Some years ago, two dudes from Virginia came to visit Oregon. When they returned home, they gave such a glowing report about the region that many of the people they told decided to check out the area for themselves. One by one they began moving to the Willamette Valley, and they brought with them their own sensibilities about what the Pacific Northwest should look like. Although the change was gradual, within a few decades, the native inhabitants of this picturesque locale came to realise that the place they called home was not their home, anymore.
But anyways. Enough about Lewis & Clark.
I chose to start this article with that anecdote partially because I thought it was clever, and partially because I think it’s important to acknowledge that any conversation about gentrification in Portland must first concede that socioeconomic displacement is both an age-old problem and one that has affected other communities with far greater detriment than it has the City of Roses. (Also, Louisiana Purchase jokes aside, we must also admit that the United States’ treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest was a great deal worse than simple gentrification. And if you think that was only a nineteenth century problem, I want you to stop reading this article right now and go look up Celilo Falls. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) I’m very cognizant of all these facts… but I’m from Portland, so write what you know, right?
Recently, Tyler Hurst wrote a somewhat hubristic op-ed for Willamette Week (“I’m Sorry You Hate My Apartment, I Think It’s Nice”) and voluntarily turned himself into a lightning rod for people’s opinions about gentrification and hipster entitlement (both real and perceived) in Portland. Which got me thinking about my own experiences in The Curated City.
Thirty odd years ago, at Providence Portland Hospital, I was born into that most august and respected of orders: The Portland Native. My mother is a California transplant (slow your roll, she’s been here longer than most of you have been alive); my step-father was lifelong Oregonian. I spent the first quarter-century of my life on the Eastside, before eventually migrating to Beaverton to be closer to work – and an apartment I could afford. I still consider myself to be a Portlander at heart; after all, I write this blog, and I make my way into the city to visit friends or go to shows more nights than not.
These days, Portland Natives are becoming a rare commodity indeed – at least within the city limits. When I go out, one of my friends likes to introduce me thusly: “You guys, you gotta meet Yume. He’s ACTUALLY FROM HERE.” (cue oohs and ahhs from whoever I’m being introduced to) While I enjoy being a novelty of sorts, my acceptance of the Native mantle belies my deep ambivalence about this city and what it’s becoming.
My own experience with gentrification isn’t entirely theoretical. My childhood neighborhood (Concordia) and its once-plentiful street parking began falling prey to the hand of redevelopment years ago. I’ve watched my beloved Eastside become progressively less and less recognizable and I’ve seen gridlock spread its tendrils over practically every stretch of asphalt in the city. When I hear about the latest Barpocalypse closures, to me it’s simply the newest entry in an endless saga rather than some new, shocking tragedy. And I feel something akin to despair when I drive past the Craftsman homes I loved so much and dreamed of owning as a youth and realise that I couldn’t even afford to rent one, now.
More than that, though, I’ve watched with increasing frustration as housing prices throughout the Metro area skyrocket and Portland sacrifices more and more affordable parking while spending billions on what sometimes can seem like an increasingly self-serving transit system. (Oh, we’re spending $130 million on a mass transit bridge that’ll take you from one already-gentrified part of the city to another, rapidly-gentrifying area? Cool cool cool.)
Forget affording to live in Portland – Charlie Hales doesn’t seem to want my middle-class suburban ilk to come visit or spend money in his city, anymore. It’s good that we’re at least paying lip-service (though perhaps little else) to increasing the amount of low-income housing in the city, but there’s no spokesperson for the middle-class, here, and there’s nowhere for us to go, except another 10 more stops down the Blue Line. I understand the economics of urban growth and I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s fault that Portland is becoming a rich kid’s town. But it still stings. When I look at this city, I see not a land of opportunity, but rather a homeland I’ll never be able to afford to return to.
And yet… I freaking love this city, man. And I’ll freely admit that a lot of that has been the product gentrification. The preponderance of my friends these days are transplants, and they’re all pretty awesome individuals. (Presumably no one ever says to themselves, “Oh yeah, I hear Portland is full of assholes – let’s move there!”) I don’t feel like I have to lock my car doors when I drive down Killingsworth, anymore, and while time hasn’t been kind to many of the city’s beloved institutions as of late, we also tend to forget that Portland’s version of yuppie living used to be shopping at Fred Meyers and availing yourself of one of the many fine chain restaurants that dotted the landscape. I remember my parents saying stuff like, “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight? Izzy’s? Or should we be fancy and go to Sizzler?” Recently, I discovered that there’s still an Arctic Circle in Newport, and when I posted a photo of it on social media, my native-born friends lost their collective sh**. But as much as it was a nostalgic moment for all, I actually ate there and well… let’s just say that I don’t think All-Way and Little Big Burger have anything to worry about.
I get why people are upset about Portland’s changing demographics, but I also understand why transplants get tired of apologizing for why they, you know, exist.
So I’m conflicted. I get why people are upset about Portland’s changing demographics, but I also understand why transplants get tired of apologizing for why they, you know, exist. (As Kanye would say, “That’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.”) And I don’t pretend to have all (or any) of the answers to the challenges that the Portland Metro area in the coming years. But I would like to propose a few basic ground rules for talking about Gentrification in Portland that might at least help facilitate the conversation and/or reduce the number of insufferable Op-Ed pieces from jerks like me that you have to read on the subject.
