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Destination Portland: Before the young creatives came the young civic-minded
Author: By Carl Abbott and Ethan Seltzer, Guest Columnists at The Oregonian
Posted: October 1, 2012

Click here for the full article: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/10/destination_portland_before_th.html

By Carl Abbott and Ethan Seltzer

Portland attracts young adults. They come for lots of reasons, including, we suspect, because they think it's a cool place where they can do hip things, they want to be among progressive thinkers, and it's possible to live close to nature.

Our Portland State colleagues Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich have recently put solid numbers behind this common knowledge ("An economic creativity gap," editorial, Sept. 24). Portland does get more than its share of young college-educated adults. They're willing to put up with Oregon's below-average wage rates, and they have a strong entrepreneurial streak. They're not slackers; they're energetic do-it-yourselfers.

Along the way, Portland has spawned "Portlandia," and the show has almost got it right. We're all about bicycles and food carts, backyard chicken coops and retro fashions, artsy tattoos and yarn sculptures decorating street signs. But we're not, as "Portlandia" famously suggested, the city where young people go to retire. We're the city where they go to do their own thing(s).

The past 10 years get the attention, but there's an interesting point buried in Schrock and Jurjevich's statistics: Portland has been attracting that highly coveted demographic of young college-educated adults for quite some time, since at least the 1970s.

The "Portlandia phenomenon" is venerable. We've been a favored destination for 40 years -- for people just like us.

Portland already had a "brand" by 1978, when my wife and I (Carl Abbott) decided to leave two good jobs in Virginia and move to Portland, a city we knew only by reputation. That reputation -- the Portland brand -- was civic engagement. A study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency had recently declared Portland the most livable city in the country, in good measure because of high scores on indicators such as newspaper readership, voting and library circulation.

We found a city in the midst of a political transformation that brought in a new generation of activist political leaders, organized the neighborhood association system and created Metro. New ideas were saving downtown and turning around inner-city neighborhoods.

Having come from a city where our neighborhood had to battle city hall just to be heard, Portland was a sort of policy wonk paradise for people with a civic bent. We were on city of Portland and City Club committees within months.

In a similar kind of way, my wife and I (Ethan Seltzer) arrived from Philadelphia in 1980, just in time for public budget crises, public employee strikes and a deep economic slide. Interest rates on home mortgages were climbing up to double digits, and Portland and the region lost population and employment.

Still, it offered my wife the training she wanted, and it offered me a place where the air was clear, the water drinkable and the countryside near and intriguing. Mountains! Seacoast! Rose princesses, for goodness' sake. Like Abbott, within months I was involved in the civic life of my neighborhood, and soon the state. There were people to meet, things to do, fun to be had.

We offer up these stories not as options for coming "Portlandia" episodes, but as a reminder that the Portland region was an attractive place for educated young people even before there were brews, bikes or chickens much in evidence.

Why? Portland is a place with two progressive identities -- a double brand. It has long been a place where Brand A centers on "a positive epidemic of civic engagement," to borrow the observation of Harvard professor Robert Putnam. Today, Brand A is joined by a newer Brand B, highlighted by the very visible but more individually focused DIY and hipster scenes, the stuff of over-the-top parody offered up by "Portlandia."

Brand B is fun, and it gets stories in The New York Times, but Brand A has made it possible. Even if "Portlandia" is all about Brand B, the real story appears to fly under a different tagline: "Portland -- the place where young people go to make things happen."

Portland today is the product of forces in motion long before a single food cart rolled into a pod. Portland tomorrow will similarly be the product of what all of us, together, make of this place. The good news is that we still can, and that the steady stream of migrants coming here still believe it, too.


Carl Abbott and Ethan Seltzer are professors of urban studies and planning at Portland State University.