Portland: A city coming of age

I was having a talk with a few friends who have also grown up in the Portland area, recently. And we started talking about how Portland has changed—and how we have changed with it. We hit an interesting moment when one of them simply stated, “Portland is just like us. It’s a 20-something trying to figure it out.” And in a lot of ways, I think he’s right.

This stage of life is weird. I am hitting the quarter-century mark, twenty and five years of being alive with the last few certainly being the most interesting. Everything was very linear up until the day I walked out of school and into a world where I had to start framing the things for myself. And I have been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to do that in Portland.

Yes, Portland, the place where the young people go to retire. Where the dream of the nineties is alive. Where we go to Voodoo Donuts and put a bird or whatever on something. (Honestly, I never got that last one.) A city filled with millennial slackers. Where young people cruise out of school and have been chilling in coffee shops in SE ever since.

But the past 24 months since leaving school, I’ve seen the growth of an incredible community of people motivated to create change. Portlanders who don’t ask and plan, but instead, who go and do. And who have helped push those around them towards becoming the type of person who goes and does. The type of people who push a young guy like me to move towards answering the big questions.

In your twenties you are faced with deciding how much of your past will become a part of your future. What part of “who you are” is going to be a part of “what you will be”? What will motivate you? Who will be around you? What will your morals be? These are all questions that you have to face in order to grow and change.

Life in your twenties is this stage of crazy accelerated change. And for me, this all has been centered around the people in this big thing called the city of Portland.

Ironically, Portland is facing these same questions too.

It was historically a lumber and steel city with a large service-based economy to complement those industries. It was historically a place with a very small amount of racial diversity. It was historically a place with a large amount of midwestern transplants and midwestern morals.

Mid-term a music scene has come together, coffee roasters slowly emerged, and computer and apparel companies made this city their home.

Now, Portland is hitting it’s stage of crazy accelerated change—just like I am. Designers, agencies, brands, technologists move here from all over the country—and the world—to our historically small city. These outside people change the considerations of the city with different points of view, concerns, and aspirations.

How much will this city and community change because of these transplants in our community? How much of this change will be accepted? Where will there be a departure from what has historically worked? How will we balance what we love with what we need to make progress? What parts of Portland’s past are essential components that the city holds dear to take sure it will always be… Portland? These are just the beginnings of the questions that everyone from startups to agencies to people in the local government are asking themselves.

Portland is in this growing phase. And we are all playing a role in mentoring its growth. Its “make or break” early twenties are upon us. And we all have a say in what will happen. Every person who lives here today can have a very real impact on what will become part of Portland’s past, what will be created to push the city into the future, and what will always remain as a part of the Portland’s legacy. From those starting a new boutique coffee roaster, to those working for one of the large landmark Portland companies, to the person organizing the next big event to showcase the city.

There has never been a better time or place to get involved in the future of a community. The entire city is wide open and waiting for people to get involved. There are great events like TechFestNW for getting involved with tech, PDX POP Now and MusicFestNW for music, Feast for food, TBA Festival for arts, XOXO for makers, Design Week Portland… the list goes on and on. And if there isn’t something for the group that you want to get involved with, it’s as simple as putting something out there and seeing what sticks.

We are lucky enough to be living here during this time of incredible opportunity. And we should all be a part of testing the waters and seeing what is possible. For me, I’ve found that this place gets better as you spend more time outside of it.

Will I will leave? That remains to be seen. But I at least hope to be one of those people who comes back with big ideas and a fresh perspective. But who knows, I’m just some twenty-something trying to figure this all out anyway.

So what do you see happening in Portland that is novel and will only disappear as part of a fad? What do you want to always to be here? What do you think is missing? What are our potential growing pains as we venture forth into a more mature city and business environment?

Doug Gould is the Alliance Programs Manager for Portland-based startup Cloudability. He serves as a board member for TechFestNW and as a mentor for the Nike+ Accelerator and PIE. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he began his career at Intel. You can follow Doug on Twitter as @dougwgould.

(Image courtesy Cory Grove. Used under Creative Commons.)

  1. Welcome to your 20’s, Portland. Now is a time when you’ll have to make a lot of choices that will affect you for the rest of your life. Don’t screw it up and end up like your broke cokehead cousin California. That guy is a mess.

  2. This is a great perspective for transplants like me. Since moving out here a year ago, I have spent a lot of time talking to people who are direct 4th/5th generation “off the trail” and many transplants who have been here for several years. One common thread is a tightly knit community that prides itself as being fiercely independent and eco-friendly while offering the resources for people to become who they want to be (i.e. high tech professionals, writers, singers, hikers, etc etc). This balance is inspiring to me.

    As I understand the area’s history, it was a decision that was made only a few decades ago to make the environment one of the central focuses of the local economy. And today, replenishment, recycling, etc are part of the DNA of the community. This area got to this point because of a collaborative decision on direction (based on values), not just on the past.

    The point here is that Portland is in a very unique situation and can (and should) be a beacon for the rest of country on how to balance a growing economy with the environment. Moreover, the Portland area can also be a shining example on how to transition from a lumber/steel economy to a high tech economy. These challenges vex many 19th century factory-based communities from the rust belt (Ohio/Penn) through New England.

