Portland, Oregon, thanks to pop culture myth, reports on up-and-coming cities in national media and the TV show Portlandia, has seen it’s reputation as a “hip city” expand drastically in the last decade (Travel + Leisure declared it the 2nd best “city for hipsters” earlier this year). Now, I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a couple hours south of Portland and when I went away to college, my folks decamped to the “big city”, so Portland feels a lot like home these days. That said, I was curious how Portland seemed to a transplant, who’d lived in other cities, and for whom the Northwest’s culture of microbrews and college football obsession wouldn’t be second nature.
Enter Danish Aziz, a San Francisco friend, internet savant and an astute cultural observer. Danish moved to Portland a year ago, so I wanted to get his impression of life in the city, in your late 20s, for a non-local. So I hit him up on his lunch hour a little while a back and we rapped about Portland living and how it compares to other cities.
So first of all, what are you doing in Portland?
When I graduated from college, my parents lived in California. Then, once I’d moved to California, they’d decided to move to Oregon. So after I had to leave my last job, my dad was sick and I wanted to be near them, and Portland was the closest city to where they lived on the coast. So basically I want to be close to them in case anything happens to my dad.
And I wanted to try a new city and Portland seemed cool.
So what was your impression of Portland before you moved there? Had you visited before?
Yeah, because that’s where’d I flown in previously to visit my parents. And my brother lived here and I had a couple friends from high school who lived here so I’ve known Portland for five years.
I think as an outsider, it seems like a west coast Minneapolis. Or a sort of townier version of San Francisco. It’s a pretty small city but it has the amenities of a larger city. It seemed very Pacific Northwest, woodsy and green and with mountains. Most of the people seemed to be white. And they’ve got public transportation and lots of places to eat and drink and a lot of good music coming through. So it seemed like a good a mid-market city. Just like their basketball team.
So now that you live there, does that impression still stand?
Well, I live in North Portland, which is less traditional in terms of the make-up of the population. There are a lot of African-Americans and Latinos and it’s more working class. So I’m being exposed to a different set of people than if I were just visiting and going to downtown and Southeast Portland. It’s interesting to compare Portland with San Francisco, because Portland is more divided by income or background, rather than scene you identify with. In San Francisco, north of Geary [Street] is basically a certain kind of people and south of it is another kind of people, but almost ALL of them went to the same prestigious schools and stuff like that.
But in Portland, you have the Northwest neighborhoods, which don’t have a dominant culture, they’re just expensive. You’ll see both “hipsters” and former frat-type people. And then on the eastside are people who went to cheaper schools or didn’t go to college. And North Portland is a community of people who traditionally lived on the outskirts of the city and will eventually be pushed out as it becomes more gentrified. So I’m definitely getting a different view now that I live here than the cursory experience I got as a visitor.
So it’s a more complex city than you initially thought?
Yeah, definitely. And it has more similarities — in terms of issues the city faces — to a larger city than I would have initially expected.
It’s funny. When I go to visit my parents in Portland, I still get the glossy version of the place where it seems like this hip little city filled with young people. And you don’t really see that there’s a whole city full of different people with different backgrounds. But you seem to find it more complex than the stereotypes.
Yeah, I mean, stuff like Portlandia is definitely accurate in many ways, but that’s because people pretend a certain part of Portland doesn’t exist.
Yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of sketches about the Vietnamese population out east.
The stereotype of Portland, based on Portlandia, but also based on jokes about Portland from the last 15 years, is that it’s a city where there are tons of educated white people who don’t work hard and live cheaply and make silly art. Do you see that stereotype as the dominant Portland personality type?
(Laughs). Uh, that’s sort of accurate. I work in the Pearl, so I’m exposed to the yuppie side of that stereotype. I’ll go out in Southeast and see some of that as well. I think the thing you’re talking about is these people who want to have the nice things in life, but won’t admit that that’s just consumerism, and don’t want to work in traditional yuppie endeavors. I think that that’s present in a lot of cities, but in Portland they’ve embraced it as their identity and everyone falls somewhere into the venn diagram between two circles of the yuppie and the hippie.
But I think it’s a fairly accurate generalization for a large group of people. And I think they like seeing themselves that way. But there are also tons of other types of people out there. Like, I like to go to this “goth” bar called Lovecraft, named after the horror writer. And that’s totally a different scene where I don’t think any of those people can relate to the quasi-hippies of the Portland image.
How does going out in Portland compare to San Francisco or other cities you’ve visited? Is a night out basically the same or are there marked differences where you can tell that you’re in Portland.
I think you can definitely tell you’re in Portland because the mix of people in the bars is unique to this city. There’s rarely a bar that has a dominant feel to it. Like I said, things were more polarized in San Francisco, where certain people hung out in certain areas. I think there’s not enough bars here and not enough people to make up these sub-scenes to create that feeling, so there’s mixed populations wherever you go. The bro-ey, soccer-loving dudes who recycle are hanging out in bars with the kids covered in tattoos. There are not enough spaces so there’s a lot of overlap.
