A Native Portlander Returns to Find Her Hometown Radically Transformed

After years away, a prodigal daughter comes back to a city of handlebar mustaches, salty ice cream, kid-friendly breweries, and vegan preschools.

By Rachel Saslow March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Amy Martin

Not long ago, I tried to give my Denver-bred husband an “insider’s tour” of Portland, the city where I was born and raised and which is, paradoxically, our new home. After 14 years on the East Coast, I thought I’d show him some landmarks, perhaps accompanied by a few witty childhood anecdotes.

Not so much. It was like our car was a time machine from 2000. Many of my go-to “landmarks” were irrelevant, while “new Portland” strongholds meant nothing to me. As we headed down East Burnside, we whizzed right past Le Pigeon, the Doug Fir, and Burnside Brewing Co without comment as I desperately searched for the only store I remembered on that stretch: Hippo Hardware. (It remains an awesome, quirky, old-Portland business, but probably isn’t what most people would point out to tourists.) I knew Hippo’s yellow-and-black columns would at least orient me in this strange, shiny new land, where once-desolate blocks suddenly offered $50 jersey-cotton T-shirts or restaurants name-checked by the New York Times.

I left in 2000 to attend college in New York state. I spent 10 years after college working as a journalist in Washington, DC. I also got married and had two daughters. It was fun to live in the District in my early 20s, but it got harder when we tried and failed to buy a house there, harder still when we had an infant and a toddler and no grandparents within thousands of miles.

So here we are. I had visited Portland dozens of times during my years away, so I had basic ideas about how the city had changed. Most telling was how East Coasters reacted when I told them I was from Portland. In 2000, I had to specify Oregon rather than Maine, and explain that I did not have to dodge cows while driving. By around 2007, people got this dreamy look and gushed, “I love Portland.” Every liberal twentysomething with a band was “about to move to Portland.” And there was something—but what?—going on with doughnuts.

For our first date night in town we had a great meal with a side of culture shock. My husband had done some Googling and informed me that the best restaurants were on East Burnside, SE Division, and NE Alberta. I laughed. (To cut myself a break, I should note that I grew up on the west side and only just moved to the east side, so most of these neighborhoods would feel new to me even if they had stayed the same for 14 years.) We chose Division and gawked at the fashion, especially since we were used to buttoned-up, government-worker Washington. At the Richmond Bar, I spent the whole time staring creepily at a couple: the guy had a full sleeve of tattoos, suspenders, and a handlebar mustache, and his girlfriend wore high-waisted, acid-washed denim shorts. After 10 years surrounded by Ann Taylor and Brooks Brothers, Portlandwear shocked me.

At home, I set up a compost/recycling center, only to hover over it many times a day holding garbage while I tried to make a decision. For better or for worse, it’s not this hard to throw away a napkin elsewhere. I discovered levels of ice-cream saltiness most of the nation—even in bastions of salty ice cream—has never seen.

Meanwhile, to a still-new parent, Portland’s distictively modern version of family-friendliness made for an excellent, unexpected discovery. My first visit to Hopworks Urban Brewery on SE Powell stunned me: three play areas, a monthly story hour called Tot Tuesday, and kids’ T-shirts that say “HUB 1/2 Pint.” I feel like my kids are suddenly not just tolerated but welcomed most places I go. I never heard of a café in DC with a play area. Here, even Les Schwab Tire Center has a kiddie table with crayons and paper.

This characteristic extends to the sidewalk. Cars are so diligent about yielding to pedestrians—especially when I’m with my kids—that I have to angle my stroller away from the street if I stop walking, or every car within a quarter mile slams on its brakes to allow us to cross.

So instead of the fourth-generation-Oregonian expert I thought I’d be, I am discovering Portland anew. And yet the city’s spirit feels unchanged: the modern guise of a hippie earnestness that’s always been here. I had to nix at least one preschool for being too hard-core vegan. One of my friends agonized to me about her chicken’s end-of-life plan.

Some things about this place I will always recognize: the trees are the right shapes; accents sound familiar. Meanwhile, elaborate tattoos are starting to look normal. My 3-year-old has learned to puddle-jump on our walk home from her (nonvegan) preschool. And I am so happy to be home that I could kiss our soggy ground.

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