Welcome to Portland, one of the most livable urban areas in America! Call it Stumptown, Rose City, Rip City, Beervana, Bridgetown, Puddletown, Portlandia, or PDX, it’s your town now. (Just don’t call it Portland, or-eh-GONE. The state name is pronounced OR-uh-gun. Practice before you arrive.) Portland is located at the northern end of the fertile Willamette Valley, just over an hour east of the coast—it’s called the coast here, not the shore or the beach—and an equal distance west of the crest of the Cascade Mountains. The high desert is a two-hour drive to the east, and world-class wineries are 45 minutes to the southwest. Abundant recreational opportunities make the city a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts, and from the city’s West Hills, and even from some downtown office buildings, it’s possible to see the Columbia River Gorge and five snowcapped volcanoes: Mounts Hood, St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, and Jefferson. Top that, Topeka!
Of course, Portland’s appeal transcends its spectacular setting. The city is known for its vibrant neighborhoods, activist urban planning, environmental awareness, progressive politics, coffeehouse and brewpub culture, and, yes, for its rain. So what’s it really like here? Well, though Portland enjoys more than its fair share of pleasant, well-preserved urban neighborhoods, connected to one another by bike lanes and transit, and benefits from a state law limiting the extent of urban sprawl, it is also afflicted with strip malls, traffic congestion, ill-conceived development, and other assorted maladies of the modern American metropolis. A key difference is that in Portland you can arrange your life so that you don’t have to deal with those problems. If you want to live in a close-in neighborhood, within walking distance of cafés and food markets, and ride your bike to work every day, you can. (You won’t necessarily be able to afford to buy a house in such a neighborhood, however.) If you prefer to live in a suburban community and move around by car, you can do that, too.
A word on politics: it is true that Portlanders on average are more liberal than the citizens of the typical American burg—when Money magazine rated Portland the country’s best place to live in 2000, it warned conservatives to stay away, and the views of most residents have not lurched to the right since then—but it is not the solidly left-wing monolith it is often portrayed to be. The city and its surrounding region boast a surprising diversity of political opinion, ranging from a vocal community of socially conservative evangelicals to proud anarchists, and from a strong libertarian contingent to a small community of Trotskyites. (The latter get nervous around ice picks.) In general, suburban communities tend to be more conservative than city neighborhoods, and inner Southeast Portland is more liberal than other parts of the city, but as a whole the region is probably no more liberal (or conservative) than any other large coastal metropolitan area.
When it comes to craft beer and coffee, most Portlanders sensibly put ideology aside. There are 74 breweries in the Portland metro area. Of these, 54 operate within city limits, giving Portland reportedly more breweries than any other city in the world. Oregonians spend more on craft beer than on Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors beers combined. And Portland’s coffee scene is every bit the equal of Seattle’s, with local roasters like Stumptown Coffee Roasters (stumptowncoffee.com) winning awards for both quality and sustainable business practices. Don’t miss the burgeoning tea scene, either, based on well-established local tea manufacturers as well as an increasing number of unique tea houses. Many Portlanders consider coffee (or tea) essential for coping with the rain.
Ah, the rain. While it’s true that Portland has its share of rainy days, much of the city’s precipitation falls in the form of a fine mist or drizzle. Often a day that starts out cloudy becomes bright and sunny by afternoon (or vice versa). Many locals will tell you that the rain is easier to cope with than the seemingly interminable parade of cloudy days we endure in late autumn and winter. Spring and fall have their share of bright days, however, and summers are reliably warm and sunny.
Whatever you think about the weather, it certainly doesn’t seem to be deterring new residents. Lured by Portland’s reputation, by job opportunities in certain industries, and even by the results of online relocation quiz sites like findyourspot.com and Find Your Own Best Place (bestplaces.net/fybp/), it seems like everyone knows someone who’s moving to Portland (or thinking about it). Portland’s regional government, Metro, estimates that at least 725,000 newcomers, and possibly many more, will arrive in the area by 2035.
