Please help me find a Portland, Oregon-like town on the other side of the country
February 9, 2012 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find a Portland, Oregon-like town on the other side of the country.

Hi everybody. I'm having a tough time figuring out where I'm supposed to settle down and I'm hoping you might be able to help. My current town, which was chosen for its proximity to family, has proven to be a little too close to family and also a bit uncomfortably conservative.

I'd like to stay close enough to family in the Philadelphia area, but live in a town that's as Portland-like as possible. To me, "close enough" would be within a 5 hour drive or a 2 hour flight and "Portland-like" means progressive, hip, walkable, safe and beautiful with good coffee. I'm open to the Philadelphia area, but probably more open to somewhere a bit further away.

What do you think? Any help would be much appreciated!
posted by smirkyfodder to Society & Culture (58 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The answer is Asheville, NC.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:56 AM on February 9, 2012 [14 favorites]

My first thought was Brooklyn. Some parts are less like what you're asking but some parts are moreso. Bushwick maybe.

Or Williamsburg. I've been watching Portlandia of late and most of it is stuff I could see happening just as easily in Williamsburg.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:57 AM on February 9, 2012

How big? The first thing that came to mind was Northampton, MA, which clocks in at 4 hours 56 minutes driving time to Philly, just under the wire. It might not be large enough for your needs, but hits most of your requirements.
posted by ambrosia at 9:57 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just came in to recommend Asheville. Parts of Brooklyn would probably fit the bill as well.
posted by saladin at 9:58 AM on February 9, 2012

(I will also accept that the answer might be "Carroll Gardens" or "Northampton.")
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:59 AM on February 9, 2012

posted by mmmcmmm at 9:59 AM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

posted by mareli at 10:02 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Progressive, hip, walkable, safe and beautiful with good coffee.

Yep, that'd be Asheville. Carrboro, NC might also fit the bill, although it's rather small.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:03 AM on February 9, 2012

My first thought was Brooklyn. Some parts are less like what you're asking but some parts are moreso. Bushwick maybe.

Or Williamsburg. I've been watching Portlandia of late and most of it is stuff I could see happening just as easily in Williamsburg.

Just want to note that while many parts of Brooklyn are really beautiful, a lot of Williamsburg and especially Bushwick are probably not (warehouses and old industrial buildings, lots of old shoddy rundown housing stock, gray, dirty, etc.). But you might find that to be beautiful OP.
posted by cairdeas at 10:06 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cape May, NJ came to mind for arts and birding communities. That is about all I know about it but if I were looking for places within a couple of hours of Philly, I'd definitely give Cape May a look myself. Then again, it might not be far away enough from Philly to keep the parents from expecting a visit every weekend!
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:09 AM on February 9, 2012

Yes, agreed the answer in Asheville. More than a 5 hour drive from Philly, but fits the bill for everything else. And the drive you can do easily in less than a day.

It's about the most beautiful area of the country, the coffee is strong, the hipsters are hip in a low key way, the weather is ideal, etc etc.
posted by Rocket26 at 10:17 AM on February 9, 2012

Seconding ambrosia's Northampton, MA recommendation. We lived there for three years and, despite being really happy with where we live now, would move back there in a second if we could. If it's too small, I've also heard awesome things about Asheville.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:19 AM on February 9, 2012

Portland is out, Pittsburgh is in: :)

Actually, all the suggestions above are good, but Pittsburgh also has a nicely low cost of living. Pick a hip, young, walkable neighborhood in the city (Lawrenceville is a good one).
posted by jonathanweber at 10:21 AM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

Previously. We chose to live in the Hudson Valley area, mostly due to proximity to family. It's more like a bunch of small towns that offer what you want than a small city, though.

I have a friend who lives in Northampton, MA. It's awesome. Asheville's nice, but it's really too far away for what you want.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2012

I'll second Providence. It's got a harder edge than Portland and parts of it are run down, but it's more diverse, the food is better and getting to the beach is easy-peasy. Northampton is nice, but it's tiny. I haven't lived in Asheville or Pittsburgh, but I've heard good things about both places.
posted by Kattullus at 10:26 AM on February 9, 2012

None of these is an exact facsimile of Portland, but:

Pittsburgh (also: cheap, plenty of bridges, and they put french fries on salad. That latter is way better than you imagine), DC, Baltimore maybe?, parts of Brooklyn, parts of Queens, parts of Jersey City.

Smaller towns:
New Hope, PA; Montclair, NJ; Maplewood, NJ; maybe Princeton, NJ.