    If any area can figure it out, it is Portland.

    When I was in my 20’s, like you, I had to decide what I wanted to do based on my value system and then “just do it” and make corrections as I went along.. Similarly, Portland needs to have the discussion around balancing “keeping it weird” against fulfilling a vision that many 20 and 30 somethings have (like you) and “just do it.” It can be done.

  3. Nice posting. As a fellow transplant employed in the tech sector, I share your enthusiasm and agree that Portland has undergone rapid change within the last couple of years. A decade ago, if you wanted to work at a tech startup, your most viable west coast choices were the bay area or seattle. Its nice to see that the Portland has started to come of age.

  4. Good clarifying points. I guess the part where the author identified the city as being a 20-something felt a little self-centered and totally ignored the fact that people have been here in Portland doing good stuff for a long time. I’m glad the next round of 20-somethings is here and is energized to continue the forward momentum.

    My advice on which route to take is this: which route inspires you the most? Also, don’t think you’re making a “what do I want to do the rest of my life” decision. Make a “what do I want to do for the next few years” is enough and helps avoid immobilizing over-think.

    Truth is, even 40-somethings have to look ahead and decide their future if they allow themselves the freedom to live beyond a life-long career choice made at a young age. There might be a little more pressure because of the realization that life might not last that much longer, but same challenge nonetheless.

    In the end, ideally, we’re all looking ahead and dreaming about how to make the world a better place, starting with our little corner of it – Portland, Oregon.

  5. a 20 something in PDX July 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

    The point of the article was that Portland is a really exciting place to be right now and though Portland has been an agent of change type of city, right NOW it’s full of incredible possibilities as the entire world meets incredible tech possibilities. The author is saying that as the world is on the cusp of fantastic change, Portland is an epicenter of creativity and movement. As a “20-something” it’s really difficult to decide which route to take – start up, finance, art, etc. The world may be there for the taking but at our age we have to decide what part of it to take and conquer. The author is merely pointing out that Portland, as a city, has so much to give to the world at large and the creative people who flock here have choices to make on how Portland leaves it’s mark for the next 100 years. He’s not talking about the last 100 years. He’s looking ahead, just like every 20-something has to do to decide their future. UGH BLOG COMMENTS.

  6. I’m glad you’ve grown and are focusing more on community. This is a good call to look outside oneself.

    The sad thing is that the author doesn’t seem very aware of the history of Portland. There have been *generations* of young AND old people making change in Portland for over a hundred years.

    Example: I was just speaking to a 60+ year old planner at the Multnomah County Planning office who talked about how as a 20-something student he and many others drove down to Salem and demonstrated against nuclear power in Oregon (there were plans & permit applications for something like 30 nuclear power plants for the region in the pipeline) and how they’d effectively roused the population to influence the legislature to stop this disaster. How this was the groundwork that later enabled shutting down the Trojan nuclear power plant which current 20-somethings probably don’t even realize was right around the corner on the Columbia River where summer wind patters blew past it into the city. I suspect current 20-somethings are probably happy to know it isn’t sitting there on a seismic fault-line building up toxic waste and risking the whole region…

    The first bottle bill in the nation, the “Keep Oregon Green” campaign which did a great deal to keep down trash, multiple decades of fights against clear cutting our amazing old growth forests, civil rights protests and movements that laid the basis for much of your freedoms today,… etc, etc.

    So, yes, this is great that you’re looking outside your narrow “me” tunnel and seeing the broader community around you, but please, don’t think you’re the first 20-somethings to do this and don’t identify your stage of growth with that of the city too much.

    Welcome to adulthood. Glad you could join us in this great city and start contributing.

  7. a 20 something in PDX July 17, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Thoughtful post. Re: above comments, the way I see it is, haters gon hate, am I right? Good work, tech guy.

  8. “They see me rolling… they hating…” 🙂 Good post sir, agree! If Portland were a stock I would buy and hold!

  9. Budding Rightwinger July 16, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Hey Julia, fortunately for you there are people like Doug who obtain relevant degrees and pay taxes to put food on your table. Your boy Obama has taken Bush’s nightmare and multiplied it exponentially, but you wouldn’t know this because you’re too busy indulging in the poison that is CNN. Your logic is an illness and I worry tremendously for you. Do us all a favor and hop on the first flight to Syria.

    Yours truly,

    A person who has a job.

  10. Julia Smedley July 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    “Doug Gould is the Alliance Programs Manager for Portland-based startup Cloudability. He serves as a board member for TechFestNW and as a mentor for the Nike+ Accelerator and PIE. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he began his career at Intel. ”
    Doug: you might as well be a 25 year old transplant, with your silicon visions and obliviousness to a large population of Portlanders who struggle to survive in whatever jobs they can get. Your TechFest dreams are a total nightmare for those of us who care about the ecosystem, the well-being of all the people who need food and shelter and healthcare, the budding right-wing in America, the unbelievable cruelty and violence of our Police forces and our military. It’s the people who care about these things, not their cyber-success, who constitute the real heart of Portland. And fortunately, there are a lot of us and we are very busy.

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