I moved to Portland about five months ago. When I got here, my new friend and housemate Jacob was in the midst of moving his luthier workshop (Mitasbows.com) home. It had been in a historic building called Towne Storage Studios. The building had been sold by its owner, and was being turned into apartments and condos, which I quickly realized, in this New Portland that I was slowly discovering, was a rampant theme.
I first lived here in 2008, when Portland was relatively new on the national scene for hip places to be, before Portlandia. I moved here then with excitement, seeing it as a place of possibility, new connections, and a thriving bike/alternative culture. I found all of that to be true. It was the typical successful story of moving to a new place, where I met friends within the first week, and found a job soon after.
Since then, I've sensed that Portland's popularity hasn't been good for it. Indeed, Towne Storage Studios has been a fixture on Burnside for artists and alternatives for decades, and now that the building has sold, hundreds of artists and craftspeople have been forced to move elsewhere. The story that's happening in Portland has happened a hundred times in a hundred places: money comes in, the ones without adapt or leave.
Is an influx of money always good? Money increases comfort, but how much comfort is necessary? Comfort has environmental and social costs. The cost of going out to eat, or buying a new phone, goes far beyond the money that comes from your pocket. The environmental cost of the new buildings using new material going up all over Portland is considerable, and the social cost of new real estate is that rent prices increase.
I don't have a solution to the complex problems that lead to houses being demolished and apartments being built in their wake, but I'd like to think that eviction and demolition aren't the only options.
To understand why things are the way they are, it helps to look at them from a broader perspective. The people who bought Towne Storage, or who are building condos and apartments, aren't doing it as a social service, they're doing it so that they can turn a profit from the people who rent or buy from them. Then the people who own those buildings have more money (power) to do whatever it is that they want next. Maybe it will be humanitarian or social or environmental, but I'd bet that it's self interested.
A few days ago I met a guy named Caspian from Santa Cruz. He lives in a state park somewhere in California in a squat that he built himself. He didn't know how to build a structure, but figured it out as he went along. He recently got a filtration system set up so he can"... use the seasonal crick that runs right by."
Anna and I caught a ride with him to the hip part of town, and along the way we talked about the themes of our culture in general. Caspian would love to buy a house in Santa Cruz, but it's so expensive he and his partner could never afford it. He's looking for a house up in Portland instead, which are getting more expensive every day, but apparently not as bad as Santa Cruz.
He told me that his band was once offered $1500 by GoPro to do an ad for them. It came to $300 per person for his fiver person band. He turned them down. "Three hundred dollars? I wipe my ass with three hundred dollars. I'll tell you what three hundred dollars doesn't buy me, it doesn't buy me a fucking Go Pro." We talked about friends of his who have been featured in magazines such as Juxtapoz, but turned down further offers for work. They all realized the companies or galleries contacting them wanted to use them to make money, while giving them barely anything. "It's easy, when you're young, to feel excited about a company noticing you and offering you a thousand bucks. But they're just using you."
The difficulty in finding the root of these problems, one with selling out as an artist, and the other with increasing rent prices and a changing cultural landscape, is that the blame falls on both everyone and no one. We all support or reject these changes through our actions. It's true that hooking up with a company will give you more recognition than you could find on your own, but at what cost to your own vision and creativity? It's true that living in a new apartment building is nice, but at what environmental or social cost?
After Caspian dropped us off, we walked down a street called Mississippi that used to be quite different. A few years ago it became popular for one reason or another, and suddenly shops appeared everywhere, it transformed overnight to a new hip district. Rent went up, and brand new apartments and condo buildings went up too.
As we stepped outside a store my friend runs called Worn Path, the sun came out. I paused for moment in the rare light. An old black woman sat next to the door, and started talking to me. She asked for a few dollars, I gave her two, saying that I didn't have much either, but I'd give her what I could. She asked me where I lived, I said out past 82nd. "Everybody is moving out there! It's so expensive down here now. I've lived here for forty years, and it's a changed place."
"I used to go to the rexall on the corner there, mamma would get me a prescription on a little slip and I'd take it down there. The man behind the counter would just say "now you take that right back to your mom!" We used to leave the front and back doors open on our house in the summer so that the breeze would blow right through. We left them open all day and all night. Think you can do that now? Things have changed here, I'm telling you I'm from a different era."
Her story shocked me little, and I felt strange as I walked down the street lined with clothing stores, tea shops, and boutiques. It bothered me that in the times I've visited Mississippi I too have felt out of place, even though it has been taken over by white Millennials like myself. I have felt out of place because the people there often seem to be on the lookout, they all seem to be a little threatened, as if they know that what's going on there, or what happened, isn't right.
The street itself feels like a self-conscious bastion, a scene, a place where people are checking out and judging others, a place where you shouldn't be unless you are there for the reason the street exists, which is as a place for people to spend money.
A lot of places in Portland feel this way, and as thousands of people come to the city, ready to write their own version of a dream-life into existence, things seem to be changing in every neighborhood. Is there anything to do? Does something need to be done? Maybe all that can be done is encouraging people to live more thoroughly examined lives. Who are you giving your money to? What are they doing with it? It's an obligation that we have, as contributors to a society, to think about where the society is going, and what we can do about it.
This post is part of a collaborative series