A mixed millenial’s search for community and identity in America’s whitest metropolis.
I find it a little ironic that so many Californians are moving to the Pacific Northwest, and yet there is a continuous slew of Portlanders moving down to Cali. It’s somewhat bothersome to see so many friends, talented artists and potential community leaders take their potential elsewhere–supporting the thinking that Portland writers and artists can’t be successful here. With NYC being so overpopulated, and California’s likely descent into drought and irrelevance (sorry Cali friends), I have to wonder: should we all be clinging to/cultivating the PNW as a place where creatives and POC can thrive? Can we (and should we) make Portland the next LA…only cleaner and nicer and generally better? Despite my concerns about the looming earthquake, and my bitter attitude towards certain parts of Portland culture, I do believe the answer is ‘yes’.
Even though I’m not Portland-born-and-raised, I still consider this my city. I grew up in a small rural suburb about 30 minutes south of Portland known as Canby. During high school my friends and I would drive up to Portland to get a taste of urban living. Sometimes on the weekends we’d come to P-town for late-night pizza or dessert on NW 23rd, or stay out until the wee hours of the morning dancing at the Escape (an all-ages gay nightclub). Portland was the only place cool enough to host our prom; it’s where we went to have fun outside the bubble of our small town. Unfortunately, living in Oregon for so long gave me a jaded attitude toward the city. It’s only recently that I’ve decided that I love Portland again, and that everyone else [cool] should too.
I recently read an article in the Oregonian about writer Mitchell Jackson, a Portland native who now lives in New York and has had great success with his award-winning novel, The Residue Years.In the article the NYU and PSU alum is quoted professing his love for the role Portland has played in his life and his writing:
“I’m so pro-Portland…. A lot of people, they want to get out of here so bad that when they do they cut the ties and diminish the role that Portland played for them. But I feel like all my content is about being here.”
And yet you moved to New York, dude. How touching. I don’t know if it’s because he writes about Portland while no longer residing here or if it’s that I question the degree to which he really loves Portland…but something about this quote just irks me a little bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit envious of Jackson since moving to New York for grad school is a faraway dream of mine. Either way, sir, bring your talented and creative ass back home.
Look, I understand that Portland doesn’t provide anywhere near the level of diversity and opportunity that you can get in places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Seattle. As someone who spent 80k on a Bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism–believe me, I get it. There’s just not enough of these opportunities out here. At least not paid ones. Not yet. You don’t get a sense that the people here are really grinding. Just take a look our low speed limits and even slower drivers; it’s like no one has anywhere to be!
It wouldn’t be incorrect to attribute our glacial pace to all the heavy pot-smoking and lower levels of income. But mostly, I think it’s that Portlanders typically would rather spend their freetime enjoying the outdoors and a pretentiously made cappuccino than striving toward monetary gain and climbing the socioeconomic ladder. We are known for a culture that perpetuates a “retired” twenty-something lifestyle where we make just enough to get by (and grab brunch with our besties).
This laid-back attitude doesn’t create the most motivating environment for young professionals. Especially for artists, journalists, filmmakers or musicians wanting to make it big, it can be quite the struggle. And if you’re a person of color also trying to connect with an audience that relates to your experience? Good luck and Godspeed.
I’ve long considered leaving Portland for all of the above reasons. Do I need to relocate to a more competitive, opportunistic environment for my craft to improve and thrive? Possibly.
After finishing my BA at the University of Oregon, I moved back to the Portland area and tried to re-see myself here. I worked several customer service-type jobs downtown and spent my free time applying for internships, trying out different hot dining spots, and getting too turnt at various unsavory bars. After a while, I could only get so pumped about the prospect of spending a Friday evening drinking wine (cause I hate beer) in a local pub, or spending the Fourth of July at the Blues Festival for the tenth time. Even though I had always felt very comfortable in Portland, I rarely felt excited by what it had to offer. As my rant from October details, Portland isn’t the most accommodating place for us POCs to get out and have fun. Even with a recent effort by Mayor Hales to make Portland Hip-Hop Day an annual event, our clubs and businesses have been shut down to the point of extermination, and there are barely any movie theaters playing ‘black’ movies. (The jury is still out on whether a theater full of white people watching Straight Outta Compton at the Hollywood Theater counts as progress).
