P-Town Diary

Escape from New York

Another Brooklynite trades the Big Apple for a Portland state of mind.

By Daniel B. Smith May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

I would like to state publicly, for whatever record exists, that my love for Portland predates the national news media’s. I feel it’s necessary to point this out because of an Oregonian article a friend sent me back in late December, not long after my wife and I decided to put our tiny Brooklyn apartment up for sale, crate our things, and settle in the City of Roses. Life as New Yorkers had become intolerable. We’d grown weary of our neighbor’s music rattling our walls (avant-garde jazz, no less), fed up with teeming buses and tardy subways, troubled by the soot and smoke drifting from the expressway up the block, and, worst of all, alarmed by the mounting costs of living there. It was time to get out.

The article, titled “Portland Home Prices Fall by Double Digits,” told a now-familiar tale of economic misfortune—bleak numbers hinting at still-bleaker human stories, the whole of it illustrated by a photograph of For Sale signs clustered like mutant daisies on a Portland lawn. What caught my attention, however, was not the story itself. It was the comments appended to it, particularly those in response to a reader (user name: “kougar14”) who innocently announced of her (or his?) family, “We are moving to Portland from New York City.” The response was probably not what she expected. One reader replied, “kougar14: do us all a favor and stay in new york. We don’t need any more eastcoasters moving out here and ruining things by overpaying for their homes, crowding the roads in the luxury cars, and being rude to staff in our restaurants. Don’t you see that you are not WANTED here????”

Another was less direct but more imaginative: “Why are you coming here? A) because you are [a] creatively thinking progressive who will start new green business to protect our green forests and blue skies? B) because you are leaving behind the apocalyptic hellscape you’ve helped to create on [the] east coast, moving to un-ravished lands [to] pillage and rape and then move on?”

When I read these comments, I had just spent weeks giddy with the prospect of our new life out West: Open spaces where our daughter could scamper and play! Snowcapped mountains for rejuvenating vacations! Living quarters of more than six hundred square feet! The comments were at once deflating and disappointing.

Cyberspace isn’t known for its etiquette, of course. But one of the reasons my wife, Joanna, and I had decided to embrace Portland and discard New York, where we’d lived for the previous six years, was that Portland simply doesn’t speak like the rest of the country. It has a tone all its own: laid-back, open-armed, welcoming. I happened to know a handful of New Yorkers who­ had made the move to Portland before us—including my oldest brother, who left for the same reasons of urban fatigue that compelled us—but surely not so many as to make up the crass, Eden-ravaging hordes of the Oregonian readers’ imaginations. In fact, every New York­–to–Portland emigrant I know is a “creatively thinking progressive” who’s concerned enough with “green forests and blue skies” to want to live in a city that actually shares that concern. Some strange force appeared to be at work. Something powerful enough to make Portlanders revile the very idea of New Yorkers in their midst. Something to make them believe a nefarious urban exodus was in the offing. I believe that something might be the New York Times.

Allow me to explain. Three years ago, when my brother decided to settle in Portland, the conventional wisdom in New York was that his move was borderline exotic. Portland wasn’t a known quantity, like Los Angeles or San Francisco or Washington, DC. It was a provincial city, with little more than a basketball team, the hotel from The Shining, and eight months of cloud cover to distinguish it from other provincial cities. Then, in the spring of 2007, the New York Times began to write about Portland as if the entire metropolitan area—roads, government, restaurants, bike lanes, and all—had just yesterday emerged from the Willamette, fully developed.

For six months, the coverage was incessant, and almost embarrassingly laudatory. “[Portland’s] vibrant downtown overflows with urban pleasures,” crowed the travel section. “A full-fledged dining destination,” proclaimed Dining & Wine. The Style section called Portland “a great enclave for cutting-edge design.” Meanwhile, the national news desk couldn’t believe how many Portlanders rode bikes. Bike City, USA!

Newspapers may be dying a slow and public death, but don’t underestimate the power of the Times, for this fusillade of coverage had a notable effect out East: it made Portland sexy. Suddenly, a desire to move to Portland wasn’t novel anymore; it was conventional wisdom. “Ah, the great Portland dream!” a friend said, with just a bit too much flourish, when I told him of our plans. “Everyone I know wants to move there now.”

It isn’t hard to understand why this attitude might sour the stomachs of Portlanders. New Yorkers, plagued as they are by all sorts of indignities, from investment bankers to sewer rats, have an unusually active fantasy-of-escape gland. New Yorkers have always imagined that somewhere out there, be it Paris or California or just down the highway on Long Island, there’s a town that’s less expensive, less aggravating, more … livable. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that in 1647, when Peter Stuyvesant became director general of New Amsterdam and closed all the taverns and brothels, a bunch of Dutch hipsters got together to grouse that they just couldn’t take it anymore—they were moving back to Utrecht!

Few New Yorkers actually act on these escape fantasies, of course. Someone (probably Woody Allen) once said, “I’ve been wanting to leave New York for fifty years; I’m almost ready.” Something about the psychic pressure of eighteen million people crammed into a mere three hundred square miles makes it necessary to always have a promised land at the forefront of one’s mind.

Portland now seems to be that promised land. It’s a dubious honor, I’m afraid. As Christine Hoag, a sales manager at Stumptown Coffee Roasters (which, incidentally, just opened a roasting facility in Brooklyn) characterized the intercity relationship to me, “It’s like the corporate executive falling in love with the waitress.” And we all know how reliable the executive’s attentions are in that scenario.

But not all of us are executives. Kougar14 and I, we’re just a couple of harried New Yorkers in love with a place where the lights are dimmer but the warmth greater, where egomania and ambition run a little less rampant, where the politics are more uniformly progressive, the outdoors more accessible, and, yes, the real estate less expensive.

And, speaking only for myself now, I don’t plan to be a former New Yorker for very long. Only a weekender wants a place to mold itself to his image; a settler wants the opposite. If I’m resented for acting on a fantasy so many others share, I’ll just have to stay long enough that no one remembers where I started.

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