You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.

Leaving Portlandia

There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West:  surprise and disbelief.  But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live.  The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland.  Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what  defines them.

On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects.  Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized.  Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming.  There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products.  “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.

Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture.  As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes.  Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives.  Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday.  People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions.  Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle.  It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories.  What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity.  There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.

I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.

Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider.  Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above:  conformity.  Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others.  There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development.  Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves.  And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.

What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility.  I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity.  This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder.  But it manifests in countless other ways:  letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults.  In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people.  People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing.  The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine.  And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly.  As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions.  Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them.  Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.

There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland.  But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help.  Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.

When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”.  In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.


15 Comments on “Leaving Portlandia”

  1. Emma Olwell says:

    I relate so strongly to this it’s unbelievable- I am a native Orange county kid, living in Vancouver, WA and moving to Northwest Arkansas two days from now. People look at me like I’m CRAZY when I admit that I’m voluntarily leaving the Northwest. Someone e-mailed me this blogpost asking me if I’d secretly written it, haha. Good luck in Kansas City! I’m eagerly following your adventures!

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thanks for the comment! Always neat to find a kindred spirit out there. Congrats on you decision to manifest big change and good luck on your move. I hear Arkansas has some beautiful parts.

  2. I grew up in OC as well. When I go down there to visit family I am instantly reminded as to why my visits are so infrequent. The car-centricness, the complete lack of bicycle infrastructure, piss-poor public transportation system, the fact that everything is either a highway or parking lot, etc. Plus I’m always shocked at the level of homophobia and racism that is still so out in the open down there. Portland and Orange County in my experience are completely different.

    Good luck in Missouri. If you don’t miss Portland in a couple months you obviously didn’t belong here in the first place, and there’s no shame in that.

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thanks for the comment! I too recognize that there are many and very significant differences between Portland and Orange County; however, I stand by my analogy of a self-absorbed monoculture being prevalent in both places. They target different things and manifest differently, but that phenomenon exists in both places.

      I lived in Portland for 14 years. I had a house and a career and got two graduate degrees there. I think it is fair to say I was very invested in Portland for a significant period of time. There are neighborhoods there now that didn’t exist when I first moved to Portland, such as Mississippi Ave and Williams. And a big majority of the people of color who lived in those neighborhoods no longer live there, as is the case in much of North Portland. Did they “obviously not belong in the first place”? It is easy to believe the city you live in isn’t racist when it is 98% white. It is easy to believe that a lot of problems don’t exist if everyone thinks the same way. And it is this belief that certain people “belong” in urban places that I take issue with. Because it is a short leap from there to people believing that they “deserve” to live in certain places and that they are “entitled” to those places being a certain way. And then you have a social culture influencing the re-development of the built environment to their wishes which in turn creates a reciprocal pressure to reinforce those beliefs and manifest them into reality. And I believe Portland is in the thick of this.

      If you fit in with what Portland is about, it is an amazing place to live. Personally, I would rather live in a place where not everything is like me all of the time. There is actually a very liberating feeling to that.

  3. I find this fascinating because it mirrors the move I am about to make. After living on the North Coast of California in a predominantly liberal white college town, I am also moving to Missouri. Except I’m going to St. Louis. My friends and colleagues think I am crazy. Why on Earth would I want to leave our safe little homogenous town where everyone dresses the same and likes the same things for some “conservative ignorant Mid-Western Hell Hole”? I am leaving because I don’t want to always be around people who are like me. There is a dress-code, a sense of Keeping up with the Joneses, in these uber-hip communities of the West Coast. Maybe I won’t be embraced for being different in St. Louis, but at least I won’t be shunned or judged for not being different “the right way.” While all of my friends from college relocate to Seattle and Portland, I am a little smug about my plan to do the exact opposite and move somewhere that’s not on the radar of the 20-something educated white elite (of which I admittedly belong). I am excited to hear about your move and I am hopeful that my move will prove enlightening and beneficial as well.

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thanks for the comment! And first off, congratulations on the big adventure! I have never been to St. Louis, but I can make a few comments on KC that may also be applicable.

      One very interesting thing was pointed out to me before I moved by someone who grew up in St. Louis, was that the arts are funded by long standing endowments out here. This means that they have sufficient ongoing funding to maintain a flourishing fine arts community: opera, ballet, symphony, etc. The Nelson Atkins museum in KC, which is considered one of the most beautiful museums in the world, is free to the public. Every day. Anyone can walk in and see the permanent collection, walk through the stunning sculpture collection on the grounds, or picnic on the lawn. I know people like to think that the mid-West lacks culture, but in actuality fine arts culture is much more deeply embedded out here simply through the security of the financial investment that has been made for a long time.