Despite (and to some extent because of) the population influx, not everything is rosy in the Rose City. The region’s economy never fully recovered from a sharp recession in the early 2000s, and the Great Recession hit Oregon early and hard. The Portland metro area has subsequently seen strong job growth, but the state as a whole (and Clark County in southwest Washington) still has an unemployment rate above the national average. At the same time, Portland’s median income is comparatively low, at least compared to other large coastal cities.
Perhaps low incomes wouldn’t be a problem if you could still buy a home for $100,000, but those days are gone. Home prices in many areas have rebounded and median prices now match or exceed prices at the peak of the pre-crash housing bubble (which in Portland was roughly summer 2007). And good luck finding a stand-alone house in a desirable close-in neighborhood for anything close to the median price. The pre-2007 boom in housing prices produced a corresponding explosion in residential construction, with new infill development and condo towers changing the faces of many neighborhoods; with the recovery of the housing market, this process seems to have restarted and may even be accelerating.
The faces of Oregon’s residents are changing as well. Portland has had a vibrant African-American community since the First World War, and substantial Chinese and Japanese communities have been present since the nineteenth century, but the city is still, by some measures, the whitest major city in the country. Nonetheless, the metropolitan area is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse. The Hispanic population is fast-growing, and the area has also experienced substantial immigration from East and South Asia (especially Southeast Asia), Eastern Europe, and East and West Africa. Moreover, much of the growth in the nonwhite population has taken place in the suburbs, so the demographics of the entire region are changing. Still, while we are definitely becoming more diverse, the region has a long way to go before it mirrors the population mix in the United States as a whole.
You’ll see plenty of bumper stickers proclaiming a desire to “Keep Portland Weird!” (Never mind that this exhortation was lifted from a similar campaign in Austin, Texas.) Indeed, quirkiness (along with environmentalism) is the closest thing the city has to an official religion. The following are a few local quirks you should know about in advance:
- You can’t pump your own gas in Oregon. It’s against the law. (The only other state with this restriction is New Jersey.)
- There’s a nickel deposit on soft drink, beer, and water cans and bottles. Oregon was the first state in the country to pass a bottle bill.
- Despite the rainy winter climate, most Portlanders don’t carry umbrellas, and some don’t even own one.
- Voters in both Oregon and Washington have approved initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use. Oregon is in the process of setting up a regulatory regime for sale and distribution, which should be finalized in 2016 (although possession of small quantities for personal use is legal as of mid-2015). Washington has already set up its system, and a number of stores are operating across the Columbia River. Local governments can regulate or choose to completely prohibit marijuana sales, and of course pot possession or sale (or transport across state lines, for Oregonians who just can’t wait) is still technically illegal under federal law.
- The Oregon Supreme Court has interpreted the Oregon Constitution to protect nude dancing as expressive speech. As a result, Portland supposedly has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the country. There is also an annual naked bike ride, attracting thousands of participants.
- Many intersections in Eastside residential neighborhoods lack stop signs, resulting in trepidation for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike.
Portland lacks a distinctive local dialect, and most Oregonians do not have a discernible regional accent (unless they’ve brought one from somewhere else). Most slang is age-based, rather than regional—who knows what teenagers are talking about half the time?—but some localisms can throw off the newcomer. Here’s a handy guide to a few potentially confusing expressions and pronunciations:
- Back East
- Anywhere east of Denver.
- Ban Roll-On Building
- The 1000 Broadway office tower downtown, so called because of its distinctive white dome (most noticeable from a distance).
- Big Pink
- The US Bancorp Tower at Southwest Oak Street and Fifth Avenue downtown; this decidedly pinkish 42-story skyscraper is the second tallest building in Oregon.
- Car Prowl
- Theft from an automobile.
- Civic Stadium
- The old name for the stadium in Goose Hollow, now called Providence Park, where the Timbers soccer team plays; formerly, it was the home of the Portland Beavers minor-league baseball team, and was known over the years as Civic Stadium, PGE Park, and Jeld-Wen Field.
- Civil War
- The annual football game between in-state rivals University of Oregon (the Ducks) and Oregon State University (the Beavers).
- Couch Street
- It’s pronounced “cooch,” not like a sofa.
- The Columbia River Crossing project, a multi-billion dollar plan to replace the current Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. After hundreds of millions were spent on planning, the project was abandoned for lack of funding.
