Oregon or Washington?
June 27, 2014 9:09 AM   Subscribe

My friend and I want to move to either Washington or Oregon. What are good/affordable places to live for two poor artists in debt?

My friend and I want to move to either Washington or Oregon. Neither of us have much money, and we both have enormous student loans. We're both artists, and we make and retain very little money.

We are looking for the following things:
-A good market for commissions (i.e. set painting, murals, event designs, etc.)
-Places that almost never have below zero temperatures
-Larger city with things to do and decent public transportation
-Affordable living costs (if you're willing to work hard)
-Preferably near to the ocean, but if not, that's cool

I don't live near these states, so I have practically no idea about the cities in these areas. We're both prepared to do research, but it's so hard to jump in without a place to start. If there are any magical cities that meet most of the items on our list, would you please share them with us? Or if you have any advice whatsoever on how to start, it would be greatly appreciated!

posted by kfrax to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you want a larger city with things to do and decent public transportation, you're looking at either Seattle or Portland. Portland is closer to the ocean and is more affordable than Seattle. Neither get below zero, or even much below freezing. Seattle would probably be the better place for commissions, since people in Portland generally have less money than people in Seattle.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:12 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have lived in Portland for over 10 years. We are about 2 hours from the ocean by car -- I don't know what public transportation to the ocean is like. It is relatively affordable here, but the job market is tough unless you are in high tech. We do have good public transportation within the city with bus service, light rail and street cars. I don't think it has been below zero since i've lived here and many winters, we get no appreciable snow fall.

There is an active reddit sub-forum on Portland that you may want to check out.
posted by elmay at 9:32 AM on June 27, 2014

Richland/Pasco/Kennewick (aka "The Tricities") is a relatively warm inland area (about a 4 to 6 hour drive from Seattle, iirc) in Washington. Richland is (or was) the most expensive of the three. The three together make a decent sized metro area. It is worth considering.

Something to think about:

Oregon does not have a sales tax.
Washington does not have income tax.
posted by Michele in California at 9:34 AM on June 27, 2014

Unfortunately a couple of your criteria are going to be hard to find in one place. You may need to choose which of these is more important to you:

-A good market for commissions (i.e. set painting, murals, event designs, etc.)

-Larger city with things to do and decent public transportation
-Affordable living costs (if you're willing to work hard)

A good market for commissions necessitates a certain type of regional economy - one with money. You can find that in larger cities like Portland and Seattle, but they wouldn't exactly be considered affordable. Though it depends where you're coming from...if you're moving from NYC, they'll both probably seem reasonable in comparison.

It's tempting to recommend a smaller town (Walla Walla is lovely, Ashland is too) due to your cost of living concerns. However, if you want to keep working in the arts, you'll probably be better off living near Seattle or Portland. You can live in one of the cheaper outskirts (Georgetown is a neighborhood just south of Seattle that has a strong arts community) and still have access to the arts stuff that will keep you happy and hopefully employed.
posted by leitmotif at 9:44 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm getting ready to move to Seattle right now from Vancouver, and Seattle's public transportation is the pits. I don't think it's dealbreaker levels of terrible, but might be something to keep in mind.
posted by jess at 9:46 AM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oregon is way better as it is bike friendly and a good place to live. Seattle is a complete yuppie town and with more and more money from tech flowing in, it is getting really expensive to live. The rents are high and forget about buying a house in Seattle itself.
posted by jellyjam at 12:01 PM on June 27, 2014

Portland is somewhat cheaper to live in than Seattle, but it's also smaller and has fewer cash-paying patrons of the arts (but still some). There are, of course, many theater groups and art galleries and such in Portland, but I suspect there's more money flowing to similar groups in Seattle, if you're seeking to get work from doing play backdrops or similar things.

One city I haven't yet seen mentioned is Tacoma, which is cheaper (and perceived as a bit more industrial & working-class) than Seattle but might still be close enough for you to take advantage of the SEA arts scene (and has its own indie art scenes, plus a glass art scene). I haven't spent a lot of time there, but I've heard it described as a place more young artsy types are considering. Also maybe look into the college towns Olympia and Eugene.

Portland does have unusually great public transportation for a midsized American city. I've found it passable in Seattle (though just as a visitor) and never used it in Tacoma.

I guess a lot of the answers here might depend on if you hope to make a significant chunk of your living from your art (commercial or fine art?) or if you want a relatively affordable place to live where you can also get solid day jobs to support yourselves. Good luck!
posted by lisa g at 12:21 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Chiming in on Tacoma and asking about how you plan to support yourselves.

Washington has historically (and currently) a lower unemployment rate. I would not suggest someone, especially a younger grad with a lot of debt, move to Oregon without six months or a years' living expenses, because I have seen friends with greater professional experiences struggle for work and end up underemployed. That was also true for me when I lived nearby and applied for jobs in Portland.

Portland is the ultimate buyers' market for employers as it attracts a lot of young people with degrees and creativity who will work for less money to be around the action.

My friend was working an entry level temp position for the city, one she was overqualified for, and told to apply so they could hire her. They received 700 resumes for the position and then decided to only consider people with master's degrees and up - because they could. My friend ended up taking another job where the budget was so slack, she would get laid off - a forced furlough - at least once a year. And she had several years of experience, glowing references...