      Architecturally, KC is fascinating, and I would put it on par with Seattle (which is a city I deeply love). Periods of great wealth in KC led there to be some really beautiful buildings to be constructed, and into the more modern decades KC has continued to develop some extraordinary architectural works (such as the Kaufmann Center). There is a really engaging mix of architecture from a wide range of eras here and it all resides together in an eclectic harmony.

      There is a wide range of diversity here, in particular ethnic diversity. In my neighborhood, Somali women buy spices from Persian men, and Latino people eat Vietnamese food. I have seen people (more than one) who are clearly members of the LGBT community. (In public…I know! Shocking!) And while there continues to be a significant residual color line across the city, it is at least an issue that is out in the open. People aren’t pretending their hasn’t ever been (or isn’t now) racism. Diversity isn’t easy or comfortable for everyone here, but I have seen a lot of people actively try to be better neighbors with whoever lives near them.

      For you, I think you will find there is great opportunity in the mid-West. It is true that the percentage of people with college educations is much lower here than the coastal cities. Which means it will be easier for you to get a job. Housing prices are much lower here, especially if you are interested in residing in the urban core. Which means you will be able to buy a house. The economy is much more diverse here and the rate of entrepreneurship is very high out here. Which means you will have more flexibility in your career path. When your friends are on year two of unemployment or year five of using their college degree to be a barista in Portland while living in a house with eight other people, you will see what I mean.

      But the best thing for any person interested in breaking out of the constrictive mold of the increasingly pre-fab cultures in these cities, is that the mid-West needs you to SHOW UP. Everyday. As you. Decades of urban decline and flight from the cities means these cities need and want educated, engaged, creative, and enthusiastic people to come out and remind them how great they can be. They need you to come help them grow, change, and be better. They have complex histories and some really sticky issues. It is not all sunshine every day. So if you want to roll up your sleeves, sink you teeth into something challenging and unfamiliar, and feel like you are making a difference, then come here. Because just choosing to live here and choosing to work here and choosing to participate here is an investment in both yourself and something bigger than yourself at the same time.

      And you won’t find that in Portland.

      (One last note, The Myth of Pruitt-Igoe is a fascinating documentary on a controversial housing project in St. Louis. Give you a little bird’s eye into the city’s history. You can stream it on Netflix.)

  4. mafr1 says:

    good luck, hope you can learn to appreciate the subtler, quieter beauty physical freedom and peacefulness of the prairies , not everyone can.

    You can add Vancouver and Victoria B.C. to your list of places where the fog has made people go a little strange with self congratulatory excess.

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thanks for your comment! I visited Vancouver about 20 years ago and really loved being in that city. I count going to the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia as one of the most important places I have visited. I am sure the city has changed tremendously since I was there.

      One thing I am being continuously reminded of as I read comments about these changes in urban areas is that we all are responsible for the beauty (in all its forms) in our cities. It is easy to move to a new place because of something you like and then take for granted that you have an active role in maintaining that. Whether it is the arts, or the built environment, or the social culture and manners, we all have to participate each day in making our cities humane, engaged and vibrant places to live. And I believe that requires a lot of looking outside of ourselves, reaching out towards other people, and seeing the city stretch to accommodate all of that various movement…all actions we tend to move away from when we become overly focused on our own identities and expect instead that the city will always mold itself to us.

      While I haven’t visited the “true prairie” yet, as a native gardener I am excited to have an entirely new ecosystem to learn about. I was surprised to learn the prairie is actually an endangered ecosystem here in the States, and there is very little prairie left compared to what we started with. I hope to bring more of the prairie into my own yard and the neighborhoods around me.

  5. All I can say is thankyouthankyouthankyou for writing this! You’ve expressed what I’ve felt for years as a CA transplant living in Portland. And I thought it was just me all this time! I miss diversity….diversity in people, culture, ethnicity, foods, entertainment, etc. To me it’s the exposure to “difference” that is a fundamental necessity that can bring out the best in people. This city is missing ideas that reach well beyond being sustainable and “green”….what about how we treat each other? What about the horrible salaries, terrible working conditions (I’ve worked for some of THE worse people and companies here), the inability to make friends if you aren’t EXACTLY like THEM, and the lack of economic progress and jobs that pay a living wage? We never hear about THAT in the media. Thanks for bringing it all to light:) I’m trying to escape myself!

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thank you for the comment! I am very grateful for the number of comments this post has received and the willingness of people to share their own thoughts and experiences about this topic.

      I think you highlight something very important which is the idea of Portland having a “media” image and a true image of the city itself. And I think the stagnant economics of the city is one of the closely guarded secrets that is polished away in the media. It is very easy to see pictures in magazines of Mt. Hood and the Pearl district and McCall Waterfront Park and believe that Portland is a sparkling, bustling and vibrant city that is just bursting with opportunity. In reality, the staggering lack of economic opportunity is matched only by the inflated prices of the housing there. And I think it creates a very unfortunate and intractable situation for many people which is that in order to live in this “amazing” place, you have to be profoundly unhappy every day you go to work because there is very little opportunity to find a new job. I often wonder how much this day to day grinding unhappiness and frustration lead to the increasing social tension, which I have seen deteriorate from the “Portland passive-aggressive” to just plain aggressive pretty significantly. There are a lot of “stuck” people there and I have heard a fair number of stories of people who got “unstuck” pretty successfully once they moved.

