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Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success

Alex Marshall / Dec 29 2010

For Release Sunday, January 2, 2011

Alex MarshallAs snow and cold weather swept over so much of the nation for the holidays, many families huddled around the television were likely watching an old but still popular television series set in an often icy and windswept place: The Mary Tyler Moore show.

Quick, tell me where was this show set? Minneapolis/St. Paul, I bet most people remember. When the series debuted in 1970, the Minnesota cities represented an unusual and risky choice. Would viewers connect with a region so far from both coasts and the bulk of the country’s population?

But the Twin Cities as location helped establish the show’s distinctive personality. The opening credits with the bouncy theme song — “You might just make it after all!” — show the newly single “Mary Richards” taking the exit ramp to “Minneapolis/St Paul,” walking by Donaldson’s department store (now of course defunct), and walking through wintery streets clad in fur. Now a statue of “Mary” now stands in a square near to where Donaldson’s Department Store used to be.

More than a major league sports team, more than an opera house or symphony, having a network set a television series in your city is an announcement, that you have arrived as a metropolis.  Not that many midsized or even larger cities have been the setting for shows. Boston Legal was set in of course Boston. Breaking Bad from AMC is set in Albuquerque. Mork & Mindy, the 1970s show where Robin Williams startled a nation with his talents, was set in Boulder. The Wire from HBO was set in Baltimore, although its portrayal was not flattering.

Whatever the city, the choice of location for a show is a big deal. New York City defined the popular comedy Seinfeld, even though, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was actually filmed in California.

One city that has recently arrived is Portland. The show “Life Unexpected” from the CW network, now in its second season, is set there. The show, which is about a 16 year-old girl raised in foster homes finding her birth parents and moving in with them, is cloying and annoying in its characters and plots, but the city of Portland shines through bright and clear. Just about every scene switch is transitioned by shots of the city’s light rail trains with “Gresham” on the front, or the steel-girder bridges across the Willamette River, or shots of the city’s skyline. The opening credits are a mini travel guide to the city. The show is actually mostly filmed in neighboring Vancouver, but as with Mary Tyler Moore or Seinfeld, that’s not what is important.

Oregon and Portland have been pursuing the road less traveled for at least four decades, passing growth management laws as well as things unrelated to urban planning such as assisted-suicide laws, motor voter bills and medical marijuana laws. This has earned them the enmity of various established interests, including sometimes the federal government. But one more clearly positive thing it has earned the city, which really can’t be separated from the state, is distinctiveness. Beyond income per capita, unemployment rate or overall wealth, Portland is a city that is itself and nothing else. That’s rare these days.

Portland and Oregon have taken a lot of flak for their choices and they’re having a tough time in the Great Recession. But right or wrong, they should be praised for having the courage to go their own way, to be democracies in the fullest sense of the word. What this has earned them over time is specialness.

It’s hard to imagine other midsize cities have enough personality and presence to carry a TV show. Hovering around Portland in size, if you compare metro areas, are such cities as Tampa, St. Louis, Sacramento, Orlando, Charlotte and Indianapolis. Can you imagine a drama or comedy set in one of them? Can you imagine a viewer tuning into one of those cities week after week?

Portland once wasn’t so special. In the early 1970s, Portland was just another midsized city with a downtown full of parking lots, half empty storefronts and street-killing freeways, similar to my native city of Norfolk. Then Oregon and Portland tore down a freeway, passed a state growth control measure, established a regional government and capped downtown parking. The state and the city began becoming distinctive places, as well as more prosperous. Population figures tell the story. The city of Portland grew from a low of 366,000 people in 1980 to 540,000 today. Norfolk by comparison, has shrunk from 307,000 in 1970 to a 230,000 today. Two cities once roughly comparable are now starkly different.

And in the long run, being distinctive is a positive thing for a city because rather than being nowhere, you’re somewhere. It can’t be faked though. It’s about confronting hard choices and making the right ones. Here’s hoping that more cities and states follow Portland’s and Oregon’s lead, and become distinctive.

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  1. Tom Jones
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re overplaying this thesis to the point of breakage. The notion that Portland is so fascinating is one of those echo chamber kinds of opinions that is accepted as conventional wisdom while many of the cities you mentioned are just as distinctive and lots more interesting. Let’s praise Portland, but there’s plenty to praise in those other cities you dismissed as well.

  2. Raquel Lynch
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Ouch! Is first the sentiment of a Charlotte, NC resident. Yet, I couldn’t agree more with your article with regards to Portland. I was there less than a week a year ago and I could see, hear and feel that I was in a different and exciting city, at least for me. Portland is the example of the rewards of the road less traveled, yet people in communities must realize the rewards do not come immediately. What I have read about Portland is they have created a culture of regional -decision- making, which is not an effortless endeavor, especially in the USA where the culture professes independence to make their own decisions above of anything else…Including at times a prosperous future.

  3. Matt
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I guess you know very little about St. Louis…it’s quite distinctive sometimes to a fault, with its red brick cityscape, mansard roofs, and bizarre culinary obsessions.

