Stumptown. The city of bridges. The city of roses. “Little Beirut”. “The dream of the ‘90s.” “Where people in their 20s go to retire.”
This is just the shortlist of the many, many monikers of Portland, Or., which has also been referred to as “the West Coast capitol of urban cool,” and “The best food city in America,” according to such esteemable publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post, respectively.
The nicknames, although apt, serve to illustrate the contradictions inherent in this vibrant former logging and shipping hub. A level-headed analysis of the nicknames, the history, the weather and geography of this jewel of the West Coast should help you decide if you want to move here, as it’s not for everybody.
For those that can cut it, however, it’s a mecca for homegrown culture and community. It’s a city that appreciates the finer things in life, even if we can be a bit eclectic and dysfunctional at times. Which is part of the charm.
Located in the heart of the Willamette Valley, where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers come together to form a strange, whirlpool-like vortex beneath any of Portland’s numerous river-spanning bridges, Portland, Or. is one of the jewels of the American Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest is known for its majestic, epic forests; its robust coffee (Seattle was the home to the original Starbucks); and for an unconventional, independent subculture, thanks to the Grunge movement of the ‘90s.
Portland is nestled against the foothills of the Tualatin Mountains, to the West, while the Cascades lie to the East and the snow-capped peaks of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood are visible to the North on clear days.
Portland, Or. lives up to its reputation as one of the Greenest Cities In The Country with over 10,000 acres of parks within the city limits, including one of the largest municipal parks in the country, if not the world, with the rambling, old growth of Forest Park. These parks not only contribute to the clean, environmentally-friendly vibes of the city, they also factor into the laid-back crawl of life Stumptown is occasionally known for. On a nice day, which can be few and far between, it’s not uncommon for the parks to be teeming with hundreds of barely-clad people, young and old alike. Bands might be playing, people will be rollerskating, skateboarding, and hula-hooping. Free food may be disseminated to the hungry. All of which contribute to a vibrant, lively feeling similar to what it might’ve been in Paris from the 1880s to the 1920s. A feeling of collaboration, of possibility, of interaction and exchange.
Much of Portland is flat, which is good news for those not big on the incline (maybe you’ve been living in San Francisco), but the foothills to the West give a mild incline headed towards downtown, which can be a nuisance when you’re riding a bicycle. Be advised.
Apartment Hunter’s Guide To Portland, Or.
The weather in Portland separates those who are cut out for living in the Pacific Northwest and those who are merely believing the hype. A lot of people from elsewhere think, “Oh yeah, I hear it’s rainy, but it can’t be that bad!” True AND false. On one hand, it’s NOT that bad, as our version of rain during the wet winter months tends towards a light, drizzling sprinkle, which can leave you feeling like you’re living inside of a Supermarket Produce Section for six months. Which you essentially will be, as this constant precipitation is what makes the lush greenery and ample wildlife possible.
This weather can take a psychological toll, however, which a lot of people neglect to factor into their moving plans. Constant rain also means no sun, and you can sometimes be left feeling like you live in Scandinavia or Alaska by the time March rolls around, and you haven’t seen the sun for months.
What this means is, in one acronym, S.A.D. – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a real thing, and if you feel like you’re prone to melancholy or depression and have a hard time snapping out of it, don’t move here!!! If you think you’ve got what it takes, buy a light box and an oversized bottle of Vitamin D tablets, and find out if you have what it takes. (Ed. comment. It’s clear J was writing this at the end of the looong winter…)
Of course, the six months of rain is the old, traditional bogey of the Pacific Northwest, partially designed to deter the curiosity-seeking transplants. The secret is (and I could get deported for writing this publicly) is the other three seasons are as close to paradisical as you’re likely to find in the continental United States. We make up for the rain with nearly four months of unbroken perfection. This leads to the other, sunny side of Portland’s personality, as everyone goes absolutely bananas for the entire summer. Clothing becomes optional (This is not hyperbole. Public nudity is not illegal in Oregon.), sunbathing becomes the national past time, and seemingly every day and every night is crammed full of more fairs, festivals, concerts, and gallery walks than you could shake a smudge stick at. And that’s not even mentioning the glories the natural world have to offer.
