A couple of months ago, I tried to explain what I saw as the secret of Portland’s success: an atmosphere of civic goodwill, which, I said, was more important than the brains of which the city has a relatively short supply, at least by contrast with its Eastern counterparts. (I mentioned New York, but have you ever been to Boston? It must be the angriest place on the planet.) Readers seemed to spot the insult but miss the compliment, so I thought I’d give it another shot. Here’s a second thing that gives my current place its famous livability: a conspicuous dearth of ambition.
Portland, goes the joke, is where young people go to retire. The line isn’t new—people were saying the same thing about San Francisco in the 1960s—but it certainly appears to be apt. When friends come to visit, it doesn’t take them more than half a day to ask the question that I often still ponder myself: what does everybody do here? Well, some of them work for the big employers, which are mostly in the western suburbs: Nike, Intel, the advertising firm of Wieden + Kennedy. But a lot of them, especially the younger ones, just seem to hang around. Which is fine, if that’s what they want. It isn’t, for the most part, that they’re trustafarians, living on their parents’ dollar; it’s that they’re willing to accept the trade-off of money for time—less of the first for more of the second. The result is that no one’s in much of a hurry, so no one is trying to elbow you out of the way. And since there’s not a lot of money sluicing through the system, the city remains relatively affordable, without the extremes of wealth and poverty you see in other places.
Yet lack of ambition means something more positive, too. People don’t really spend all of their time here just hanging around. A lot of them run food carts, make art, do green building, play music. But here’s the thing: they’re not doing it to become famous, to get to a center and make themselves a star. A few of the more successful ones have headed off to conquer New York. But most of them couldn’t be bothered. If they can make it here, they don’t really care about making it anywhere. The audience that matters to them is the people whom they know and live among. The platform that they want to play on is already where they are: this town, this neighborhood, even just this block. Which means that their talents are used to beautify their—and your—immediate surroundings. In New Haven, the desperately dreary city where I used to live, you couldn’t have guessed that there are actually quite a few artists in town, because their presence is invisible outside the studio. But walking around in Portland, you are forever being surprised by a cob house, or a living roof, or an intersection that’s been painted like a mural, or a tree that’s been carved to make the figure of a goddess, or enameled creatures clinging to a wall.
All this is one of the reasons that I see the city as pointing the way to the future. We know we need to learn to do without greed, if we’re going to survive on a planet with limited resources, but perhaps we need to learn to do without ambition, too. I know it sounds boring, not to mention unrealistic, but when I look around at what the human ego has wrought of late, I’m not sure how much more ambition we can live with.
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