Haven't been to Asheville, Raleigh, Providence, Burlington, or New Paltz, but what I hear second-hand suggests they'd fit the bill quite well.

Or how about Portland, ME? It's even called Portland, for crying out loud. Too far?
posted by willpie at 10:38 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Baltimore has most of what you want, though safety is arguably lower.
posted by Mchelly at 10:52 AM on February 9, 2012

i love baltimore, but i don't recommend it as a walkable city. bikeable, yes.
posted by ilk at 10:59 AM on February 9, 2012

Especially for cost - Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

To respond to ilk: Baltimore's urban grid is very walkable, it just depends where you are on the safety aspect.
posted by waylaid at 11:01 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can stay downtown, Charlottesville Virginia may be your cup of tea. It is not so affectionately called the People's Republic of Charlottesville in central Virginia for its leftist and not-in-sync with central VA values style.
posted by dgran at 11:04 AM on February 9, 2012

Physically, Pittsburgh may be very Portland-like. Culturally, it nothing at all like Portland.
posted by the jam at 11:07 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

willpie: Or how about Portland, ME? It's even called Portland, for crying out loud. Too far?

Years and years ago I heard a radio show discussing the then new-and-shocking-to-Rhode-Islanders phenomenon of people moving from elsewhere to live in Providence after college. At one point one of the panelists said that Providence was turning into "the Portland of the East Coast." I laughed, then waited for a "well, actually" comment from one of the other people on the panel, but none came.
posted by Kattullus at 11:08 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for Northampton, MA. (Also, I have family around Philly too and have no trouble making the drive a bunch of times throughout the year. I have a top-secret traffic-free route that gets me there in five hours easily. Taking 95 could get you there a tad quicker, or it could take much, much longer with traffic.)

MeMail if you want any details on a trip to Northampton.
posted by dayintoday at 11:09 AM on February 9, 2012

Somerville or Cambridge MA
posted by carmel at 11:09 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was going to link to that WashPost article about Pittsburgh, had jonathanweber not beaten me to it. I just moved to Pittsburgh a month ago and am finding there's a lot to like, but I've never been to Portland so I can't make a fair comparison. Feels safe to me and there are definitely hip and walkable parts of town (and even when you need to drive, nothing is far away). Good coffee is available. At this time of year it's brown and gritty during the day, but the city is beautiful at night. Spring will green everything up and the rivers and valleys will be wonderful to look at.
posted by jon1270 at 11:10 AM on February 9, 2012

Madison, WI. Definitely Madison. I live here and it's so close that my recent discovery of the show "Portlandia" makes me a little self conscious with how closely it describes my friends & city-mates. And probably me too, but I won't think about that.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 11:29 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've never been to Portland but I live adjacent to Northampton, MA, and I find Portlandia eerily resonant. Northampton's not a proper city city, though.

It *is* very progressive, very walkable, safe, and, very pretty, beautiful even depending on the time of year. Hip, sure, for certain values of hip.

As for coffee, I recently saw a Northampton barista refuse to serve a particular variety of coffee in a to-go cup on the grounds that the flavor would be destroyed, so there are certainly people who take coffee seriously.

The Northamptoniest thing I ever saw was last year at NoHo Pride: an ASL-interpreted drag show.
posted by mskyle at 11:32 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Pittsburgh also rivals (ok, surpasses) Portland in the number of cloudy days/year, so it may seem more like Portland than you imagine. Likewise: mountainous, verdant, with a vibrant boating scene (although it's on rivers, not an ocean).

Carson St on the South Side is over a mile of coffeehouses, bars, trendy restaurants, antique shops, and such.

The Strip just off the North Side is about a mile of foodie heaven: import grocers, specialty shops, restaurants, and a new distillery coming soon.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:11 PM on February 9, 2012

another vote for Northampton, MA. I was so jealous of my family that got to grow up there, although I agree that it is not a "city city".
posted by inertia at 12:16 PM on February 9, 2012

The Pittsburgh area has about the same number of colleges/universities as Boston's.
posted by brujita at 12:18 PM on February 9, 2012

If he thinks Philadelphia is too conservative, not sure that Pittsburgh is going to fly. Love the place though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:19 PM on February 9, 2012

posted by dgeiser13 at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2012

Another vote for Baltimore! Whether it would meet your needs or not depends on what neighborhood you look at, but that's true of any city. I've been to the suburbs of Portland!