The Job Market
Portland has a reputation for being “slack”, a place where people go to do nothing, or chase their unrealistic dreams of questionable entrepreneurship (“he’s making furniture now”, “she’s making jewelry now”). This has just as much to do with the job market as it does with the starry idealism of our residents. It also reveals possibly the starkest, most startling aspect of what it means to move to Portland.
There’s not a lot of jobs in the City Of Roses, although this is expected to change in the foreseeable future. The current employment rate is 6%, 1.1% higher than the national average. The sometimes bleak downside of this statistic is that not a lot of these jobs are general, open-to-the-public type jobs. Jobs in the retail and restaurant industry can be fiercely competitive, with several hundred people applying for a Craigslist listing within the first 48 hours.
The bottom line is, if you don’t already have either a job lined up or a bunch of money saved, I’d HIGHLY advise against relocating to PDX. It’s possible to have a dream and make it work here, but with the insane escalation of the cost of living, the past few years, the scarcity of jobs and vacant housing, and a general feeling of burn-out among the charitable denizens of this city, it’s getting harder and harder by the second.
Top 5 Industries In Portland, Or.
- Sales, office, administrative support 22.16%
- Management, business, finance 15.90%
- Production, transportation, material moving 10.55%
- Food preparation, serving 7.54%
- Engineering, computers, science 7.19%
Where To Live: The Quadrants
Like many river cities, the Willamette River bisects Portland’s East and West sides. As such, Portland is divided into quadrants, or four sectors, with each area having its own distinct flavor, price points, and population.
A note on the average cost of housing. All data was compiled from Craigslist ads, from throughout the region, and consolidated into a Google Spreadsheet. Data points were collected from throughout the quadrant, from close in to the dividing line, to the farthest outlying regions. We gathered as much data from as many different housing situations as possible, from studios to four bedrooms, and averaged the results. Certain areas, however, have a proliferation of certain types of housing, like studios in SE, near PSU campus, while N/NE – North Portland, Kenton, and Saint John’s – tends to have more shared houses, which is incredibly common in Portland. When considering which area you’d like to live in, keep in mind these averages don’t reflect the size of the space, so you could potentially be paying a lot more for a lot less space. Make sure to do further research, before signing any agreements.
Here’s a brief overview of the four quadrants, touching on the strengths and weaknesses of each.
SE Portland: Westmoreland, Eastmoreland, Hawthorne, Sellwood, Mt. Tabor
SE Portland might be the most iconic, picturesque area of Portland, with charming, tree-lined streets, public gardens, rose gardens galore, trendy shopping, eating, and lots and lots of houses.
SE Portland is one of the densest, most populated areas in Portland, particularly for young families. Housing tends towards private houses, suitable for a single family, or as shared housing with other singles or couples ( highly common throughout the city).
Due to the reputation, particularly around neighborhoods like Hawthorne (known for some time as PDX’s “hippy district”), people are seeking their image of the iconic, idyllic Portland, which means housing can be hard to find and expensive in SE. Up-and-coming neighborhoods, like Division St., might make it worthwhile, however, especially if you’re looking for the slicker, sharper “new Portland” that is starting to emerge.
SE can be a bit slim on the night life (another tendency common to many areas of Portland, particularly the residential neighborhoods), but most things are either walkable or accessible by a small commute by bike, bus, train, or car.
Deep SE used to be rather cutoff and difficult to access, particularly in Sellwood and East/Westmoreland, but the newly unveiled Orange Line MAX connects the North and South like a dream, meaning you can take one train to get from one end of the city to the other, without having to transfer. If you’re a transit warrior, you’re likely to appreciate the convenience, particularly in rainy weather.
Average Rental Price: $1480
Average Shared Housing Price: $650
North/NE Portland: Hollywood, Irvington, Mississippi/Albina, Alberta, Laurelhurst, St. John’s
North and NE Portland have long had a reputation as some of the funkier, more blue collar living. This reputation is still true, even in these shifting times. It just means you’re likely to walk past three or four modernist high-rises that went up in four months on your way to eat soul food, see a folk concert at The Waypost, or hang out and smell the roses at Peninsula Park.
Mississippi/Albina/Alberta have become a mecca for the arts&crafts contingent PDX attracts. If you’re looking for some good kombucha, a kimchi quesadilla, ear plugs made out of refurbished bicycle parts, knitting supplies, and high-end design shops, you’ll be in heaven here. Of course, this demographic tends to have a lot of cash, meaning it can be hard to find a place, affordable or not. It can be done, however, if your heart is set on it.
