What's living in Portland like?
January 2, 2004 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Please tell me about Portland, Oregon. [more inside]

I have an interview coming up with a firm in Portland. While I've always heard its a cool city, I'm interested in hearing about people's experiences living there, good and bad. How's the weather? Cost of housing? Restaurants? Active downtown? What kind of people would love/hate living in Portland?
posted by gyc to Travel & Transportation around Portland, OR (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I love Portland. I've lived in the NW for about 15 years (Seattle, Olympia, Portland) and Portland is sort of the best of all worlds (to me). It's big enough to not go mad, but still has enough of the amenities of smaller cities (pretty safe, pretty low-key) that it makes it quite liveable.

There's a thriving music scene, weird, good art, and because the weather is less than ideal there's a great emphasis on my favorite things: good food, good beer and good coffee, all sports for indoor warriors. Of course, if you're actually one of those brave souls that does things like exercise, there's plenty of outdoor activities. We have the largest municipal park in the country with 60 miles of trails or something ridiculous like that, and there are mountains, volcanoes and rivers a-plenty. Movie houses that serve beer are plentiful as well, which is worth the price of admission as far as I'm concerned.

The biggest problems with Oregon? A bunch of loony ideas about taxation (hence a terrible education snafu that we keep having to fix minute by minute, it seems), not too-friendly nightclub laws, hence no underage activities, and the rain. Plus the economy tanked (worst in the country). We have the largest hunger problem in the country (completely bizarre--I don't know why), and a fair-sized crystal meth problem. The city is being gentrified pretty rapidly too, so even though the economy bites, real estate prices keep on sky-rocketing. Better than anywhere else on the West Coast, though.

My synopsis: people who like Portland are pretty laid back, into good eatin', kind of slobs, but very nice. It's urban, but not particularly urbane.

Was that helpful in the least?
posted by readymade at 10:48 PM on January 2, 2004

I've been in Portland for 7 years and just bought a house this year. Through my job I speak to people all over the country on a daily basis and frequently ask for thoughts about why others moved to Portland.
Portland has several distinct areas; most people move to either N/NE or SE when moving to the area. People usually move to places like the Pearl District after being in town for a while.
For people moving north from Cali or south from Seattle, real estate is reasonable. What is your price range? You could easily drop 200k on a house that might not warrant a second notice in most cities.
A terrific local reference is portlandmaps.com - you can find out everything you need to know about your prospective house and neighborhood. (We found out that before our house was restored there were complaints about couches in the front yard and several people living in the garage.)
Can you be more specific about what kind of restaurants, music and such that you seek? I can tell you there is terrific Thai, very mediocre Chinese, great Mexican (at least to my Irish tastebuds) and an obsession with finding the best place for breakfast.
I recommend a tolerance for unusual weather, crazy politics, athletes who know the Police on a first name basis, street kids, people who love the written word, dogs, bad radio for the most part, excellent beer, fairly reliable and usable public transportation, people who keep talking about Portland 'way back when a studio on 23rd was only $135 a month', public parks and population density.
Portland is a good place to find your niche - and many choose to stay in that niche for, well, a very long time.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 11:19 PM on January 2, 2004

I've been in and around Portland since last summer and would echo everything that readymade said. I've only lived in California, so to me this place is dirt cheap, has great food, quirky art, and good music. I love it.

The taxation thing really gets me. In California, it would cost me $150/year to register my car (and it shot up right before I left), but once in Oregon it cost me $50 for two years. That sounds great until you start driving around on dark rainy nights. You can't see crap on most two lane roads because there are no streetlights and the dept of transportation can't afford to put reflectors on the streets. It's really dangerous. It's that kind of obvious benefits for the tax that I don't get. The roads suck but people refuse to let their fees reflect the needs of populace.

So far one of the other few downsides I've found is that Oregon in general is really white. The last bit of demographics I read on my area was something around 85% white, 10% latino. Aside from the general feel-goodness of having a real melting pot this seems to mean it's not easy to get good exotic foods. There's just one good ethiopian restuarant in PDX and where I live there are no indian places of any kind. I used to eat indian once a week in SF. I only know of one asian food market and it's a couple towns over. I haven't met anyone yet that looks down upon non-white people, so I don't know what is keeping everyone out of the state, it's a cheap, fun, great place to be.
posted by mathowie at 11:45 PM on January 2, 2004

More on Portland/Oregon (I was born/raised/19 years):

Matt's absolutely right on the whiteness thing; Oregon started as something of a Klan enclave.

