Today a more spirited culture of charity pervades, as evidenced by the increase in large gifts to local nonprofits and schools, including Lorry Lokey’s recent $74.5 million gift to the University of Oregon and Hollywood Video founder Mark Wattles’s $1 million donation in 2001 to the Lents Boys and Girls Clubs. (It’s now called the Wattles Club.)
While hardly reaching the sort of seven-figure heights seen in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the escalating prices of real estate were another glaring marker of shifting economic realities. When, in the summer of 2001, five Portland homes not located in the West Hills or Lake O sold for more than $1 million within a few weeks of one another, it made newspaper headlines.
All of these anecdotes suggest that Portland, the Inconspicuous City, is officially a thing of the past.
Minimum starting salary for an Oregon Public School Teacher in 2007: $24,332
Or is it? Undoubtedly the increasing influx of “in-migrants,” those people who move here from somewhere else in the country, will continue to shape and shift the city’s cultural milieu. According to Portland State University’s Metropolitan Briefing Book, net in-migration accounted for 41 percent of Multnomah County’s population growth between 2000 and 2005. But Joe Cortright, an economist with Impresa Inc, a firm that conducts economic analyses for clients, thinks Portland is not in any real danger of becoming the place that many residents fear it will be: a culturally homogenous city that embraces an ethos of self-interest.
In fact, he says, Portland is less homogenous now than it ever has been. What we’re seeing now is “more varied consumption patterns rather than a fundamental shift in values,” he says. And what better thing for a community that professes to embrace diversity than to embrace what he calls “lifestyle eclecticism?” Portland is the kind of place where, he notes, “you have Saks Fifth Avenue and also a large concentration of people committed to voluntary simplicity. You have the towers in South Waterfront but you also have strong co-housing communities…. It’s not that there are just more rich people,” he says. “There are more different people.”
Still, the rise of Portland’s upper class makes some people profoundly uncomfortable, and there is no better sign of the growing tension among the classes than the some 21,000 pages of community comments that were collected for Mayor Tom Potter’s VisionPDX project, which aims to shape the city’s future based on input from its citizens. The comments are contained in cheap white plastic binders and kept in the Bureau of Planning on the seventh floor of the 1900 Building downtown, near the cubicle of one Cassie Cohen, a casually attired employee who helped write some of the summary reports and who offered me a cup of herbal tea from her personal stash when I visited.
Throughout the collection, whether the topic is housing, livability or “small-town feel,” the Pearl District remains a top target for those unhappy with the way our metropolis has, and has not, progressed. “The increase in glass high-rises and the Pearl District culture doesn’t allow for people and lifestyles outside of the middle- and upper-class ideologies,” wrote one disgruntled citizen. Yes, Portland embraces diversity, such comments suggest—so long as people don’t go, you know, getting a little too Ben Holiday on us.
“What I got is that people are really focused on the non-monetary,” says Sheila Martin, director of PSU’s Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, who co-chaired the VisionPDX project. Indeed, once all the comments were painstakingly coded for content and intent, the results show that we strongly value “community connectedness and distinctiveness,” “equity and accessibility” and “sustainability” above all else.
It is hard to think of another city, should the same questions be posed to its residents, that would generate such a clear, values-based sense of itself. But are these values strong enough to bring tens of thousands of newcomers into the Portland fold? That’s about as easy to fathom as human behavior. But, hey, if you did just join our citizenry, and have the means to shell out $70 for a steak, let me offer some advice: Make sure it’s locally raised and hormone-free. We promise that you’ll feel better about the planet. More to the point, we’ll feel a whole lot better about you. —JD