Portland: A Victim of Its Own Popularity

Edited to add: “Rewriting Portlandia” by Carl Alviani

Oh Portland, my Portland. Land of my birth.

In the 1990s, city planners took the pulse of residents. After talking to our outdoorsy, environmentally minded citizens, city officials decided that we treasure our natural areas so highly we needed to actively combat urban sprawl. Transportation planning was directed for the next few decades. We had a top-notch public transit system and major steps were taken to support alternative transportation and multi-modalism. At this point, we were essentially attempting to stem the tide of “all the Californians” that had been moving to Oregon. (Governor Tom McCall perhaps said it best.)

In the 2000s, young college graduates from around the country heard the rents were cheap and you didn’t need to have a car. Former hippie havens in Portland gave way to hipster fare. Portland got a reputation for bikes, beer, and coffee.

In 2011, Portlandia premiered. Suddenly even more eyes were upon us. The people parodied in Portlandia are apparently too cool to watch themselves, but their friends around the country can’t help but be curious. (Yes, bike moves are really a thing, although their depiction is naturally exaggerated by Fred and Carrie.) And as one of the more thriving housing markets around the country, newbies looking for a house and residents who aren’t moving have created low housing inventory for Portland.

Displacement arguably started long ago, when Jim and Patty’s Coffee People was pushed out by Starbucks. When walking along Hawthorne meant smelling patchouli or incense as you passed open shop doors, instead of the smell of Aveda products.

Earlier this year I learned the auto shop repairing my vehicle would be moving to the outer limits of the metro area. Situated around the corner from Portland’s soon-to-be newest bridge, the owner had gotten an offer he could not refuse, considering the rising land values. It was centrally located for decades, a great plus for accessing via transit when your vehicle is in the shop.

More recently, The Oregonian ran a series about demolition in Portland (“Ten Years of Portland Home Demolitions in One GIF,” “Shortage of Lots in the Suburbs Drives Builders to Demolish and Build in the City“), exploring the problems home builders are having getting land in the suburbs. This ultimately leads them to buy perfectly good houses to demolish and either a build expensive luxury home in their place, or two or three “normal” homes on the same footprint.

Not too long after seeing the series about demolition in Portland, I read “Forced to Move when Rental Home Sold for Development, Division Street Residents Mourn Changes to Neighborhood.”

And then a more major announcement: one of the more heavily visited food cart pods, Cartopia, will be closing soon for redevelopment. And a recent battle over a historic house purchased by Google executive Kevin Rose, who planned to knock it down (thankfully that had a relatively happy ending).

It’s official: redevelopment is impacting the things people love about Portland. The beautiful houses (with yards well suited for gardening), the unique counterculture of the city, a particularly popular food cart pod.

One could potentially perceive these trends two ways:

First, Portland has been working toward urban density for close to two decades now. Eventually the infill phase turns into building upward. When I lived in Vancouver BC, I saw the net result of this type of directive—the sky thick with high-rises, but snowy mountains just across the waterway. Only problem? When you’re paying $1200 per month to live in a basement, you probably don’t have access to an easy way to get out of the city and into those pristine natural areas.

Second, just like the Amish who are starting to be pushed out by Amish Country tourism, Portland is starting to be a victim of its own popularity. Our mythos of quirk keeps attracting people, snowballing into problems for the people and features who made it so popular. This has happened elsewhere: in SoHo, where struggling artists found cheap spaces to work/live until the culture attracted corporate entities who priced the artists out of their own neighborhood; San Francisco, where tech workers have exorbitantly inflated housing prices and potentially started a class-war; and of course in our own NE Portland.

It’s quite disheartening.

What’s next in this process? Disbursement. Portlanders may eventually get pushed out, fed up with the dizzying pace of change. Our lives may take us to smaller towns in Oregon, or perhaps farther afield. And ideas we picked up in Portland will go with us.

Angela may move back to her hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, and move herself and her three daughters around town by bike. Randy may move to Chicago to advance his career as an engineer and still dress like a pirate when he’s not at the office. Nickey may move to Minneapolis for a kick-ass job in media, and still sew her own clothes.

Angela, Randy, and Nickey will bring a little bit of Portland with them, inspiring their new neighbors, until people won’t move to Portland because they can get all those great things in their own town.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Portland: A Victim of Its Own Popularity

  1. I agree. I often think how nice it would be to live in a smaller town. Of course, I still have to have my big town amenities somewhat close…but then…maybe not. Maybe it would be better to just move far, far away.

  2. Well said, if disheartening. The big question is: What do we do? What can we do? Do we find a place that’s “like Portland around 1992” (hopefully sans skinheads), move there, and watch the process repeat? While Portland is unique in the attention we’ve gotten lately (and that we were the most affordable big city on the West Coast (still are!)), similar things have happened elsewhere (Seattle in the ’90’s), and will happen elsewhere. And while I’ve had the urge to “pack it in”, there’s still so much I love about Portland.

  3. Well written Heather. I would also add that Light Rail has become more a tool for redevelopment and higher density along it’s routes than it is a tool for transporting people.

    I’ve been thinking for a few years now about leaving to a smaller town, but have not found the right place or way to make it work yet. It’s hard to watch the place I grew up in go through so many changes, so rapidly, and feel like I can’t afford the kind of lifestyle I want here any longer. My wife keeps saying we need to band a bunch of like minded folks together, pack up, and go find that place.

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