In the three years since I arrived, Portland, Oregon has transformed from an awkward adolescent growth spurt to a fit, bearded bovine, free of GMOs and a stable home.
Daily talk amongst my friends right now is about babies and gentrification. My wife and I go for walks in the SE almost nightly: last week we nearly fell into a hole where our favorite art gallery used to be. Yesterday we drove by Stark and 12th as a crew was finishing up the clearcut of St. Francis Park. The adjacent church bought the private tract to build condominiums. To their credit, the development is intended to be affordable housing, presumably for the hordes of homeless who occupied the park daily. But I didn’t know that as I put down my window and thrust my middle finger in the air, angry and ignorant that yet another Portland staple was destroyed to make way for more condos.
In living rooms and conference rooms across the city, the gentrification conversation often spirals into nostalgia pits, echoes into contempt for rich developers, the 1%, or whoever is up there making decisions and money. It doesn’t matter who, really. The middle class is disappearing like a line of sailors walking the plank into a sea of kind-of-blurry, SNAP-financed poverty, and so far the only person with clout who seems to be paying attention is Bernie Sanders.
Last night, that conversation landed itself, once again, in our Southeast basement, where my wife and I have lived relatively cheaply for three years. Our visitor, a great friend, has been renting the same Southwest house since the late 90’s. Her family’s backyard is open to the three yards beyond it, and with the neighbors, they’ve created a beautiful shared space that features gardens, a clubhouse (with a community refrigerator!), fire pits, and slacklining. In summer, way up in a cedar, my best friend, her husband, sets up a port-a-ledge that overlooks the Tryon woods toward the river, and you can see all the way to Mount Hood. And, it’s a rental. Theirs just went up. Again.
Should we leave? she asked. Portland’s home.
If they go find a new home, a new town, where their family can thrive, she argued, they would leave behind one of the most important aspects of home: community.
The relationships I’ve developed in Portland (including and certainly not limited to my marriage) keep me here – or at least, keep me coming back every autumn after commercial fishing in Alaska. I love this place immensely, and I know too well how to leave. These three years in Portland compose the longest stint I’ve lived anywhere in my life – even if I’ve spent almost as much time traveling and working elsewhere as I have actually being present. My behavior and thought patterns whisper old nothings in my ear: if it’s too expensive or stressful, go somewhere else. If Trump gets elected, definitely go somewhere else.
But I don’t want to. I’m happy here. Now and then, I even call Portland home, a rare word in my vocabulary. My wife is happy here. She’s developing a career in relationship coaching, and it’s quickly become obvious that she’s needed here. We might have kids soon. We’ll figure it out.
In the meantime, I’m sick of the gentrification conversation. I’m tired of complaining that such-and-such establishment is gone, or that I wish I experienced more cultural diversity in my daily path. I’m on a quest for inner peace; for the sense that I belong in body, mind, spirit, and place. That last one’s the hardest – more than a few times in my nomadism, I’ve been assured in no uncertain terms that my complexion, nationality, or privilege was not welcome where I had brought them.
In Portland, for the first time in my life, I feel welcome to be me. When I ride my furry Burning Man bike down the Springwater Corridor, the hardcore cyclists give me thumbs-ups and speed off, muscles pumping.
We all know what it is to feel unsafe, whether judged by lifestyle choices, DNA, or some other whimsical provocation for hate. Maybe it’s a tall order: I want everyone to be safe in the place I live, and that shouldn’t require paying astronomical prices for rent.
Ever short of enlightenment, my goals now are multiple and interconnected: To own and accept the space that I take up in the world; to love where I’m at, mentally and physically; to respect those around me, regardless of class, especially. If I blindly believe that a man who possesses millions of dollars is therefore somehow better, smarter, more powerful, or indeed richer than I, I’m doing us both a disservice.
Inspired by the rapid influx of power and privilege into this city, this project – Stumptown Lives – will explore what Portland has been, and is now, through the eyes of its denizens – old, new, rich, poor, whatever. We’ll talk about real things: the grief of watching a bulldozer take down a childhood home; the rise and fall of small businesses; the city’s complicated, racist history. We’ll also look at the overplayed elements that make Portland the most unique city in the United States: food carts, tiny homes, rivers of craft beer – and how they’ve helped turn artsy Portland into PDX, the Promised Land. Why is this new renaissance happening here? Why now? Is it all the fault of Fred Armisen? What are the power dynamics in our new economy? What are the rules? Are there any rules?
Through interviews, profiles, photographs, and more, together, we’ll catch a glimpse of Portland as home, even if it’s just a moment of a lightning bug buzzing in a jar.
There is no end to this story, but here is one beginning.
Stay tuned for the adventure.