Let me break the fourth wall for a moment with an autobiographical anecdote. My girlfriend and I are currently living in a split-level old wooden farmhouse, close to the Killingsworth MAX stop, and we love it! It’s double what we’ve paid, the whole five years I’ve been living here, but it has resuscitated our fervor for this city. It feels like A CITY, living in N/NE. We’d been living in the far outlying neighborhoods of Sellwood and St. John’s for the last two years, which can lead to feeling detached and out of the loop, particularly when you don’t have a car, so keep that in mind.
N/NE is rife with live music, fabulous restaurants and food carts, cafes, bakeries, and specialty shopping, most within walking distance! Your only problem will be having enough time and money to try all the awesome places you’ve spotted, which is a great problem to have! Incidentally, N/NE has the best pizza I’ve found so far in Portland, with Eddie’s Flatiron Pizza, which is super important for a Chicago boy like myself. If you visit or more to our fine, fair neighborhood, make sure to check out their delicious Calzones and exquisite-but-affordable pie. Tell ‘em J sent you!
Average Rental Price: $1550
Average Shared Housing Price: $522.50
NW Portland: The Pearl
Northwest is the heart of “New Portland”, full of high-end boutiques, design firms, stylists, gyms, “galleries”, and the like. Rent is triple what it would be in any other neighborhood, and you can get a polished-chrome closet-sized apartment which will at least have tons of natural light, but zero privacy.
Quick access to downtown and PSU will make this popular for business people and students, but that’s about the extent of it.
(Frankly, NW is where you move when you’re willing to pay exorbitant fees for an impressive address that will let you feel superior to others. Portlanders, however, are not impressed, and are more likely to feel pity and mild distaste.)
There are some perks of NW, as there are some nice shops and places to eat in that quadrant, but not enough to pay $2000/month for a studio. Take heed!
Average Rental Price: $1430
Average Shared Housing Price: $595
There’s not much in SW, apart from PSU, although there are some areas of natural beauty. It is home to some of PDX’s most well-known attractions, such as the International Rose Test Garden, Japanese Gardens, Hoyt Arboretum, Children’s Museum, and Oregon Zoo.
If you don’t own a car, SW can be a bit remote and cut-off from the rest of the city, being accessible mainly by bus lines that stop running at an inconveniently early hour.
If you’re going to be attending PSU, and don’t feel like paying out the nose to live in The Pearl, SW could be a good option. There tends to be some good deals on places on 4th St./Barbur Ave., so make sure to bookmark that area if you’re looking for apartment deals.
Average Rental Price: $1347
Average Shared Housing Price: $512
Other Factors To Keep In Mind When Moving To Portland
So far, we’ve touched on all the major points of moving to a new city: the weather, the economy, the lay of the land. Now let’s talk for a moment about some of the finer points of the city, to help you decide if Stumptown is right for you.
Pacific Northwesterners are weird people. We’re somewhere between the friendly, slow-rolling hospitality of the South, with the brusque, no-nonsense, keep-to-yourself edge of the East Coast. As a Midwesterner by birth, who has spent some time living in the South, it agrees with me perfectly. The dichotomy can make it hard to get a read on people, however.
Sometimes Portlanders will stop and chat with you for half an hour, exchanging pleasantries, discussing ideas, telling you about their cosmic epiphanies. (It happens. All the time.) We will also totally blow you off, not giving you the time of day, depending on the time of day (pro tip: if someone looks like they’re late to work, don’t try and start a meaningful conversation).
As a general rule, Portlanders tend to be conscientious to a fault. It’s a city full of caring, empathetic people (my girlfriend will go to great lengths to avoid squishing a slug, which are also prevalent in this city). This tendency has been taken advantage by many in need of a helping hand or looking for a handout, which has left many natives and residents feeling burnt out and resentful, giving more of a conventional urban vibe.
More on that in a moment, but it’s worth mentioning that, for the most part, Portland tends to be very female-friendly. We haven’t entirely eliminated many of the problems that plague most urban environments, but we’ve come a long way. Many women report feeling safe going out at night, no matter the neighborhood, and, thank the stars, catcalling seems to be on the decline. When some meathead steps out of line, there’s quick to be a crowd of dagger-eyed sympathizers, meaning we are standing on the edge of that glorious day when a lady can look good because she feels like it without having to live in fear.