Things are better than five years ago, but if you want a decent day job or two part time jobs to support your art, understand Portland is filled with people trying to do the same thing. On the other hand, my creative career thrived here in Texas because I am not competing with as many "clones", and the cost of living is greatly reduced.

So, this is my reasoning to look at Tacoma. Number one, it has an art community. Two, the rents are lower, but it is right by Seattle. Three, Seattle has far more people, nouveau riche or just middle class collectors, who can buy your art - again, historically you have more unemployment in Oregon so things are tighter for many Oregonians. Four, you'll be near all the best aspects of the Northwest - natural beauty, literary and creative culture, good health care, coffee.

Avoid living in the Tacoma port neighborhood or nearby due to lahars.

You might consider the Tri Cities, or Olympia, which has a walkable core.

If you are set on Portland, I would also recommend Vancouver,
WA. Or getting a beater car, as we had, and living as far north as Battle Ground or even Longview/Kelso.

I would not call Seattle's public transport a deal breaker. It's not as good as Boston or Toronto, but still worlds better than most cities in the West, certainly the Southwest. Portland's is better and more compact, but the city developed according to a managed growth policy. Seattle has tons to see and do outside, but Portland's suburban outskirts are proportionately a lot smaller.

If you don't get a car, do budget for the occasional weekend Zip car rental. There are so many beautiful, inspiring things to drive and see in this region, which will inspire your eyes and feed your art. Enjoy!
posted by mitschlag at 10:38 AM on June 28, 2014

I don't know what public transportation to the ocean is like

I'm a distant Toronto boy, and I love that I'm able to answer this. The Greyhound is not cheap, but it's daily, and the view through the Coast Range is relaxing and beautiful.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 1:10 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have lived in almost every city and town in Washington state. Ask me anything through MeFi mail. Since Seattle is completely out, price-wise, for anyone struggling, and with that I would include Olympia, where you would be one of thousands of un-employed artists with Phds and perfect credit may I suggest Bellingham? Bellingham has charm up the yin-yang, it is on the ocean, has great public transportation, best I've used and I have lived in cities in California and Florida in addition to every town in Wash. Bellingham would be cheaper than Seattle. And you could still commute to Seattle for festivals and fun and stay in a youth hostel over-night.

One of the greatest apartments I have ever seen was in Bellingham. It was the top floor of an old house, wood floors, and the bathroom was huge with a clawfoot bathtub, when you were taking a bath you could look out a huge window onto the harbor, see all the boats coming in. If you live in Bellingham you can walk down to the water every day. Have lunch. I lived in Fairhaven and Bellingham. Loved them both.

And then there is Spokane. Not by the ocean. But I happen to love Spokane. The thing about Spokane is you would be one of 100 artists who are also struggling and in debt. You would have a support system. Not vicious competition like Seattle and Olympia. AND if you are an artist you would be a big fish, a WHALE, actually, in Spokane. You could get any grant you went up for. The art galleries would love to meet you. You could go to the local colleges and ask questions of the art teachers or sit in on their classes. Where in Seattle you would have to beg, have contacts to do something like that, you would have to get in line, get on a waiting list. You would feel welcomed in Spokane. But don't live downtown right now it is going through a violent phase.

AND, I don't know where he lives right now but Sherman Alexie is from the Spokane area and he speaks at the local bookstores often. So, that should give you an idea of the caliber of artists in Spokane. But there are very few. So if you have talent you will stand out.

It's not near the ocean but it is near lakes. I personally love the lake culture.

I don't know much about Oregon except that currently Portland is the "coolest" place to live among native Pacific Northwesteners. All of the little towns along the Columbia outside of Portland or gorgeous and quaint.
posted by cda at 4:53 PM on June 28, 2014

If you're trying to work your art as profession rather than a hobby, probably living in a cheaper suburb of Portland/Seattle and commuting in for art shows is the way to go. Portland seems to check off more of the things than Seattle does:

* rarely below zero (according to the data I'm looking at, the coldest Portland has ever been was 9F!)
* a large city with many, many things to do, and a huge belt of natural beauty surrounding it
* Quick drive to the ocean
* Good public transport. And the highways aren't nearly as terrible as Seattle; (Pudget Sound, as you may imagine, makes everything harder for day travel)

Affordability is the challenge here. Portland is cheaper than Seattle, but still more expensive than the suburb I grew up in, in the Midwest. Frankly, "if you're willing to work hard" isn't a very helpful guidance. Right now you're working hard (I assume) and breaking even. And given how local your list of commissioned work is, I expect you'd lose any reliable streams of commissions you presently have. Using Padmapper to scout the Portland housing market, you're about $900 a month for a 2 bedroom near a commuter rail line.
posted by pwnguin at 5:11 PM on June 29, 2014

Let me throw in a vote for Salem, Oregon. We're close enough to Portland (about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on what part of PDX you're trying to get to) that I think between here and there, you could pick up commissions. Very temperate climate. One hour drive to the beach, one hour drive to the mountains. We're not _huge_ on things to do, but again, Portland is only about an hour away too. Public transport is buses, and kinda meh from what I hear (I'm not a user), but the city is pretty bike friendly.
posted by genehack at 10:25 PM on June 29, 2014

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