I'm not sure where you're going to live in Portland, but don't sell any area short because of what you here. North Portland is not as bad as they say, and there are some great soul food restaurants up there. Likewise, the People's Republic of Southeast Portland really isn't that bad.

Portland has more strip clubs per capita than any city in the United States (despite the nightclub laws), if that sort of thing interests you. There are lots of good coffee shops. If you're not from Oregon already, the local beer is excellent.

Learn to love the rain; you can expect it roughly ten months out of the year. I don't even own an umbrella anymore.

Be sure to see OMSI at least once.

I'm sure there's more. Might post again later.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 12:44 AM on January 3, 2004

I moved from Hawaii to Portland and I love it (and I'm not white!)

Plus we have Powell's, the best bookstore in the world. 'nuff said.
posted by Tacodog at 12:52 AM on January 3, 2004

I've only been in Portland a month, after eight years in New York City. I like PDX a lot, mainly for the reasons listed above. There's a good, quirky, community-based art/music/social scene that you can get into even if you're beyond college age. Decent restaurants, indie record stores, bookstores, arthouse theatres, and other independent businesses abound. You get lots of living space for your money, compared with SF, Seattle, or (god knows) NYC. The sun comes out more than you'd assume, even in the rainy winter. People are generally progressive and thoughtful, even if Oregon is a bit on the anti-tax libertarian side. And there's a certain sense that you're in on a secret -- it's a great city, but shhh, we don't want all the Californians to know!

Also -- it's easy to get around. My husband and I are currently car-less (on a long waiting list to buy a Prius, trying to fit the stereotype of Pacific Northwest ecogeeks), so we take the bus everywhere. The public transportation system is pretty excellent -- not as extensive as New York's, but from what I can tell much better than Seattle's or SF's. You can go to the transportation authority's site -- www.trimet.org -- and enter the address you're at and the address where you want to go, and it'll tell you precisely how to get there (including things like "Walk 0.1 mile to the west, and wait at this intersection for three minutes until the No. 15 bus comes at exactly 6:34 PM"). The buses are usually right on time.

However -- I'll agree with mathowie that seeing street signs at night is a pain. This is particularly annoying when you're taking a bus route for the first time and trying not to miss your stop, but you squint out the window and can't see half the signs. Though after a while I've gotten to know certain landmarks that clue me in to where I am. And if you're really worried about overshooting your stop, you can ask the bus driver to let you know when you're there. They're nice.

The area where I live (in the NE, near Alberta Street) isn't overwhelmingly white -- it's historically black and Hispanic, though in recent decades it's experienced a fair amount of white-hipster integration. You'll see lots of people of all races on the street; if the houses were just a bit closer together, I could imagine I was in Brooklyn. For what it's worth, some of the new gallery/artsy places on Alberta, and the food co-op, seem to be making efforts to include people who've been in the community a long time. Still, the city as a whole seems a bit weirdly stratified, though not intentionally so.

At the moment my favorite Ethoiopian place is Queen of Sheba on MLK in NE, and my favorite Thai place is Thai Peacock downtown. I haven't been to an Indian place yet, though i've heard Plainfield's Mayur on W. Burnside is good.

I've never lived this far north before, where the winter days are incredibly short. It's totally dark before five! However, I know this will be more than compensated for by very long, non-rainy days in the summer. It feels fairly Scandinavian.

Although I miss NYC (and will return there occasionally), so far Portland seems like a good move for me. Give it a try (but don't tell everyone).
posted by lisa g at 1:18 AM on January 3, 2004

RE: Transportation.

Portland is also very bicycle-friendly. Bike lanes are everywhere, and drivers are at that rare point at which they expect some cyclists to be in left turn lanes. Biking a couple miles to work every morning is very pleasant. That is, when it's not raining.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 4:05 AM on January 3, 2004

Lived there for three years, 93-96 for grad school, and have been back often to visit my wife's family. My sense is that in the past 10 years as it has become more expensive to live there that in general the population has become much more uptight, and gentrification has been occuring at an alarming rate, with many of the quirky little dives (shops etc.) being pushed out as "lofts" are built.