- Doug Fir
- The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Oregon’s state tree. Also the name of a trendy bar and live music venue on East Burnside.
- The Fred Meyer one-stop-shopping chain, now owned by Ohio-based Kroger. Fred Meyer was an actual person, and long-time residents still refer to the market as “Freddy’s.”
- Front Avenue
- The old name for Naito Parkway, which runs along the Willamette River downtown.
- Glisan Street
- Almost universally pronounced “GLEE-son,” although a few purists insist that it should be pronounced “glisten.”
- The Gorge
- The Columbia River Gorge east of the city, where the Columbia cuts through the Cascade Mountains.
- Gorge Winds
- The strong east winds that sometimes blow through the Gorge and into the metropolitan area.
- The Kicker
- The somewhat controversial Oregon tax refund that is distributed during biennial budget cycles in which actual state revenues exceed projected revenues.
- The name for Highway 43 between downtown Portland and Lake Oswego. Pronounced “mac-AD-um.”
- Metropolitan Area Express, Portland’s light rail system.
- The name of a major thoroughfare in Southeast Portland and the adjacent suburbs. Pronounced “McLofflin.”
- Hipster name for North Portland.
- The Pearl
- The Pearl District, a hot neighborhood of high-end condos, restaurants, and boutiques, a few blocks northwest of downtown Portland.
- Pill Hill
- Marquam Hill, just south of downtown Portland, home to Oregon Health & Science University and its associated hospitals and clinics, along with the Portland Veterans Administration Hospital.
- Popular IFC sketch-comedy show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein that pokes fun at the city’s quirks and foibles; some people refer to it, only half-jokingly, as a documentary.
- Put a Bird On It!
- Catchphrase from a Portlandia sketch in which a pair of designers “improved” various products by slapping an image of a bird onto them; used to connote a shallow, facile approach to addressing a perceived flaw.
- Right 2 Dream Too
- Homeless advocacy organization that sponsors a semi-permanent homeless camp at the corner of West Burnside and Northwest Fourth Avenue; the organization has been looking for a new, permanent location.
- Rip City
- Term coined in 1970 by Trail Blazers announcer Bill Schonely, apparently completely spontaneously, to describe an impressive jump shot; has since come to be used as a slogan for the team and as a nickname for Portland.
- Rose Garden
- In addition to the actual garden of rose bushes in Washington Park, this is what most people call the arena where the Trail Blazers play, now officially known as Moda Center.
- A native or thoroughly naturalized Oregonian.
- The river that flows through the city, and everything named after it, should be pronounced “will-AM-it,” not “will-um-ETTE.” If you forget, locals will remind you that it rhymes with “dammit.”
You might also glance through the Transportation chapter to get a feel for the nicknames of major highways.
It’s easy to get the official line on Portland, but what do people who live here really think? One way to find out: check out some local blogs. Keep in mind that some bloggers are complete nutcases, and blog commenters can be even worse, so, as always, take what you read on the web with a grain of salt. More importantly, don’t take the raving and kvetching as representative of Portlanders in general. IgnOregon (ignoregon.com), an aggregator of Oregon blogs, is a good place to start. While it’s not a blog, the “For Portlanders Only” site (platypuscomix.net/fpo/) offers an interesting grab bag of Portland cultural history.
A smartphone or tablet can be a very helpful tool for getting oriented, finding your new home, and settling in. Few things in the modern world are more idiosyncratic than one’s choice of apps, but here are a few general categories of apps that might make your life easier when you arrive in Portland.
- Map Apps
- Any GPS-enabled map app will be a big help, but apps that offer turn-by-turn directions (or phones with this capability) can be invaluable in an unfamiliar environment.
- Househunting Apps
- If you’re looking to rent, consider an app that can identify listings either in a defined geographic area or near your actual location. There are dozens of apps in this niche; Lovely and PadMapper Apartment Search are two of the most popular. If you’re seeking a property to buy, try Real Estate by Redfin, or the Trulia, Zillow, or Realtor.com apps.
