I’m from a big city. While I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, my mother was a native Chicagoan and a city girl, and my father worked downtown most of his life. I frequently went with him into the city for special events, and later took my children on day trips. I was comfortable getting around, fond of Chicago’s muscular peaks, beguiled by its sounds and, yes, its smells.
I’ve lived in Portland now almost four years, perched in an apartment complex on the hills in the outskirts, again nearly suburban. But I’ve been eager to learn the city’s contours, to hear its biorhythm and feel its energy flow. As a city employee (Parks and Rec), I’ve worked downtown and at centers in the southeast and southwest neighborhoods, have felt the fabric of these communities, and added my threads in small ways. This year, Tim and I hope to put down our first roots here, a decision we await nervously in the new employment climate.
As a “nightlife” beat journalist, I’ve also engaged with a creative community, heard their voices and experienced joy and sorrow with them, anger and exploration. Outside, I’ve dipped my toe into the vast wilderness of Oregon, from kayaking on the rivers to hiking in the mountains, camping in the forest on the summer solstice, and climbing down the rocky cliff at the coast to examine an estuary, something I never before knew existed.
And I’ve fallen madly in love with Portland, head over heels, losing touch with reason, infatuated with the homey, homemade, earnest and conflicted heart of this magical city. This four-year honeymoon shows no signs of ending, but my love is deepening, maturing as I understand more of what this city is, who we–yes, I said “we”–are.
Last weekend, I was in Seattle for a workshop. I steeped in writing ethics and theory for hours, poking my head up occasionally to see some of the city. My gracious (truly) friend and her husband let me stay with them in a neighborhood overlooking the water, and I drove around the city at night, avoiding highways, absorbing what I could through car windows.
Seattle is a Big City, like Chicago, a steep, vertical environment of serious purpose. Its streets are confusing, like any city, a combination of an orderly grid and patch-worked streets with only glancing consideration for organization and direction, a pastiche of byways linked together by necessity, not planning. It is as cities are everywhere, and terrifying in its newness to my brain.
What I see as I drive these streets and drink these coffees is that Seattle is like the older sibling; urbane and sophisticated, wise and kind and driven. Portland is the youngest sibling, playful and inquisitive, curious and accepting, the hippy in flannel to Seattle’s bespoke charm.
Being in Seattle has given me new affection for Portland. We may not be completely formed or certain of our purpose and direction like Chicago or Seattle, but we’re earnest and happy. Like me, Portland is a little grimy, fingers stained with blackberry juice and modge podge from the latest creative attempt. I have a permanent collection of pine needles in my car from walking in the forests and camping and gardening. Vacuuming out the car seems futile, since I will trek in more utz in a day or two.
But despite its lack of urbanity, for its less-dignified demeanor, I still prefer Portland. It suits my curious and naive personality like it was made with me in mind. Like a preschool classroom for adults, Portland offers a variety of my favorite materials to play with and experiment on without rigid concerns about messiness or expectations of sophistication. I can simply be me, warts and all, a little complex but openhearted, as I sloppily love this small city. I will work where I can to resolve its conflicts, to help heal the brokenness of the racial divide, and join my fellow weirdo Portlanders in a loving embrace of sister and brotherhood.
Here, I can display my ardent devotion to individuality, to personal expression, to living and letting live, as I am released from the bonds of conformity. As my husband and I say often when we see the twentieth purple house, someone walking an exotic animal on a leash, or pulling chickens on a sled, “Because Portland.”