PORTLAND — Of all the Very Portland things that exist in Portland, there is a plot of land next to City Hall, right outside the building's front portico, where the city is growing its own Swiss chard.
“And on a place that used to be a parking lot!" exclaims Mayor Charlie Hales, adding a detail that actually makes this story even more Portland.
When Hales was first elected as a city commissioner in 1993, the ground in front of City Hall that has become a vegetable garden contained a parking lot with reserved spaces for the mayor and city commissioners. "Those of us on the council then said, ‘that’s not consistent with our values and our rhetoric,'" Hales recalls.
And so they gave up their spaces for a bit more of the city's famed green space. “That’s not the only place in Portland," he adds, "where we took out a parking lot and put in a little piece of paradise."
Portland, I tell the mayor during a recent conversation here, has lived up to every one of my expectations: I have eaten made-in-Portland ketchup, drunk brewed-on-the-premises beer, and slept in an inn that was once a schoolhouse, where the housekeeper looks cooler than me.
From across the country, Portland looms as this place where everything comes in quirkier, locally produced, more artisanal versions of what the rest of us have. And then when you come out here, it turns out that all of these things are actually true. The Portland of public imagination is, in fact, Portland in reality.
City Hall is seriously growing its own Swiss chard.
"But there are some deep roots to those things," Hales tells me. "It’s not just that somebody painted a ‘keep Portland weird’ sign, or started a doughnut store, or founded a naked bike ride. There are some really deep cultural roots to the character of Portland."
And, in fact, part of why Portland has become a cultural phenomenon, and a symbol — sometimes teased — of the new move-first-then-find-a-job Millennial paradigm, is that the city has for decades been pursuing a set of policies and values that the rest of us are now suddenly into.
Across the country, "sprawl" has become a dirty word, a sign of housing-bubble excess that many young college grads are rejecting for denser, no-car urban living. Portland, meanwhile, has been living with an urban growth boundary since the 1970s. Back then, Oregon realized, Hales says, "coastal condomania, sagebrush subdivisions and the ravenous rampage of suburbia" could devour the region -- a mantra former governor Tom McCall first uttered.
The growth boundary regulates new development at Portland's edges in a way that has heavily influenced both the shape and character of the city. Indeed, when land isn't endless, the region has to invest in its core infrastructure. People have to share.
I later remarked to Joe Cortright, an economist with the Portland consulting firm Impresa, that Hales seemed unusually wonky about land use, and he corrected me: "Well everybody is here," he said, looking around the local coffee shop where we met. "We could pick any three people here, and ask them about the urban growth boundary, and they’d have an opinion.
The city's conscious anti-sprawl ethos isn't its only advantage. Where other cities are now trying to figure out how to retrofit for the public transit Millennials say they want, Portland has been heavily investing in light rail for decades. This city even had a bike plan in, well, 1973.
And, finally, whereas much of urban American is now enamored of all things farm-to-table, locally grown, organic, artisanal, walkable and shared, Portland got there first, too. Sorry, Brooklyn.
These attributes are helping Portland win a fierce competition among cities for young college grads -- Americans in their 20s and early 30s - who have been flooding the downtown-ish neighborhoods of decently big metros like Portland over the past decade.
By 2012, metro Portland had 34,545 more 25-to-34 year-olds with bachelor's degrees than it did in 2000, according to American Community Survey data that Cortright just analyzed for the research site City Observatory. That's an increase, of about 37 percent, that's outpaced similar gains in New York (25 percent), Los Angeles (30 percent) and even — barely — metropolitan Washington, D.C. (36 percent).
Portland is succeeding in large part because the long-term direction of the city happens to align with what these young people prize today. The college grads decamping for Portland probably don't say "I'd like to live somewhere with an urban growth boundary!" But that policy is partly responsible for producing the things about Portland that now draw them here: the compact living, the easy access to nature, the possibility that a farm might actually be near your table, the emphasis on communal assets — parks, public transit, tool shares (people kept telling me about the tool shares) — over individual ownership.
"To some extent, bring it on," Hales says. "We’re happy that that migration is coming here, because that is the future, and we’re happy to have an outsized slice of it coming to Portland."
But it's also given Portland a reputation, as a young person's mecca, and two related problems: The cost of living here is rising, as is the quip that Portland is a place where young people come to retire. The New York Times magazine recently argued that Portland now has more educated young people than it knows what to do with (or how to employ).
Hales is worried about the first problem, as well as the pockets of poverty in the city that seldom make stories about Portland's cool. As for the second? "That, of course, is not actually true," he says (nearly everyone I met chafed at the "retirement" line of Portlandia fame). Cortright points out that the unemployment rate for 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree in metro Portland is 4.8 percent -- lower than it is in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta or New York City.
Part of the perception, no doubt, stems from the fact that people do move here without a job, because you can't really sign up for a job that doesn't exist quite yet -- whether it's conceiving a food cart or crafting a local kind of ketchup (GMO-free!) that will eventually be served in brewpubs.
"A lot of entrepreneurship comes from that: I chose to live in Portland, now I will find my way forward economically," Hales says. "That’s very much this generation’s view of work. It’s not 'I’ll go anywhere to get a job.' It’s 'I’ll live a certain way, and then I will find my work life there.'"
He told me about one local business, a makerspace that includes a woodshop and metals manufacturing equipment where local entrepreneurs can prototype their products. The facility is angling to expand, because there is now a cottage industry in Portland out of helping people launch cottage industries.
All of this is decidedly different from Washington, D.C., the region where Hales grew up. If Portland is a place where people move for the lifestyle, then find work, Washington's allure is the reverse: People move to D.C. for jobs in very specific industries, then adapt to the lifestyle (sometimes begrudgingly). I tell Hales about a theory I've been working on, that you can tell a lot about a place by the first question anyone living there asks of new acquaintances, in a bar, at a party, anywhere.
In D.C., it is, of course, "so what do you do?"
"Oh, that wouldn't be it in Portland," Hales says. "Here, the first question would be 'what neighborhood do you live in?'"
I then ask Hales about where he lives. And he starts telling me about a great park near his home and, in true Portland fashion, his nearest farmer's market.