- Traffic and Road Condition Apps
- While you’re getting your bearings, it’s hard to predict bottlenecks and traffic jams. Local television station KGW’s Portland Traffic app shows real-time traffic conditions across the metro area. The Oregon Department of Transportation doesn’t yet offer an app, but the mobile version of its TripCheck website (m.tripcheck.com) includes traffic advisories and live traffic cam data.
- Transit Apps
- If you plan to use public transit, you would be well-advised to install one of the two-dozen-odd apps that use TriMet’s open-source data to provide bus and train arrival times, plan routes, warn of delays, and find nearby transit stations. Every app is a bit different; to peruse the selection, visit TriMet’s app center at trimet.org/apps. You can also use your smartphone as your ticket with mobile ticketing from the TriMet Tickets app.
- Weather Apps
- Even on rainy days (yeah, it rains here occasionally) you can find dry windows of opportunity, but you’ll need to know when the next wave of showers is coming through. Even most barebones weather apps now have hourly forecasts, but an app that includes radar is a must-have to optimize your outdoor time. Several apps fit the bill, but the Portland Weather app (another KGW product) is a good basic app with Doppler radar, live cams, and ski conditions.
- Entertainment, Shopping, and Dining Apps
- The number of choices in this category is truly dazzling, and personal preference plays a large part in which apps will suit you best. Portland Insider and Portland Essentials are two popular, if fairly basic, Portland-focused apps.
- Settling-In Apps
- Once you start settling in, you’ll want to take advantage of, for example: apps that help find hikes and bike routes; mobile banking apps; local walking tours and museum guide apps or the Multnomah County Library app. Here again, you’ll be faced with a dizzying range of options, depending on your interests and situation.
Entire books have been written, bureaucracies built, and legal careers made on interpreting Oregon’s arcane land use planning laws. Anything more than a brief overview is way beyond the scope of this book, but as a newcomer you should have a general understanding of the region’s urban planning arrangement.
Under the leadership of Governor Tom McCall, the Oregon legislature enacted a state land use planning system in 1973. The purpose was to curb urban sprawl and protect rich farmland, forestland, rangeland, and scenic vistas from development. The law required each local government to create a comprehensive land use plan for its region. In making planning decisions, local governments are required to adhere to a set of 19 statewide goals—energy conservation, preservation of farmland, discouraging development on land subject to natural disasters, and more. The law also requires every city or metropolitan area to establish an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), outside of which large-scale residential development (among other things) is generally prohibited. Several outlying communities in the Portland area, such as Sandy, North Plains, and Estacada, are outside the main Portland UGB, and have established UGBs of their own.
In the Portland area, the regional government, Metro, is responsible for maintaining the metropolitan area’s UGB. (Its predecessor agency created the original boundary.) By law, the UGB must include enough land to meet the projected need for residential development for 20 years. Every few years, Metro expands the Portland UGB accordingly. An expansion in 2005 added a large chunk of rural land in Clackamas County (the southeastern part of the metro area) to the urban growth area. In 2007, a new law allowed the Portland region to establish urban reserves—areas that are suitable for urban development over a 50-year period—and rural reserves, which are protected from urban development for 50 years. In the subsequent years, an often acrimonious process led to the designation of various urban and rural reserves on the fringes of the UGB. The plan for Washington County’s reserves (perhaps the most contentious process) was finalized in 2014. At press time, the reserve issue has not been finalized in Multnomah or Clackamas counties.
It is important to understand what the land use laws generally, and the UGB in particular, do not do. For one thing, they do not prohibit all residential use of rural land. The so-called rural exception lands, already subdivided lands outside the UGBs, are available for rural, non-farm uses. (Areas such as Stafford, the area between Wilsonville and West Linn, fall within this category.) Furthermore, they do not directly mandate dense development inside the UGB, as a drive down one of the area’s many suburban strip mall–lined highways will demonstrate. The UGB may indirectly increase density, however, by artificially restricting the supply of buildable land in the metropolitan area. Local governments may also set density requirements, and generally permit or even encourage infill development, such as tall, narrow houses on small urban lots or houses built on “flag lots” that have become common (and controversial) in outer Southeast Portland and some suburban communities. Perhaps most importantly, Oregon’s land use laws have no effect in Clark County, Washington, just across the Columbia River. (Washington state recently enacted its own urban growth management laws, and Clark County communities now have their own urban growth boundaries.)
