Last July, when I returned from 13 months of traveling to Portland, Oregon, I found my adopted home town a different place than I had left. The place was overrun with newcomers clogging surface roads with traffic and filling vacancies in condominium buildings that had sprouted like mushrooms in desirable areas. The neighborhood bar, aptly called The Standard, I enjoyed for its divey, black-clad vibe now also saw pastel polo shirts and bachelorette parties crowding the tables. The list goes on.
Change, of course, is a natural facet of life; I had not expected the place to remain the same. I also knew that change appears to be much more prominent after an absence than when you are in the middle of it. Yet what I thought of as reverse culture shock was filling the pages of the city’s weekly newspapers and dominating conversations. The transformation that came as a jolt to me was shaking the city to the core, and it continues to do so.
The New Portland: It’s a Problem
The complaint goes something like this: Over the past decade the city has received a tremendous amount of publicity, from the (not-so-funny) IFC show Portlandia to the (all-too-serious) New York Times. Front and center have been Portland’s many quality-of-life virtues, from the creative vibe to the craft beer and restaurant scene, from low-cost of living to walk- and bikeability, from the many green splendors to the general rad-ness. The generation of Americans seeking a place to begin settling down paid attention and flocked here.
The Portland metropolitan area’s urban growth boundary limits sprawl, which results in new development having to go up, rather than out. After the Great Recession, developers launched a condo-building craze to house the new population. But, even as condos ratchet up the city’s density, the supply can’t keep up with the accelerating influx. The resulting housing shortage is pushing rental and home prices up, pushing African Americans out of traditionally black neighborhoods and artists of all ilks out of their cheap rooms, eastward where housing is cheaper, toward the derided 82nd Avenue.
Some call it gentrification: the city’s growing up, they say, maturing from punk-rock rags and tight jeans to khakis and the aforementioned polo shirts. Perhaps the hipster is going the way of the dad. Others blame greedy developers capitalizing on the trend.
Fellow Yankee, Go Home
What we can all agree on is our shared dislike of the newcomers. A divide has emerged between established transplants, roughly those who arrived before the Recession, and the new, post-Recession arrivals (I omit Portlanders born here because they seem so rare nowadays and because they’ve been through this before).
After I moved here in 2004 I heard complaints about immigrant Californians driving up home prices. In other words, young professionals have been coming here for a while now. We just may have reached a tipping point.
But now I am one of the complainers. At a networking gathering the other day, I helped a spirit of camaraderie develop around the table when us, established nonprofit professionals commiserated about the new Portland. Ever since my return last year, at my favorite places I’ve frequently caught myself thinking, “Who are these people?”
Taking Responsibility, Taking Portland Back
Few older transplants blame themselves. Had we collectively not created a city that others find attractive, we’d have nothing to talk about. Each and every person who moves here alters the place. I did when I moved here and so has everyone else who has made this great city home.
The same goes for immigration to the U.S. Some like to complain about America that’s disappearing before their eyes as the new arrivals change its fabric. But we are all immigrants. Complaining about the changing Portland and new transplants, of whom I am one, is no different than complaining about new America and immigrants, of whom I am one, too.
And so, I have decided to quit complaining. I will no longer berate the change I helped bring about. Instead of glaring at that new boxy building, I will relish biking under the trees lining the street and through the invisible clouds of flower fragrances, even as I fail to avoid the scantily-clad hordes of bicyclists converging on the Naked Bike Ride. Instead of giving a stink eye to ‘those people,’ I will quaff that new microbrew like it was my last one. And I will remind myself that The Standard and its cheap booze is still only two blocks away. Besides, they now have a Thursday all-night Happy Hour for patrons with an Oregon drivers license.