For the four years following graduation, I continued to shout about how unimpressed I was with Portland: “it’s not a real city,” “there aren’t enough black people,” “why does everything downtown close at 7pm?” and “there’s nothing to do here but eat and drink” were just a few of my complaints.
I had multiple discussions with friends and family members (conventional white folk) who were perplexed by my desire to leave Oregon, my home since the age of five. While they obviously didn’t relate to my wanting to live in a city where I’m not consistently the only black girl at the bar, they also asked a valid question. Oregon is rich in natural beauty, and has a far superior food and drink scene to its competitors. The city is walkable, the people are nice, the streets are clean, and there are few places I’ve gone where I don’t at least feel safe. Plus the cost of living is in the realm of what I can afford. Oregon—and especially Portland—has a lot going for it.
Still, I have often had my heart set on living somewhere else. Whether it was Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York, I wanted something different. I wanted more from a city than what was being advertised. I wanted to identify with something or someone outside my group of college friends—several of whom no longer lived in my area. It had proved near impossible for me to get the same gig at Portland Monthly even after interviewing for two different hiring cycles, and I didn’t get so much as a peep from the other local publications. Since I knew I needed to do more unpaid work to get hired at any publication, I began to apply for magazine internships and jobs in other places. In June 2014 I was accepted for an editorial internship at Seattle Met magazine—a 6-month position that would offer me invaluable experience. So obviously, I took the position in Seattle and made a very hasty move to Portland’s big-sister-city.
Though similar to Portland, Seattle was bigger and offered more of virtually everything: freelancing, food, water, music, people, nightlife. I also had several aunts, uncles, and cousins from my father’s side who lived up there; it was a huge perk to live so close to them and have another side of the family to spend holidays with. Since I only had about two good friends in Seattle, I got used to doing things on my own. Luckily working at the magazine helped with this. I always had a new happy hour to be researching or a live event to be reporting at, and I quickly became comfortable attending concerts, happy hours, and fashion shows by myself. I made my camera my new best friend, which made it easy to ignore the fact that I was alone. Because I wasn’t “alone”, I was working. I was absorbing the experience and figuring out how I wanted to portray it to my audience. Perhaps my favorite assignment was getting three-day VIP press passes to Capitol Hill Block Party. I got to be up close to the artists and snag serious shots of the likes of Chromeo and A$AP Rocky from the photo pit. It was perfect.
I quickly learned that I didn’t need a gaggle of friends to go out and enjoy things like this. And on the flip side, I ended up making a new friend or two with randoms at the festival, and meeting up with some people I didn’t expect to see.
But the truth was, other than my family and my coworkers from the restaurant I was hostessing at, I found it very difficult to make friends in Seattle. Ever hear of the Seattle Freeze? Yeah, it’s a real thing. People are “nice” at first on a surface level, but when it comes to actually hanging out, they’re not so interested. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it. I’m a fairly cool, nice person. And if Seattle didn’t want me then I didn’t need her! Lord knows she was too expensive for my few freelancing and hostessing paychecks.
After my internship ended and my living situation was no longer bearable, I came running right back home to Portland, where my old job, apartment and friends welcomed me back with open arms. It was a relief to be home again after just a year. But I couldn’t simply go back to my retired 20-something lifestyle I was doing before. It’s too easy to get sucked into the slow-paced Portlander routine of just doing your day job, and hanging out in your free time. Besides, in Seattle I had become accustomed to doing cool shit all the time–and on press passes no less! I wanted to continue to be on the scene at local music events and network with likeminded creatives. I supposed I would try my hand (again) at freelance magazine writing in Portland, now that I had much more experience.