I'd start with the Midtown area (hey, that's my neighborhood!) just south of Baltimore's Penn Station. The Mt. Vernon neighborhood, which is trendier but more expensive, is due south of Midtown; close enough that lots of folks don't distinguish between the two. Station North is (surprise) just north of Midtown, and also has lots of stuff going on.

Another nice thing about Baltimore is that it's close enough to drive down for a couple of weekends to try out. Heck, take the train down and walk around!

For more discussion of Baltimore see the answers to this question.
posted by postel's law at 12:32 PM on February 9, 2012

Yet another vote for Northampton. I love that town, I'd move back in a heartbeat.
posted by 9000condiments at 12:34 PM on February 9, 2012

One I haven't seen mentioned: Portsmouth NH. I don't think of Portland being a college town the way those other 3 are, and I found Portsmouth to be quite lovely and a little more rough around the edges in a New Englandy way.

nth-ing Ithaca and Northampton and Madison--I haven't been to Portland but some local friends of ours have been joking about their Portland plans as moving to "Big Ithaca". Ithaca's the only one of those towns within a 5 hour drive.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2012

Y´know, if you weren´t trying to escape the Philly area, this question would totally scream West Philadelphia. (Well, a certain slice of West Philadelphia). I just moved to West Philly (from DC, which someone above mentioned but I don´t recommend for your purposes), in large part because it has exactly the kind of vibe you want. I´m writing this response to you from one of five coffee shops within a mile or so of each other. Beautiful houses. Cheap and delicious food from many ethnic backgrounds. Easily walkable and bikable.

I also think that Philly is unique among the biggest east coast cities insofar as it doesn´t have any suburbs, so far as I can figure out that attract large concentrations of young non-students and have the kind of hip, progressive feel you´re after. If you´ve spent most of your time in Philly suburbs, or in Northeast Philly, don´t rule out the rest of the city--the atmosphere is totally different.

Memail me if you have questions.
posted by ActionPopulated at 1:00 PM on February 9, 2012


I live in and love Ithaca, but it's sorely lacking in the mass-transit area, which is a deal breaker for a lot of people, so I thought I should mention that in interests of full disclosure. Good restaurants and coffee, notoriously liberal within city limits, and lots of arts stuff, however.
posted by aught at 1:40 PM on February 9, 2012

And another thing about Providence, besides the ability to eat at restaurants that really will give you the geographical history of the poultry you're considering consuming, it's got the same kind of complex, competitive second-city relationship to Boston that Portland does to Seattle. Very similar dynamics and populations all across the board.
posted by mmmcmmm at 2:17 PM on February 9, 2012

Yeah, Providence is basically Portland with more dirt, regrets and flaming skull tattoos.
posted by Kattullus at 2:43 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Not that anyone needs to be told that real life is not like TV, I feel I should state for the record that Portland is not really anything like what you see on Portlandia. The parts that do ring true strike me as equally applicable to any young and hip city-like community. Or maybe what I see as distinctive about this city is different from what everyone else sees.

I think a big part of the Portland feel is that it's small compared to other metro areas and large compared to every other town in the area (aside from Seattle, Portland's estranged sister city). We're city people, but this city isn't very big.

I haven't spent much time on the east coast, so I can't suggest any towns, but I know a lot of people from North Carolina say Portland feels to them like the research triangle (Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill), so Ashville probably isn't too far off.
posted by sportbucket at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Portland, ME. I've lived in both. MeMail me if you want more info.
posted by miss tea at 3:48 PM on February 9, 2012

Burlington, Vermont. Or Montpelier (which is the capital city)--there is a growing Green Party-type thirty-something community there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:05 PM on February 9, 2012


I lived in Portland for 8 years and live in Ithaca now, and would never think to compare the two (or, rather, when I compare the two, Ithaca definitely falls short). Ithaca is much more like Eugene-- it's a college town, and it's definitely a town, not a city. It's lovely and progressive and interesting things happen here, but anyone who moved here expecting something Portland-like would be very disappointed. Ithaca is progressive, safe, and beautiful, and has good coffee, but is walkable only because it's tiny, and lacks the restaurants and other cultural amenities of a real city.