But there are some neighborhoods, such as Mississippi Street, which sort of remind me of [hipster-enclave] the Mission, with the more yuppie crowd coming in on the weekend, but a more “alt” crowd on the weekdays. In general, I find spots that I like and don’t try to barhop. I’m also in my late-20s now, so I’m not doing the same kind of partying I was doing in my younger days.
You’ve settled down? Really?
I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s just harder for my body to recover, so I’m settling, but I’m not settling down.
You made me think of a good friend of mine from high school who lives here in San Francisco. He’s a personal trainer, and he came to meet me at Uptown, which is a notoriously grungy, dingey, cheap, hipster dive in the Mission here in SF. And he walked in wearing his personal-trainer-going-out outfit, which was a striped, collared shirt, open to the chest. And when we he walked in, the bartender looked him up and down, then just laughed. I take it that wouldn’t happen in Portland.
(laughs) No. I imagine the bartender [at Uptown] just not letting him enter. “You can’t come in, bro.”
Yeah. You could see that happening here in San Francisco.
I hate to admit this, but I would actually not mind finding a bar like that, where there is ONLY a certain kind of people there, but I can’t really find it. I mean, there are some places sorta like that. Like, Alberta is supposed to be this alternative district, but it’s overrun with [what I’d call] B-and-T’s, from the equivalent of Portland’s bridge-and-tunnel suburbs. I basically just look for places with DJs playing, so I can steal songs from them.
The sense I always got from people who move to Portland is it’s a little closed off, in terms of meeting new people. And maybe that goes towards your point that there aren’t bar-scenes where everyone knows that everyone’s got the same interests, and they’re not friendly to strangers.
And I think a lot of people are clustered around their professional lives. And that plays out in their social lives in terms of what they do at night.
You’ve traveled pretty extensively around the country. Do you think the average twenty-something in Portland is pretty much the same as the average twenty-something in most other major cities? Or are there differences that you notice?
I think the US is really tiered in terms of its cities. Like, San Francisco, New York, DC, Boston, etc., have this extra layer of educated, elite snobbery that doesn’t really exist here. So, going from Brown to San Francisco was not really an adjustment, because I was basically surrounded by the same people. But coming from San Francisco to Portland, I recognize a lot of people I meet here as being similar to people I went to high school with, who stayed in state for college, and then moved to the closest big city. I think Portland feels more like a regional city. You get a greater variety of types of people that you meet.
Do you find that the average twenty-something in Portland is focused in the way young people in other cities are, or are they kind of, lost?
I think the people here are trying to attain something different here than in some other cities. I think there’s more pressure in San Francisco to have your own startup or have this title or this degree. A lot of people my age here are married, expecting their first child, and want to expand their garden. So it’s more of a traditional life path. They’re not delaying things the way a lot of highly educated people are doing because they don’t want to follow their parents’ path or have different ideas. So I don’t know, I think some people who are “lost” or looking to make it big doing something, but there are more people here who have settled because that’s what they want. And the people still trying to find themselves are more interested in creating some new kind of craft beer or an organic red bull. There’s some guy who has done really well with that actually, an organic energy drink. I’m somewhat surprised at the kinds of endeavors people go into and I have no idea if they’re actually making money or if they just want their own thing going.
Has a Portland turned you into more of a beer and food snob, or had San Francisco already accomplished that?
San Francisco and working at Google definitely incubated that for me. So I have a superiority complex, where I say, “Yeah, I already know all about this shit.” But Portland definitely can hold it’s own in terms of what it offers. Beer is a lot bigger here, even than in San Francisco. And I’m still into it, but just yesterday, I thought to myself, a draft tweet if you will, that as long as I live here, I will never own a craft brew t-shirt.
That is the ultimate Portland stereotype, huh? More so than the hipster is just a bro wearing a Dead Guy Ale baseball hat.
Yeah, that guy is very dominant here in Portland. Even the 40-year-old salesman makes his own beer and sells it. Everyone is doing that.
So instead of making your own iPhone app, it’s home-brews and craft-foods you can sell in a jar.
Yup. And mini-cupcakes.
Is there anything that you feel like you’ve learned about being an adult since moving to Portland?
Uh, I think I’ve learned how much your environment influences what your goals are and I think in terms of how you view yourself and where you should be in life is based on who you’re comparing yourself to. So, in San Francisco, I was surrounded by people who’ve done really, really well. To own an apartment in San Francisco, you’re balling. But out here, who you’re compared to is more representative of the rest of the country, so it makes you feel better. That also makes me think that things like Facebook and the way our generation has been brought up to succeed and get to the next level is probably making a lot of people unhappy. You should base your ideas of happiness and success on what you actually want out of life and not what you see as the goals of other people or what you think you should have achieved at a certain point by a certain date.
Photo credit: Nicole Sheikh, used by permission