Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rust Belt Built Boomtowns: Portland

At the center of any US urban boom are Rust Belt refugees. On the heels of college graduates from the Industrial Heartland follows regional prosperity. Portland (Oregon) is a good example. The native talent is less than thrilled with the city's transformation:

In August, 23-year-old Kate Williams, whose jobs have included barista, bartender and coffee roaster, ditched Portland for the third time. "I'm going to California -- going, not moving," she emphasizes. "I want an opportunity to miss my home instead of resent it, and I'm starting to resent it."

The story is similar for outsiders. Many are struggling to make a go of it in such a popular destination. Portland's economy cannot absorb all the talent clamoring to live there. Others don't find success so elusive:

I found getting work ridiculously easy; I had a job within a week. But a lot of people here really struggle. I work with 28-year-old people who make $8.50 an hour and smoke pot all the time and come to work and they're lazy. You could not go to Wooster, Ohio, and do what people do here, or Columbus or Cleveland. I don't understand the structure of it, or why people would want to do it. In five years, what are you going to have, if you're not building real relationships, if you're just doing what you feel like doing? I hired (a guy) at Grand Central. He's one of the nicest people, but he's 42 without any roots. He has no savings; he's living on his sister's couch. He's the quintessential Portland person. If Portland is Neverland, he's Peter Pan.

That Rust Belt work ethic is a competitive edge in hip Portland. The best and brightest leaving states such as Ohio are rock stars wherever they go. They compete. They thrive. They propel the city forward. Not all members of the Creative Class are like this. If you want a dynamo, then recruit graduates from Big 10 universities.

There's a caveat to the magical demographic. It's the talent that leaves that is most desirable. Those who move the furtherest from home are the entrepreneurs that Portland needs. Ideally, they come from Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Shrinking cities don't produce many Peter Pans. That's particularly true in the hearth of Rust Belt Chic.

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