In 2004, Oregon voters passed Measure 37, a sweeping and somewhat poorly drafted property-rights measure that essentially said: when a land use or zoning rule prohibits a use that might once have been permitted, under certain circumstances the government agency responsible for the rule (generally city or county governments) must pay compensation to the landowner or permit the requested use. Since the law did not provide funds for compensation, in practice Measure 37 meant the use must be allowed. More than 7,500 applications for compensation or to allow a prohibited use were submitted to local governments by the filing deadline, these claims covering three-quarters of a million acres. In the city of Portland alone, claims for compensation totaled more than $250 million. Many of the applications around the state were for massive proposed development projects (in contrast to the impression conveyed by poster-little-old-lady for Measure 37 during the election, nonagenarian Dorothy English, who just wanted to build a house for her children on the property behind her house). In 2007, voters approved Measure 49, which limited, clarified, and partially repealed Measure 37’s provisions; crucially, the new law limits large subdivisions on prime farm and forestland while still allowing some small-scale rural development. In short, Oregon’s land use laws are complex and evolving.
What to Bring
- A detailed map; although most of Portland proper is on a straightforward grid, parts of western Portland and many of the suburbs don’t follow the rules. Don’t plan to rely on a smartphone map app; the small screen size won’t give you the big picture of how different areas relate to one another, and data coverage in the hills can be spotty.
- Rain gear; unless you move during the summer, there’s a good chance it will be raining when you arrive. A water-resistant (often hooded) coat and rain hat are the most common forms of rain gear. Bring an umbrella if you like, but be aware that you may be alone in using one. (See “Local Quirks” above.) No adult wears galoshes in Portland.
- A cell phone; a cell phone is convenient for contacting potential landlords from the road, setting up utilities, and generally staying in touch during your transition.
- A car or bike; public transportation is perfectly adequate in many neighborhoods, but it can be difficult to househunt or otherwise explore the area quickly without your own transport. Once you settle down, unless you’re in a close-in neighborhood, you’ll need a bike or car; in the suburbs and in much of the Westside, a car is almost essential. If you want to blend in, consider a Subaru or a Toyota Prius. If you don’t own a car yet but plan on buying one, wait until after you move; you won’t pay any sales tax in Oregon.
- Tolerance; no matter how narrow- or broad-minded you are (or think you are), something or someone in Portland is bound to annoy you, or to try to do so. Bring a good attitude and a smile, and you’ll get along just fine.
Since the city was founded, Portland’s street layout has followed the so-called Philadelphia pattern, with a grid comprised of named east-west streets intersecting numbered avenues, which run north-south parallel to the riverfront. The grid pattern largely vanishes in the West Hills and other high-relief parts of the city, and all bets are off in the suburbs, but the basic framework remains.
The Willamette River naturally divides the city into east and west halves. Burnside Street serves as the dividing line between north and south. The city is thus quartered into Northwest (west of the river and north of Burnside), Southwest (west of the river and south of Burnside), Northeast (east of the river and north of Burnside), and Southeast (east of the river and south of Burnside). The Columbia River forms the city’s (and state’s) northern limit. North of downtown, the Willamette veers northwest before flowing into the Columbia; the resulting peninsula, to the west of Northeast Portland, is designated as North Portland. North Williams Avenue serves as the boundary between North and Northeast Portland.
The numbered avenues begin on each side of the river; the numbers increase with distance from it. Southwest 10th Avenue, for example, is roughly 11 blocks west of the Willamette (Naito Parkway runs along the west bank, and 1st Avenue is one block west), while Southeast 10th Avenue is 11 blocks east of the river (with Water Street the closest street to the river on the inner Eastside). Numbered avenues are used throughout the city, with a few exceptions. On the Eastside, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (or MLK) takes the place of 4th Avenue and Grand Avenue takes the place of 5th; in a controversial move, the City Council voted in 2009 to rename 39th Avenue César E. Chávez Boulevard. On the Westside, Broadway substitutes for 7th Avenue and Park for 8th Avenue.
Named streets run from east to west. Except in the “Alphabet District” of Northwest Portland, where the street names are in alphabetical order from B (Burnside) through W (Wilson), there is no special system in place for street names.