Much has been made of Portland’s homogenous, white-washed demographics and, sadly, these reports have some kernel of truth. Oregon in general has some sad, buried racist secrets in its past which kept people of color and other ethnicities out and unwelcome for a long time. Racial tensions don’t tend to be above-board and obvious, but are more subtle and insidious, from having a largely white populace. This is a deterrent for a lot of people moving to Portland, and for good reason. For those more comfortable in more diverse communities, you’d be advised to look in N and NE.
Portland is known for having a homeless problem. This stereotype is partially true, although not much more than any other urban center. Being a relatively mild-weathered city on the West Coast, that is known for being friendly to the homeless, as well as being a waystation between other West Coast hubs, sets the stage for having a dense houseless population, particularly in the warm weather months.
Expect to see the usual rigamarole of panhandling – mostly courteous, some aggressive – as well as attempted cigarette bumming, public intoxication, lots and lots of street music and art (another reason we love it here), some interesting conversations (and some incoherent ones), with the occasional bout of anarchy on a Saturday night (although, to be fair, most of the chaos comes from PSU students and suburbanites from Gresham and Milwaukee). Homeless tend to gravitate downtown and around Burnside Ave. (the line that separates North from South), where most of the services are. If you frequent downtown, be prepared to be asked for a lot of cigarettes, even if you don’t smoke. But just remember to not get jaded or judge. People end up on the street for a wide variety of reasons, including many from untreated mental illness and addiction. Houseless people in Portland very rarely get really aggressive, so stay calm, and remain kind.
As we mentioned earlier, Portland was recently dubbed “The #1 Food City In America”, and for good reason. There is, quite simply, a staggering array of delicious, eye-cross, mouth-watering cuisine from every corner of the globe, as well as previously unseen, and untasted, combinations of each. As an example, from my house to where my girlfriend works on Alberta, there are FOURTEEN ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS! If you’ve ever had Ethiopian food, you’d realize this is Nirvana, especially considering you can go a couple more blocks for some French pastries for dessert, craft breweries for an after dinner pint, and cafes for the caffeinated.
Another aspect of Portland’s food scene, which is rather unique to this city, is the Food Carts. We’re loaded down with ‘em, in all manner of swank pods and outdoor dining areas all over town. When east-coasters hear “food cart”, they tend to translate that to “roach coach”. Wrongwrongwrong! First of all, we don’t really have roaches out here. Secondly, most food carts are exceptionally clean, being mobile high-end gourmet kitchens. The food carts operate with very little overhead, making it possible to keep their prices relatively low ($3 – 4 burritos are still a reality in some parts of the city), which helps to keep the prices down at the sit-down restaurants.
Once the spring springs, you can’t imagine the joy of sitting in a lovely rose garden, eating some $6 pad thai with some close friends. You wonder why we take the time to appreciate the finer things, in our little port town.
As we discussed at the beginning, Portland isn’t for everybody. The weird mixture of ambition and mellowness is really confusing for a lot of people. If you’re really stressed out and kind of a brusque jerk, you’re not going to like it here. Likewise, if you’re not doing anything with your life, you’re also likely to be outcast. We’re a city that builds its own culture, that prides itself on our DIY ethos, our ability to have a funky, weird good time with very little and, often, no money at all. We have a naked bike ride in the summer (something to see), lots of weird flash parties (zombie crawls galore), but we wake up at 8 the next morning and start our next non-profit.
To put in perspective, we’re smack dab in the middle of the angsty Grunge nihilism of Seattle in the ‘90s and the high-tech futurism of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. This is, perhaps, the best visualization of the push-and-pull dichotomy beneath the surface.
Before you move, you’d be advised to first, find a place to live (start early); second, find a job (I hear telecommuting is on the rise!); and, a subtle third, ask yourself not what Portland can do for you, but what you can do for Portland.
If you show up with a participatory spirit, an appreciation of culture and Portland’s weird history, you’ll do great. If you can manage to master the balance of being independent and self-motivated while still remaining friendly, open, and open-minded, this city has a way of making your dreams come true. It has for me.