1. Stop accepting things simply because they’re less crappy than where you came from.
There is, I think, a tendency among Portland’s non-native population to turn a blind eye to our problems because they’re objectively not as bad as where you may have lived before. Traffic is nothing compared to Los Angeles. Housing prices are nothing compared to San Francisco. Crime is nothing compared to Chicago. Racial tensions are nothing compared to Baltimore. These are valid statements, but they’re tracking the wrong metrics. The question isn’t whether or not Portland sucks as much as the cities you wanted to leave, it’s whether or not Portland is getting worse. If I come over to your house and pee on your living room rug, then explain to you that it’s not as bad as the last living room I peed in, that’s probably going to be small comfort to you. It tied the room together, you know? If we get too complacent about these things, it’s only a matter of time before Portland becomes unrecognizable from all the places you wanted to leave in the first place.
2. Stop pretending that things are “Authentically Portland.”
Stop pretending aesthetic authenticity is necessarily important.
Recently, Doug Fir Lounge ran an ad in Portland Monthly touting themselves as “Pure Portland.” Now, I love Doug Fir, but I did not particularly love that ad, because it’s not really true. Although DF’s log walls and Parks & Rec-esque backdrops have been around for a while now, it doesn’t look much like anything I remember from my childhood, nor do any of the “quintessentially Portland” spots that are on Portland Must Visit lists. Most of these places are an artist’s rendition of what people THINK Portland should look like (usually informed by their own New York / Los Angeles / Chicago sensibilities), and they’re about as authentic as grocery store Chinese food.
And that’s completely OK. A truly “authentic” Portland bar would probably have a name like “McFlintys” or “Ginny’s Too” and come decked out with laminate countertops, aging fluorescent lights, a robust selection of domestic taps, and as many video poker machines as you can physically fit into one building. You know what else is “authentically Portland”? Chain restaurants and a history of institutionalized racism that we don’t like to talk about. So maybe we can agree to stop referring to anything that’s full of unfinished wood and salvaged wrought-iron as “authentic” if we can agree that authenticity in its current aesthetic usage isn’t all that important.
3. Start being cognizant of what gentrification costs.
One of my friends recently purchased a “fixer” off of Northeast Alberta. He was raving about what a nice, hip neighborhood it was, but he blanched a little when I pointed out that the Alberta Arts district’s rapid growth had pushed out many lower-income families that had lived there just five or ten years earlier. Like many young towns, Portland has a short memory, and many people who are moving to up-and-coming neighborhoods don’t realise that the eminently walkable paradises they inhabit were once home to now-displaced low-income and/or African American households, many of whom had already been forcibly moved less than a half a century earlier by the Vanport Flood, the construction of Memorial Coliseum and Lloyd Center, and the building of Interstate 84.
The cost of living in Portland is a little like going to a funeral for a relative you never met: it’s not your fault and no one’s asking you to feel bad about it, but try to be sympathetic
So before you start dropping Marie Antoinette-esque bon mots like “Sorry (your home) isn’t worth talking and making videos about” (*cough* Tyler Hurst *cough*), remember that while years of regionally-adjusted salaries in other cities may make living in Portland seem pretty affordable, it’s small comfort for people whose rents have gone up in 100% in the past decade. The cost of living in Portland is a little like going to a funeral for a relative you never met: it’s not your fault and no one’s asking you to feel bad about it, but try to be sympathetic, at least.
4. Start figuring out what’s worth saving.
We can’t turn back the tide of gentrification in this city. Affordable housing and socioeconomic diversity are going extinct in this town as quickly as parking on the waterfront or businesses founded before the year 2000, and there’s very little that any of us can do about that. The levee has burst. (Although we probably have plenty of new tax levies to look forward to. HEYO.) What we can, do, though, is enter into a conversation about what makes Portland so uniquely “Portland” (more than just aesthetically) and about what’s worth preserving, here. We should be talking about what businesses are worth fighting to save and what shreds of Portland’s character we should tighten our grip on. Ask yourself: what are the things you want to carry to your post-Barpocalypse fallout shelter? If you’re a transplant to this town, ask yourself: what made you fall in love with this city in the first place? If you’re a native, ask yourself: what made you stay? Now ask yourself if those values are being eclipsed by Portland’s transition to a “big city.”
If you’re a transplant to this town, ask yourself: what made you fall in love with this city in the first place? If you’re a native, ask yourself: what made you stay?
I know what my own answer would be. For me, Portland’s sleek apartment buildings, glittering restaurants and meticulously-curated retail shops are all beautiful but ultimately false idols. The Portland I fell in love with was not an insular yupster enclave, but rather a vibrant, robust, slightly-rough-around-the-edges community full of the ideals of our frontier-town roots: innovation, rugged individualism and boundless optimism. Even more than its native citizenry, Portland’s truly non-renewable resource is its own sense of self. And I hope we can all agree that’s something worth holding onto.
UPDATE: For the follow-up to this article, check out the cover story we wrote for Portland Mercury.