There are 100 street numbers per block (although, obviously, few if any blocks contain 100 addresses). Thus, once you learn the system, it is fairly easy to find a specific address. For example, the 4300 block of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard would begin at Southeast 43rd Avenue and end at 44th, while the 3000 block of Northeast 33rd Avenue would begin 30 blocks north of Burnside. (By the way, even numbers are on the south and east sides of the street, odd numbers on the north and west sides.) There are two significant wrinkles to this pattern. In North Portland, east-west streets are numbered according to their distance west from Williams Avenue. In the Johns Landing and South Waterfront areas of South Portland, certain addresses, while west of the Willamette, are actually east of the downtown riverfront; these addresses are prefaced by a “0,” making 0715 SW Bancroft Street a valid address and not a typo.
Some suburbs, like Beaverton, Tigard, and Gresham, number their streets and addresses according to the Portland street grid. Others, including Vancouver, Lake Oswego, West Linn, and Hillsboro, use their own grids, usually centered on a city hall or some other local landmark. The bottom line: don’t expect addresses in Portland and the ‘burbs to match up.
A (Very) Brief Portland History
The first Native American inhabitants of the Portland region are thought to have arrived about 10,000 years ago. By the 18th century, various tribes and bands of the Chinook people occupied the land. The Chinook had a salmon-based economy, and the resource was sufficiently abundant to allow them to live settled lives in large plank houses, and to develop social classes and rules of property ownership and inheritance. Like indigenous people throughout North America, their lives would change radically following European contact.
While Spanish, English, and other European ships sailed along the Oregon coastline as early as the 16th century, the first European ships to sail upstream past the mouth of the Columbia River arrived in the 1790s. The Lewis and Clark expedition reached the area from the other direction, passing the current site of Portland on its outbound journey in 1805 and again upon its return in 1806. In 1811, the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor, founded Astoria as its Pacific headquarters. The following year Robert Stuart traveled overland from Astoria to St. Louis, marking the first traverse of the route that would ultimately become the Oregon Trail. Shortly after its founding, Astoria was abandoned to the British Hudson Bay Company. In 1825, the Company founded Fort Vancouver, the first European settlement in what is now the Portland metropolitan area. Both the British and the Americans, who each claimed and jointly occupied what had become known as the Oregon Country, conducted official and unofficial explorations of the Pacific Northwest region.
A few early pioneers began to settle in the area around modern Portland in the 1830s. Beginning in 1840, an increasing flow of American emigrants began to make the trek from Missouri to Oregon (although the California gold rush diverted the stream of migrants in 1848 and 1849). After crossing the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the arid inland Northwest, early emigrants had to float down the Columbia River from The Dalles to Fort Vancouver; the Barlow Road, a toll road alternative over the shoulder of Mount Hood, opened in 1843 and terminated at Oregon City. Also in 1843, a group of pioneers gathered at Champoeg, in the Willamette Valley between present-day Portland and Salem, to establish a provisional territorial government with its seat at Oregon City. (The Oregon Territory did not formally come into being until 1848, and originally included all land north of California and south of Canada between the Pacific Ocean and the Continental Divide.) The Oregon Treaty of 1846 set the 49th parallel as the boundary between British and American territory, and the Washington Territory was carved out of the northern half of the Oregon Territory in 1853. Oregon became a state in 1859.
In the meantime, successive epidemics of smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases in the first half of the 19th century, combined with the arrival of malaria in about 1830, took a devastating toll on the native population. Outright warfare, however, was mainly confined to eastern and southern Oregon. In the 1850s, ratified and unratified treaties dispossessed the tribes of their Willamette Valley lands, and the surviving Indians were removed to reservations.
Portland itself began as a river city, which of course it remains to this day. Downtown Portland lies at the effective head of navigation on the Willamette River for oceangoing ships, and in 1843 William Overton recognized the potential of the site and filed a land claim there. (The story goes that he could not afford the 25-cent filing fee, so he got a quarter from fellow pioneer Asa Lovejoy in exchange for half the 640-acre claim.) In 1845, Overton sold his half of the claim to Francis Pettygrove and moved on. Lovejoy and Pettygrove—who had perhaps the least rugged names of any pioneers in the history of the American West—could not agree on a name for their new settlement. Lovejoy, a Massachusetts native, wished to name the place Boston; Pettygrove was from Maine, and preferred the name Portland. They agreed to flip a coin—now known as the Portland penny—for the right to name the town. Pettygrove won best two out of three.
