|W. Kamau Bell, right, with Alex Bernson, left, in the Portland-filmed "Is it Cool to be Hip?" episode of the CNN documentary series, "United Shades of America." (CNN)|
Those are just some of the questions raised in CNN's "United Shades of America," comedian and commentator W. Kamau Bell's documentary series.
In the Sunday, May 29 episode, titled "Is it Cool to be Hip?" Bell spends time in Portland, talking with community members about the changing face of the Rose City.
In prior episodes, Bell has visited members of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, walked the beat with police in Camden, New Jersey, and explored what it means to be Latino in the U.S.
"Gentrification is an issue that affects every major city," Bell says. Exploring the topic through Portland's experience made sense, Bell said in a recent phone conversation.
"I've sort of struggled with my own feelings about Portland," says Bell, who has performed here several times, at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival and in venues around town.
But saying "it's not my fault," Bell adds, just means running away from thinking about Portland's overwhelming whiteness, and what it means.
"I've lived in San Francisco, Chicago, the East Bay of Oakland, and lived in New York for a few months," says Bell, who now lives in Berkeley. "Everywhere I've lived has dealt with gentrification. So when we started pitching ideas for episodes, whenever I've been in Portland, I've observed gentrification. But I've never heard where it comes from, or why there's the narrative - that even Portland is tired of - that it's the coolest place to live in the country? Why is it being labeled that, and what's the other side of cool?"
That meant, Bell says, coming to Portland, and visiting with some of its residents. In the "United Shades of America" episode, which was filmed last year, Bell talks with African Americans, hipsters, a developer and even, yes, Samantha Hess, Portland's well-publicized professional cuddler.
In the episode, Bell goes a Portland coffee shop, and meets Alex Bernson, a bearded, knit cap-wearing young man who was writing about coffee on his laptop. Bell asks Bernson if he considers himself a hipster. "No one does," Bernson says, adding that it's regarded as "kind of a dirty word." It's become a convenient slur, Bernson says, for millennials and people who work in coffee shops.
Bernson, as it happens, no longer lives in Portland. In a Twitter note, he says he grew up in Seattle, lived in Portland from 2008-2009 and 2013-2015 but recently moved to New York.
"The change for me was mostly about wanting a bigger city with more diversity and options," Bernson writes, adding that he loves Portland, even though "it has its problems, as does NYC and anywhere else."
In the "Is it Cool to be Hip?" episode, Bell also talks about how historically African American Portland neighborhoods became hot spots for new development, which brought rising housing prices that forced many longtime residents of color to move.
Bell meets with Pastor Donald Frazier, of Genesis Community Fellowship, in Northeast Portland, who talks about how members of his congregation have moved out of neighborhoods that were long home to African American families.
Before he's through, Bell also talks with singer Ural Thomas, and developer Ben Kaiser.
Toward the end of "Is it Cool to Be Hip?" Bell suggests that, in a city that's known for its bridges, a bridge needs to be built between the people moving in, and the people moving out.
On the phone, Bell says gentrification is a complex issue, as it can make neighborhoods nicer while still forcing out lower-income residents who can no longer afford to live there.
"I think we have to stop making government about profit," Bell says. "Just because your property values go up doesn't mean you have a better city. You have to value a sense of community over the value of money."
"United Shades of America" airs at 7 p.m., and repeats at 10 p.m., Sunday, May 29 on CNN
-- Kristi Turnquist
You already know how I feel about Portland. I'll just leave it at that.