  4. Tom
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    How is St. Louis grouped in the same category as sun belt cities like Charlotte, Tampa, and Sacramento? It is a much older city and way more distinct Portland.
    All this shows me is that Portland has some of the biggest cheerleaders in the country. While my hometown of St. Louis (one of America’s oldest and historically significant cities) gets slammed for not having “personality”.
    I also don’t have to imagine a film taking place in my city, because one of the most famous musicals in American history is called “Meet Me in St. Louis”. Go Figure.

  5. Dianne Smith
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Should point out that the show “The Mentalist” takes place in one of the cities you could not imagine being the site of a show – Sacramento.

  6. Steve L.
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Ummm, have you ever been to St. Louis? It’s A LOT older and more distinctive than your beloved Portland. Furthermore, it has some of the most impressive urban fabric in the USA. So yes– I could imagine watching a show set in St. Louis week after week. It is incredibly photogenic and is one of the most historic cities in the country. Travel before you write.

  7. Matt
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Also, there’s been a number of weekly sitcoms television programs set in St. Louis, typically taking place in the inner city.

  8. Metroplexual
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Interesting take that a city has made it when a television show is based in the city. I like shows where the city it is filmed in is like another character but it was rarely featured in MTM’s show. WKRP in Cincinatti was at least about the people that could have been in Cincinnati. The show Dallas was rarely in that city. But more recently shows that Matt Nix have put out like Burn Notice which is really filmed in Miami and The Good Guys which is really filmed in Dallas have actually highlighted the cities and their quirks which have made for much better television. The norm which is growing very tired has been either LA or a set in LA pretending to be NYC.

  9. GeographyLesson
    Posted January 3, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The show is actually filmed entirely in North Vancouver, British Columbia, which is not a neighbor to Portland at all. Vancouver, Washington is a suburb of Portland and I’m pretty sure nothing of significance has ever been filmed there.

  10. David Larsen
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    If anything, having this show ‘in’ Portland proves one thing…that Portland is in the middle of its full-fledged transition from quirky, authentic town, to a sell-out. Not that Portlanders have sold-out, but the market has targeted Portland as the place to be and so it will continue to be over-run by new-comers and will continue to lose the charm and character it once had.

    Funny you mention STL (my hometown and one that has absolutely no connection with the cities you have mentioned…as I’m sure you can tell from the comments). Cities such as STL, Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities that have been down-and-out are now the ones reinventing themselves from the community up. They have healthy bones and legacy infrastructure that can’t be found in newer cities and is finally being recognized for their value. On top of dirt-cheap land/housing, these areas are ready for the completion of boomerang effect, locals who have left and are ready to come back to the places they call home and love dearly. I’m currently mapping out my return trip now….and yes, STL is the most beautiful city I have come yet to come across in the great USA

  11. jc
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I have lived in Portland for many years and know quite a bit about its history and have no idea what freeway was torn down that you mention. Condo developers and bicycle advocates would like to tear them all out but I know of none being removed.

  12. Kevin
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    You said: “It’s hard to imagine other midsize cities have enough personality and presence to carry a TV show. Hovering around Portland in size, if you compare metro areas, are such cities as Tampa, St. Louis, Sacramento, Orlando, Charlotte and Indianapolis.”

    “One Day At a Time” was set in Indianapolis; according to Wikipedia, it ran 9 years on CBS.

    You also said: “Beyond income per capita, unemployment rate or overall wealth, Portland is a city that is itself and nothing else. That’s rare these days.”

    That would come as news to other midsize cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Boulder, and Savannah — all of which are as firmly convinced of their positive attributes as Portland is, but also bring both a bit of modesty to the table and a more clear-eyed view of their own strengths and faults.

    I don’t think

  13. larry
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as a local (55 years) I can say that Portland is deeply in debt. However, it is run by boys and girls who work hard to make it fun for the other kids.

    The population density here has doubled as have all the prices. The wonderful kids that move here vote for all the groovy stuff, discover that there is no work and eventually move on. We’re an important part of their growing up.
    Consequently, we are borrowning money to pay the interest on the money we borrowed for all of the groovy projects. How do you think they’ll get the money to pay for the principle?

    We produce poetry slams and graphic novels but no literature. We have a youth culture but no adult culture (although we are pretty heavy in the porn and sex worker line). Portland has become a postcard with a crayoned message that has been sent to the Peter Pans of suburbia.

    But come on in. Brings your dogs, bikes, guitar, and activism. It’s just fun, fun, fun.

  14. beardo
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    @JC: The freeway in question used to run along the downtown waterfront. It was torn out to make way for Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

  15. Mike J
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    “Eight is Enough” took place in Sacramento.

  16. Andrew
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Vancouver, Washington is “America’s Vancouver”, or “Vancouver, USA”, or simply “The Couv” depending on which local you talk to. It is a historic and dynamic city of 165,000 people that just happens to be adjacent to Portland, OR. The TV series “Leverage” has filmed several episodes in The Couv recently, and much of the Harrison Ford flick “Extreme Measures” was shot here also.

  17. Adam
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Off the top of my head, The John Larroquette Show took place in Saint Louis.