That said, it's better than most places I live, if a bit self-congratulatory at times.
posted by mecran01 at 7:35 AM on January 3, 2004

mathowie: There's an asian food market on MLK across the street from the new convention center. Can't recall the name, and it's kinda small, but it's there.

gyc: Portland's great, but make sure you have a job if you move here, otherwise you'll likely end up looking for a while.
posted by cmonkey at 7:52 AM on January 3, 2004

A long-time Pacific Northwest resident friend of mine suggested that Portland is like Seattle was 20 years ago. Make of that what you will...

Personally, I'm a fan and wish I could live there. There's enough going on to be interesting, but not so much as to feel overwhelming or impersonal. Compared to most cities in the western US, it's very walkable, you can actually get around on foot quite usefully, in the center at least. It's also a very bicycle-friendly place, by US standards. Being on the doorstep of both a beautiful coastline, the Columbia Gorge and some fantastic wilderness areas to explore inland is quite a bonus, as well.

And, yeah, Powells.

As others have said, it's not very ethnically diverse. I live in SE Washington and it's pretty much the same story here. Coming from London, this was one of the things that took some adjusting to.
posted by normy at 9:12 AM on January 3, 2004

Indian: Swagat has a $7 buffet lunch. 23rd and Lovejoy. India Oven -- in town and in Gresham -- is also very good.

Thai: Thai Orchid (killer Pad Kee Mao) or e-San (across the street from Kell's Irish Pub, home of bagpipers and draught Guiness) are both great.

Lebanese: Great Lebanese restaurants in Portland. My favorite is Ya Hala on Stark, right across the street from the best pizza in PDX, Flying Pie. The owner of Ya Hala is a prince of a man and his wife is the master chef. He also owns a lebanese market which is fun to visit after dinner. Picked up an ibrik and some turkish coffee with cardamom last time I was there.

Chinese: The chinese food here isn't that great. Believe it or not, the best chinese I've had has been at the Safeway delis. Hawaii, SF and Vanc. BC have the best chinese on the west coast. Everything else pales by comparison.

Personally, I like the east side better than the west, Beaverton, Hillsboro, etc. mostly because of the traffic. If you want to live near the city cheaply, lisa g's suggestion is good. Or you can live out in Gresham near a Max (light rail) line. I prefer the country myself, but the areas right outside the urban growth boundary are pricey.

The Pearl District is fun to visit, by the way, but expensive to live there. And full of snooty yuppies. I used to work there and have had much interaction with 'em. So open minded their brains fell out. On the flip side, they do have a Rogue Public House. Rogue beers are some of the most extreme tasting beers in the world. Highly recommended.
posted by Tacodog at 9:32 AM on January 3, 2004

I'd move there if the employment market weren't so scary in Oregon overall and Portland particularly. It's still cheaper than San Francisco (by quite a bit, though not as dramatically as even 5 years ago) and while the dining scene isn't quite what I'm used to I'd give that up for the general atmosphere, general lack of blighted urban areas, and slightly better community cohesion.

And Powell's. That's the important thing. Portland has Powell's.
posted by majick at 10:20 AM on January 3, 2004

Powells is a huge bonus. In fact, I'm about to go to Powells Technical, which is a few blocks east of the main store and is geek HEAVEN.

Let's see... When it doesn't rain, it's nice. And you get used to the rain fast. In fact, weather as a whole kind of becomes an "eh" topic. Rarely snows, if you don't like the white stuff, although never trust a weatherman. If you don't want to carry an umbrella anywhere, I reccomend you get gore-tex outerwear ... I even have gore-tex sneakers.

Despite the "We won't pay no steeenking taxeees" attitude here, voting can bend towards the hippie liberal sometimes. Last year, a measure passed that tied minimum wage to inflation. Therefore, we now have a $7.16/hr minimum wage ... and all commodities that depend on minimum wage, as well as restaurant prices, are going way up as a result. Because grocery stores depend on minimum wage help to stock shelves, grocery prices are going up. Because restaurants depend on minimum wage help to prepare and serve food, they're either laying off help or raising prices. The price of a pint of beer has hit $4.00 in some places. Of course, we also have the largest hunger problem in the nation and the largest unemployed population in the nation. Obviously, our schools need to start teaching basic economics again...

