They see things Portland is doing right, and they move here and stay here. This book did turn out to be celebratory. There was much more going on than we ever imagined. ... There’s the question of whether Portland has developed a bunch of snooty boutique consumers. But I say we’re demonstrating a kind of leadership in setting a taste for things that will look more like the future. I can’t predict that all economies will look like this in the future, but I’m sensing that something has changed and that the future will look more like the artisan economy than other things.
NN: Are there broader applications of these ideas for people outside Portland?
CH: Most books about this cultural economy are fixed on small, neo-bohemian places. It’s never about an entire city adopting an artisan economy so broadly. It’s almost indicative of how we’re going about living in this new world. People can learn from Portland in this area as they have with transportation, planning, livability and sustainability. We’re not the first in everything, but we have moved in innovative directions. People can read this and see we have an artisan economy that’s creating jobs, that’s a new way of creating urban areas, it’s an amenity-rich environment, and it’s not created top down. It’s not created to bring in tourist dollars.
Leading the way
Here’s random sampling of businesses highlighted in Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy:
Grand Central Bakery
New Seasons Market
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Hopworks Urban Brewery
Gamblin Artists Colors
David King Bass Guitars
Mudeye Puppet Co.
* Charity Thompson participated this summer with the student staff of Ooligan Press.