Portland, ME is not a bad suggestion, though it might be too far for you. Like miss tea, I have lived in both and love both, and I can say confidently that if it weren't for necessity (grad school), I'd choose either over Ithaca in a minute.
posted by dizziest at 5:46 PM on February 9, 2012

I was going to toss out Burlington, VT as a possibility. For all that I know about it--my mother moved to Vermont last summer and I've spent a total of three weeks there, but I was really quite surprised by Burlington. It's pretty piddly for a city, though.
posted by hoyland at 5:48 PM on February 9, 2012

Arlington, Virginia. Bike shares, decent bookstores, solid job market., liberal politics, red state taxes.
posted by humanfont at 8:08 PM on February 9, 2012

Seconding ActionPopulated. I think you'd be pleasantly surprised by Philadelphia. It sounds like Mount Airy or Northern Liberties is your thing.
posted by Blandanomics at 8:32 PM on February 9, 2012

Just a vote for not-Arlington. I lived in a pretty crunchy, wild place before Arlington (gainesville, FL), and found Arlington so stuffy as to be absolutely oppressive.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:45 PM on February 9, 2012

DC only works if the next earthquake caused Takoma Park, Adams Morgan, H Street, Rock Creek and Eastern Market to suddenly become adjacent somehow. And swallowed all the tourists. And the careerists. And anybody who commutes from Virginia. And the people who park in bike lanes. [dreamy eyes]
posted by Skwirl at 11:15 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yup, Northampton.
posted by min at 4:16 AM on February 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everybody. Northampton and Asheville are definitely on the short list, for sure!
posted by smirkyfodder at 6:15 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lambertville, NJ/New Hope, PA

I moved away from Lambertville 4 years ago and I still miss it every day. New Hope is right across the river from Lambertville. There is a beautiful biking/walking path that goes for tens of miles along the river.
posted by corn_bread at 12:24 PM on February 10, 2012

Why are people saying Asheville? It's great there, but it's a tiny semi-hippie semi-touristy town. It's not really like Portland Oregon other than having eco-friendly people, with a touch of creativity and some decent food. It actually wouldn't ever strike me as a place to send someone who was looking to replicate Portland, Oregon. They don't have the same feeling to me at all.

Durham NC is a bit closer in terms of energy and population, though it's still much smaller and less developed and hipster/yuppified (though it's on its way).

Portland Maine is actually really similar - a fairly decent urban area, surrounded by nature and lots of outdoor opportunities, excellent food at all price levels, farmer's markets, hippie/eco folks, etc.

Providence would be another good option, or Northampton area as mentioned above. And I still think you should give Philly a chance.
posted by barnone at 3:22 PM on February 10, 2012

Response by poster: Barone -- I think you're right about Portland, ME. I actually really loved it when I visited there last year-- I'm not sure why I hadn't really considered it. I'll have to map out how far it is by plane just to see if it's not too far.

As far as Philly goes, I lived there for years and just didn't find my place. I know there are a lot of differences between all the sections, but I don't know that I can get over how violent it can be. Even if I'm in a safer neighborhood, I feel like I'm constantly hearing about a friend getting mugged and it's not even that I'm scared I'm going to get hurt, it's more that it's really bad for morale. It bums me out too much.
posted by smirkyfodder at 6:24 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're getting hits for Montclair, NJ and New Hope, PA. I just wanted to weigh in and say I grew up in Montclair and currently live near New Hope (in Doylestown). They're very nice suburbs, but they are suburbs, with some of the drawbacks suburbs have. At least Montclair has oodles of mass transit and several mini-town centers, but it's still a suburb. And both places are quite expensive.

Given what my friend living in Portland has to say about it, I don't think they'll fit your bill.
posted by Strudel at 8:33 PM on February 11, 2012

I should also mention Portland ME has JetBlue and I think we're about to have Southwest. I'm flying to NYC in April, Easter weekend, for 79 each way. So maybe the length of the drive to Philly is immaterial because you'll be able to fly cheap?

Seriously, feel free to message me and ask questions.
posted by miss tea at 4:50 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't bother with Pittsburgh. It's really pretty conservative. For someone from either coast, it's really mid western. I lived there for a year and was happy to leave. It's an ok place, and there are much worse places to live, but there are definitely better places.

I lived in Shadyside, which is a nice enough neighborhood and you can walk around to a lot of stuff and I enjoyed that. The standard of living is lower than the coasts, but gas and seafood typically cost more. There are a few really good restaurants.

If you're considering Portland, ME, look into some of the various Boston neighborhoods. Providence is fine. Northampton is small.

What size / density city are you looking for? That might be helpful.
posted by reddot at 6:47 PM on February 12, 2012

BTW, is an interesting site to compare different cities on various parameters. Here's a comparison between Portland and Pittsburgh.
posted by reddot at 7:00 PM on February 12, 2012

BTW, Pittsburgh has nowhere near the number of colleges / universities as Boston does...

Pittsburgh: 14
Boston: 52
posted by reddot at 7:03 PM on February 12, 2012

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