Portland: The new Paris?

Saturday night, we went with some friends to hear music at the Mississippi Studios on the resurgent, eponymous avenue. The venue probably holds not much more than fifty people, who sit on “vintage” theater seats for the two nightly sets of music that span the gamut of popular genres, from jazz to grunge. Given the small space, the sound can be earsplitting. But usually the quality of the act is quite high, as was the last night’s show with the Bittersweets of San Francisco. Portland is full of these small, ginned up musical venues that are suited to a clientele that likes some spontaneity, intimacy and character, not to mention that promise high standards for live performances.

It is one more reason why people, especially young people, find Portland attractive. A client told me this week, and I have not verified it as fact, that people continue to migrate to Portland at a rate faster than job growth. They are clearly looking for a place to live that they can relate to. The Bittersweets guitarist last night quipped, “Portland is cool! I could live here.”

A national business magazine is currently looking into why people move here and are passionate about the city. I think I have an idea, and it has to do with the values of the under-30 cohort:

Sustainability. This is not just about the environment. It is a practical way of living. It is about a sustainable life. It means balance between personal and professional, integration of the outdoors into daily life, so that there is time for a regular morning kayak ride before work and a jog through one of the parks before dinner. It means being able to live pretty close to work, so time is not lost in an inhumane daily commute. It means living in a city where you can bike, walk or take public transportation and leave the car in the garage. It is about not giving in to burnout. As it so happens, all of the above has an environmental message as well.

Personalization. This generation is driving the “my” culture. It may seem a narcissistic turn of events, and it may be that in part, but it is also about personalizing every aspect of one’s life. One person told me last week that she lives in Portland because here “I can be myself.” The corollary to that is “because this is where I belong.” Belonging – that is part of the peer to peer revolution that originated with tech file sharing and has become a state of mind. It is a city that is tolerant, offers a multitude of diverse entertainment choices and neighborhoods, has a tradition of independence, and is supported economically by local, mostly small, businesses and is undergoing an energizing burst of growth and differentiation.

Creativity. This is related to personalization. Because people can feel free to be themselves, they can “personalize” their lives according to their individual wants and needs. Even people who are not artists feel the creative spirit in designing their lives and expressing themselves in how they live their lives. Portland still thrives on the optimistic pioneer spirit and still feels like a creative frontier, where anything is possible. It is a DIY culture that encourages leaps of faith. In the early 20th century creative spirits flocked to Paris to partake of the incredible feast that the city laid before artists. We may not be producing this century’s Picassos and James Joyces here, but notable painters, writers, musicians abound and have created a very democratic culture of artistic expression.

Culture. If you are young and into music, this is the city to be in. Portland abounds in clubs, cafes, pizza pubs, vintage theaters that offer live music. Local bands as well as imports have a fertile base of potential fans, and the open mike nights at many of these clubs plus the low cost recording studios mean as long as you get a day job you can make music every night. Film buffs can keep busy every quarter with the international film festival, the Jewish film festival and a local favorite, Reel Music, or a film festival for films about music. The Pearl District originated the local art scene, and now that it has gone chi-chi, alternative sites across the river on Alberta and Broadway serve different tastes in the plastic or performance arts.

The Weather. Yes, the weather. Perfect summers easily chase away memories of the long rainy gloom that runs from October to June. We are so blissfully happy during this glorious season that perhaps we are rendered temporarily insane – drunk with enjoyment of the views of river and volcanoes, the hikes in Forest Park, the evenings outside at the Zoo concerts, of weekends on the beach or a mountain lake or through a wilderness a short drive away. When the rest of the country swelters, Portlanders barely break a sweat. Lunch time downtown is full of runners and bike riders taking an outdoor break. The dog parks are full. Grills are smoking every night. No mosquitoes to swat, none of those black flies, “no see’ems”, midgies that plague summer days elsewhere. Some friends, a keg and it’s party night, every night.

Community. Leaving the Bittersweets behind last Saturday, we were stopped in our tracks on Mississippi by what seemed to be an endless train of cyclists, each one adorned in some serious or whimsical or loony way with colored reflectors on handle bars, hats, tires, and necklaces. We had run smack into the annual Summer Night Ride. Alongside the street some of those under-30s were lighting sparklers and torches and doing impromptu dances as they caught the spirit – of that singular Portland way of belonging.

About kmazz

I spend as much time as possible pursuing my interests in global culture, photography, arts and politics.
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3 Responses to Portland: The new Paris?

  1. ScruffyDog says:

    As a 15-year Portland resident who moved away 4-1/2 years ago, I have to say you are making me miss my former home town! Honestly, I was missing it anyway. While my husband and I did take advantage of the wonderful cultural and outdoor opportunities Portland offers, and we always knew it was a great city when we lived there, I think we didn’t truly appreciate just how special Portland is until we left. I miss the glorious summers in Portland, but I don’t miss the nine months of rain at all (we left seeking more sunshine). But until I left I didn’t realize just how much the culture of a city like Portland creates its own “climate” that almost supercedes the weather. Perhaps it is the rain that helped Portland folks cultivate such a thriving, growing, artful culture. And perhaps I just need to buy a light box and move back!

  2. KM says:

    Well, it has gotten more vibrant in the last five years so you should seriously think about moving back.

  3. shesin[rome] says:

    intresting-you make a compelling argument for the city, but look at the guy in the picture.

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