Having finished the hard work of choosing a name, Lovejoy and Pettygrove platted a 16-block grid the same year. The city grew rapidly, and at the time of its incorporation in 1851 covered just over two square miles. Portland had a series of early rivals, including Oregon City, Sellwood, and Linnton, but it eventually emerged as the center of trade for the Willamette Valley and the largest city in the Northwest. The first of three transcontinental railroads to serve the area reached Portland in 1883, and this crucial connection cemented the city’s status as a major trading center. The population of Portland and its surrounding areas nearly tripled during the 1880s, and the first streetcar lines reached the Eastside during that decade.
A series of annexations beginning in the 1880s extended the city’s size and population dramatically. In 1891, Portland consolidated with the cities of East Portland (incorporated in 1870) and Albina (incorporated in 1887). Despite an economic slowdown in the 1890s, Portland remained the largest city in the Northwest until the early 20th century, when Seattle (spurred in part by growth during the Klondike Gold Rush) surpassed it. By 1900, Portland had a population of nearly 100,000.
The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 had 1.5 million visitors and marked the beginning of Portland’s greatest wave of growth and prosperity. In 1906, the Eastside population surpassed that of the Westside, and by 1910, the city’s population had more than doubled, to 207,000. In 1915, Portland absorbed the cities of St. Johns (incorporated 1903) and Linnton (incorporated 1910), and the shipbuilding industry attracted more workers during the First World War. The twenties saw another wave of growth on the Eastside, and even the Depression, which spawned Hoovervilles in locations like Sullivan’s Gulch and under the Ross Island Bridge, did not halt the city’s expansion. By the eve of the Second World War, the city had a population of more than 300,000.
The war kicked Portland’s growth into overdrive. The Kaiser shipyards built more than 1,000 ships during the war, and the demand for labor was intense and not confined to Portland proper: 38,000 people worked at the Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, and the population of the metropolitan area increased by one-third during the war years. Housing was in short supply; a few small houses were built on vacant lots in the old Eastside neighborhoods during the war, but most workers were placed in huge housing projects like Vanport, located in North Portland at the present site of Delta Park. Vanport was the largest public housing project ever built in the United States, with some 40,000 inhabitants. A massive flood in 1948 destroyed Vanport, and its residents, many of whom were African-American, were relocated to other parts of the city.
After the war, the pent-up demand for housing drove a wave of suburban expansion that has lasted for more than half a century. Portland’s population actually declined slightly during the 1950s. The Interstate Highway System encouraged development in areas that were formerly well outside the metropolitan area. In 1950, the three largest suburbs on the Oregon side of the river—Gresham, Hillsboro, and Beaverton—had a combined population of less than 11,000; today, more than a quarter-million people live in these three cities. Clark County also experienced rapid population growth in the postwar years. The population of the city of Portland has continued to grow since the 1960s, but much of this growth is due to annexation of unincorporated areas of Multnomah County east of Portland.
In the early 1970s, state land use laws mandated the creation of an urban growth boundary (see “Urban Planning,” above), which helped channel and restrain suburban growth. At about the same time, a grassroots effort by local community activists killed the Mount Hood Freeway project, which would have bulldozed large sections of Southeast Portland to make way for a freeway to Gresham. The transportation dollars that had been earmarked for the freeway instead went to several smaller-scale road projects and to the development of Portland’s first light-rail line. The decisions made in the 1970s and 1980s have literally shaped Portland and earned it a worldwide reputation as a leader in land use and transportation planning. It remains to be seen whether Portland can maintain that reputation in the face of financial constraints and continued growth.
For Portland keeps growing. New residents, often drawn by the region’s beauty and vaunted high quality of life, continue to arrive. Presumably you are one of them. Welcome to Portland. Please help us keep the character and livability of this special part of the world intact.