Other than wacky politics, weird taxes, HORRIBLE schools (don't move here if you have kids or intend to have kids, and if you have them anyway, move out before they reach school age), it's overall a pretty nice place to live. Downtown's pretty active, although things tend to quiet down around midnight ... definitely not your party-all-night city.
posted by SpecialK at 11:35 AM on January 3, 2004

Oh, and the one last thing -- For whatever reason, it's *really* hard to make friends in this city. You'll need to take a college class or three or do some activity to start meeting people. Same goes for dating, unfortunately. :-P
posted by SpecialK at 11:36 AM on January 3, 2004

Ha! The roads here...yeah, they're a joke. My favorite representation of the ridiculous roads is the fabled "Two Way" sign. Who ever heard of a Two Way sign? And there are some of the screwiest on- and off-ramps ever. But there are many bridges, which while sometimes annoying are certainly scenic.

Bombay Cricket Club has okay Indian food. Typhoon has tasty Thai food, although they were recently in some deportation kerfuffle with their head chef. Queen of Sheba is definitely the best Ethiopian. For good hipster establisments, there are the faux-southern Delta and Montage. Montage has some of the only late-night eating in Portland. And of late, East Burnside (between Grand and 12th Avenue), home of day laborers and streetwalkers, has become a little enclave of new cafes and restaurants with an emphasis on vegetarian food.

I just read Chuck Palahniuk's guide to Portland, and it gives you a good sense of the strange undercurrent that seems to flavor everything here. It's an a-typical and pretty irreverent guide to the city, but very informative about things like live sex shows and Shanghai tunnels, plus who you call in case of a haunting. I thought it was very entertaining.
posted by readymade at 12:16 PM on January 3, 2004

"Who ever heard of a Two Way sign?"

Hey, I think they're kind of useful, given that two way streets are something of an exception, especially around the downtown area! Navigation by automobile is certainly a little quirky in Portland, requiring a certain "you can't get there from here" approach at times, although it's not really as quirky as San Francisco.
posted by majick at 1:11 PM on January 3, 2004

The traffic lights on the avenues in SW are, inexplicably, timed for 15mph.
Driving to the coast with your windows down is like huffing Pine Sol.
Pho Hung on SE Powell is a great place for weekend brunch.
If you want to pump your own gas, you have to drive to Washington.
Portland has Indian food carts. Try SW 12th and Yamhill.
Women go to Portland Beavers games to meet men.
posted by eddydamascene at 2:13 PM on January 3, 2004

I haven't personally read it, but I hear that Chuck Palahniuk's Fugitives and Refugees is a great Portland travelogue.
posted by Vidiot at 2:45 PM on January 3, 2004

If you want to pump your own gas, you have to drive to Washington.

Just out of curiosity, what's with that? Has it always been that way? Were there too many Oregonians spilling it or something? Or is this a labor law?
posted by normy at 2:45 PM on January 3, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great information and advice.
posted by gyc at 3:02 PM on January 3, 2004

normy: I've heard that the law was passed in the '50s to reduce unemployment rates.
posted by cmonkey at 4:10 PM on January 3, 2004

re: full service -- it's the same way in NJ. I didn't know this on a roadtrip once, and confused the hell out of the guy at the service station.
posted by Vidiot at 4:57 PM on January 3, 2004

If Portland is Seattle 20 years ago, where is Portland 15 years ago?
posted by mecran01 at 9:43 PM on January 4, 2004

One small voice of dissent....

I dated a woman in Portland for a while (yes, VERY long distance). Just about everyone I met who lives there loves it, wouldn't ever consider living somewhere else. They echo all the sentiments listed above.


I really disliked it. Too white. Too clean. Too damned nice. It's like a really big small town. Sure, there's some cultural diversity there (my ex-girlfriend was kind of (more than kind of) an expert on that), but you have to really go looking for it. No casual encounters with culture like in a big city (I'm in DC). Always rainy, cold, foggy. They say it makes you appreciate the sun more. Yeah, hit me in the head repeatedly so I'll appreciate it when you stop.

Obviously, many, many people love it there. I may be the only one who doesn't. I'd guess that most Portlanders would (justifiably) have lots of bad things to say about DC. I may also be sub-consciously associating it with all the bad things about my ex-long-distance girlfriend. But I thought I'd add my $.02 of dissent.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:53 AM on January 5, 2004

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