I immediately started seeking out the local hip-hop scene–something I had never thought to do when I had lived here before. I didn’t even know if there was a hip-hop scene in Portland, but I put my researching skills to the test to see if I could find something worth supporting. I don’t remember how I came across it (probably Twitter), but somehow I found some promo and music videos for a show featuring Glenn Waco, Mic Capes and Rasheed Jamal, aka The Resistance. The show was called We Take Holocene, and tickets were only $10. Something about the quality of the promo was a selling point for me and I wanted to check it out. I bought two tickets–one for me, one for my friend Madison. I was impressed with how down Mads was to try something new, since I could count on very few other people to do so. One of my least favorite attitudes that I constantly come across from friends, acquaintances, and Tinder dates is the apprehension to try new things and new scenes. People are so set in their Netflix and chill, or happy hour with coworkers routine that they are constantly saying “maybe” whenever they’re invited somewhere. Like, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll have a half-decent time? I promise it will be either fun or interesting, you guys. Just trust me.
When we got to Holocene I was surprised to see that this local hip-hop show had a very decent turnout. It wasn’t packed, but the performance space was full. The first performer I saw was Rasheed Jamal, who was very solid. “And this is just the opener?” I thought.
And when Mic Capes took the stage with heavy vocals, striking conviction, and a resounding message, I was beyond impressed that there was this kind of talent blooming in my little city. I took as many videos and photos as I could and uploaded the decent ones to Twitter and Instagram. At one point I looked over to my left and saw a dude who looked familiar.
“Hey,” I turned to Madison, a huge Portland Trailblazers fan. “That guy looks exactly like Damian Lillard.”
I checked on the Facebook event, and verified that I was right. The show’s headliner Glenn Waco had posted: “Dame Lillard in the building!”
I was surprised and impressed to see our NBA star showing up to support local hip-hop artists. Since the We Take Holocene show, Dame has continued to make appearances and cameo performances at We Take Holocene: The Sequel, and at #TheThesis, helping to put a spotlight on Portland’s hip-hop scene and its contributors.
Beyond the local celeb-sighting and the artists being completely legit, there were also A LOT of attractive, seemingly dateable black men at this event. And not ones that were just there to grind on drunk white girls in a Bar Fifteen situation. This was a different vibe than just some messy club scene; the concert felt like a tight-knit community event where everyone–or at least everyone but me–knew each other. This was exactly the kind of vibe I had been looking for, and I was going to pursue it regardless of who else saw it.
After that event, which was almost a year ago, I quickly got into contact with Mac Smiff about getting involved with WOHM. Regardless of pay, I wanted to help build this community and help it thrive. At the very least, I wanted to be able to network and co-create with the players in this small-but-growing scene. And I’ve definitely done that! It’s been almost a year since I’ve been home and I’ve already made so many friends and connections through WOHM, which has given me plenty of opportunities to work with other creatives and music artists.
I was pleased to find that the same vibe from We Take Holocene carried over into various other Portland hip-hop shows. My favorite of which is our monthly First Thursday show, The Thesis. I’ve only missed one show since first shooting at the all-female lineup in June and it’s been incredible to see how it’s grown in popularity. My people come to the Thesis to dance to whatever hot R&B and hip-hop tracks are being spun by DJ Verbz, to see talented local artists, to grab a drink with friends, and to try Kelly’s Olympian’s insanely dank chicken strips and fries.
It’s the best monthly party in Portland hands down, and I’m so glad I found it. More than that, I’m thankful something like this exists here! I’ll continue to shine my light on it so other jaded and dissatisfied Portlanders like me know that we really do have a good thing going. If you’re feeling bored and like there’s nothing here for you, just know that there’s more than meets the eye.
Even if I do leave the nest again sometime soon, Portland is home. Despite how the city is changing, it’s where I want to come back to, and I hate the idea of its future being shaped solely by the hands of newcomers. Portland is going to rise up with or without ya’ll, so you may as well be a part of it. If we truly love Portland, we should fight for it.