      And the “parrot” conversational style certainly doesn’t lend itself to inspired creativity, does it?

      I do still get my email updates from the City of Portland and I see that Mayor Hales has done a pretty big shake-up of the bureaus. Who knows? maybe some new and unscripted conversations will arise from that.

      There are so many interesting places in this country to live…I wish you luck in finding one!

      • Thank you and I wish YOU all the best, too! You are a wonderful writer..I’d enjoy reading a book by you someday:) Sorry for the typos in my original post…I was so excited that I wasn’t paying attention!LOL

      • jwyattacupuncture says:

        My pleasure! I am glad you enjoyed the piece and hope you will stop by to read more of my writing on moving to KC in the future.

  6. […] Jane Jacobs called the self-destruction of diversity. It drives other people to leave the city and compare it to Orange County – without a hint of irony, and perhaps unaware that Orange County is far more diverse than […]

    • jwyattacupuncture says:

      Thank you for the link to my blog post, “Leaving Portlandia” on your blog, “Let’s Go LA”, in your post, “The Geography of Nowhere”. In response to the question of whether there is a hint of irony behind my comparisons of Portland and Orange County, or my possible ignorance of the level of “diversity” in Orange County, I would like to clarify. Having grown up in Orange County and lived for 22 years “behind the Orange Curtain”, I am aware of the ethnic diversity of Orange County and am also making the comparison to Portland without irony. As stated in my piece, the key aspect of this comparison is the culture of conformity:
      “Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that there is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others. There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development…And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.”
      Statistics may tell you that not all of Orange County fits this view, although the rise of gated communities filled with tract housing is indicative of both this social culture and an increasingly built environment that reinforces it. What I find most interesting is that I have this view of Orange County without having grown up in one of these exclusive communities. Growing up in “old” Orange County and going to schools that were between 30 – 60% Latino did not change my feeling that Orange County is heavily steeped in a culture based on inclusion driven by conformity to an ideal. And I find this very intriguing…that we can look at statistics on topics like age, wealth, ethnicity and density, and the use of words like “liberal” and “conservative” and “progressive” and still potentially not really know what a city is about or what drives its culture.
      I have found this comparison to be very thought provoking in readers and appreciate the comments that it has generated. In particular, people seem to have difficulty wrapping their minds around the view that Portland is extremely “liberal” (socially and politically) and yet may not be tolerant. My use of the comparison was to encourage an alternative view of Portland that involves narrowly tailored ideals, an increasing culture of conformity (aesthetic, social, political), and the attitude that it is better to have a few ideas that you believe strongly, than a multitude of ideas that you have to evaluate on an ongoing basis. And to offer the challenge that Portland is becoming an increasingly “conservative” city, just with a different focus on what ideals that conservatism is defined by that you would typically expect.
      I would agree that, “Top-down heavy-handed control over urban form also leads to self-selection of people who like that form, causing a positive feedback loop of what Jane Jacobs called the self-destruction of diversity”, although I think that influence is working bi-directionally in Portland (such as in investment in bike infrastructure). I would also note any claims to success of Portland’s urban growth boundary in preventing sprawl in Portland misses the point that all of the cities around Portland are built on the sprawl model (Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tigard, Tualatin, Gresham). Not only do these cities have less expensive housing, but they are also home to some of the major employers in the region, such as Intel and Nike. Your observations that Portland will have challenges sustaining their long term growth are astute and accurate. Although as long as people want to live the “Portlandia” dream, there appears to be no shortage of people moving to the area despite exorbitant housing and minimal job opportunities.

  7. ebablinskas says:

    How has your transition to Kansas City been? I’ve been in Saint Louis for almost 10 months and I’m curious to see how another West Coaster is doing in the Heartland. I, too, wanted to flee the oppressive sub-cultures and snobbery of the hip parts of the coast. In many ways, Saint Louis offers relief from that. I’m still struggling with some of the different cultural aspects and the geography which is so foreign than that of Northern California, and the general conservatism that I’ve always struggled with. I guess I’m more of a California hippie than I thought. Still, I’ve met some wonderful people out here and made some great relationships. The genuineness of the people is a therapeutic in many ways, but the difficulty of breaking into long-established circles can be frustrating. My work feels incredibly meaningful, a far cry from life in California where my presence made little difference. Here I feel my work has some impact and is appreciated, especially as Saint Louis slowly rebounds from decades of decay. Has your experience been similar? I’ve written more about my experience on my blog:

    Thanks for all you write. It’s wonderful.

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