Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Field Of Dreams Portland

As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I minored in Russian Studies. One of my lasting impressions from that experience is reading a short story, "Oblomov's Dream. An Episode from an Unfinished Novel." Oblomov was the prototypical slacker, albeit much too old to star opposite a mid-1990s  Winona Ryder. The oblomovshchina of Portland, Oregon:

The Portland metro area's young college-educated white men are slackers when it comes to logging hours on the job, and that's one reason people here collectively earn $2.8 billion less a year than the national average. ...

... The study seeks to explain why the metro area's per-capita income has fallen 5 percent below the national average as of 2010, down from 5 percent above it in 1997.

It finds that metro Portlanders tend to choose majors, careers and work hours that lead to low pay. It portrays greater Portland as populated by humanities majors, designers, artists and teachers who work and earn less than in the vast majority of metropolitan areas.

Thems fightin' words. The barbs aside, Portland does have a problem. The region attracts talent for the sake of attracting talent. All that clever placemaking isn't paying off in the realm of economic development. People will take less pay to live in a cool place.

Cool is not an economic development strategy. Portland is a beautiful city. It's lousy at developing people. The focus on urban amenities is great for real estate developers. That's about the extent of the benefits. In exchange, you get gentrification and depressed wages.See Brooklyn and 15 interns crammed into a closet, all dependent on one roommate's trust fund.

But New York City develops people, perhaps better than any place on earth. The labor market is thick. No such ROI for the oblomovshchina in Portland. Not that they care. Economic opportunity isn't the draw.

PDX doesn't have to be NYC in order to thrive economically. In fact, throngs of slackers may not be such a bad thing after all. Austin and the Goldilocks Hypothesis:

Lets create a different standard to measure our cities along a spectrum of intensity, because I think that’s where they key differences between Austin and SF are.

Start at one end with Portland, “the city where young people go to retire,” then place Austin somewhere right in the middle, and then have San Francisco be on the other end, the super intense end.

Portland is a city that I cannot spend more than a few days a time in. I can’t stay too long because I know if I stayed a day too long in Portland, I’d suddenly be happy to embrace the slow pace of the city and stop working my ass off. I’d end up getting sleeping real late every day, drink some coffee, maybe write some poetry on my porch (or not), and then find a part time job selling cigars like I had in college.

Emphasis added. Point taken. From now on, I'll distinguish between slackers and the oblomovshchina. Austin is a college town, a place of personal economic development. Portland is a dream. Build it and they will come ... and do nothing.


Allen said...

I think we should be careful about using the word "talent" to mean some sort of "creative class". As we know there are all sorts of different types of talent.

Portland tends to attract a certain range talent. This range probably couldn't properly fix your toilet, engineer a new circuit board or set up a Hadoop cluster but they probably could knit you a slightly ill-fitting winter hat, serve you a sugarchino with a fancy foam leaf swirl and, of course, are damn good at putting a bird on things.

Done By Forty said...

I laughed out loud at the closing comment. It makes you wonder: what good is talent that doesn't produce?

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness I left Portland before I felt the urge to " put a bird on it"! I never realized how affected the manners of many Portlanders were until I gained perspective from my rear view mirror. It was great in my 20s and early 30s, but became pretentious and tedious later on. There are plenty of wonderful places to live in the US, and Portland isn't one of them anymore.

Michael, Portland Afoot said...

Oh what ever. White guys are named Lenny, black guys are named Carl. Men are like this, women are like that. Portland is a freaking *city* -- with a disproportionate share of slackers, sure. But anyone who's disappointed by Portland because they can't find inspiring and hardworking people to work and spend time with isn't hanging out with the right people. This town has plenty.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I just don't understand why working less is considered a bad thing. You admit you'd probably be much happier in Portland making less money and working less... you know, LIVING more. So why wouldn't you want to go there?

I'm writing this from the East Coast (never been to Portland, though I did live on the west coast during college), where I make a decent salary that gets eaten up by the high cost of rent, have little to no free time to spend with the people I care about, and work a job that in the long-term, is completely pointless other than providing me money for food and shelter.

Now, not everyone is like me and feels like they are wasting their lives in wage slavery - only 2/3 or Americans agree with me, so there IS that 30 percent or so of people that are satisfied by their work. Give me the option of working less hours at a job I hate, while still being able to survive, VS. working more hours at a job I hate to make a lot of money, and I'd take retiring in my (late) 20's any day of the week.

I know you weren't necessarily bashing the 'lazy' spirit of the Northwest in your post, so I'm not trying to be combative at YOU (author), I just get really irritated by the suggestion that spending your life doing something other than pursuit of monetary gain is somehow less worthy, when everyone is just going to rot in the ground together anyway. There's what, 7 billion or so humans now? How much more insignificant can your life get? Live it up everybody! Smoke 'em if you got 'em, and enjoy it while you can!

Jim Russell said...

You could tap out of the Boston rat race in cheaper places than Portland, OR.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous @ 11:54 AM - I think I love you.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but he has a point. I grew up in Portland and I swear all people do is eat and drink beer. There is nothing to do, the city is very sleepy. People barely walking around but you can't find a parking space. Recreational marijuana ads are everywhere, as are signs for strip clubs. When I tell people I'm from Portland, people say how "cool" that is but when they say that it makes me raise my eyebrows. My parents live in Lake Oswego and my mom went to a Standing Rock rally downtown - part of a huge national organized effort (Our Revolution) on Nov. 15th to protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline and only 10 or 15 people were there. Meanwhile, a huge group showed up in Pittsburgh, DC, Providence, Boston, NYC obviously and many others. This fact speaks volumes to me about what I've always experienced to be true - for all it's appearances, people don't walk their talk. For all of those that say Portland is a *city* and therefore you can find whatever you want there, it's not true. There is a brand there that is inescapable. Your only other options if you want something different are the surrounding areas of Tigard and Hillsboro which are a sharp contrast as they are very mainstream and generic. (Chain stores, sprawl, sweatpants, and sneakers) The commitment to "weird" is also very alienating...I have felt that it actually gets in the way of authenticity. If beer is not the center of your social life, if you aren't comfortable with clouds of pot everywhere you go, if a drag show or nude bike riding is not your idea of fun, etc. etc. you should not live in Portland. For all of those that enjoy that, it is quite simply - paradise. If you want an active community that is centered around social justice and has a strong work ethic, don't move here.