Last spring, I found myself needing to move. But where? Wallingford and Fremont had become yuppie strongholds. Capitol Hill was too crowded. I loved Ballard but thought about Beacon Hill—and then moved to Portland.
I'm not alone. Over the past couple of years, significant members of Seattle's music community have been drifting south, drawn by Portland's inexpensive cost of living and vibrant creative community. Scott McCaughey, Michael Maker, Chris Walla, Tucker Martine, and Laura Veirs are my neighbors. That you might not have noticed can be partially attributed to our somewhat nomadic lifestyles, but it also speaks volumes about how disconnected the once-cohesive Seattle music scene has felt lately.
In a lot of respects, Portland has become Seattle's hot new neighborhood. Sure, it's a little farther from the Crocodile than West Seattle or Northgate, but the distance doesn't feel that significant. When I moved to Seattle from Los Angeles 10 years ago, I definitely felt like I was closing a chapter of my life and starting a new one. This move to PDX feels more like an extension.
"Moving to Portland doesn't feel like moving away from Seattle to me," agrees Tucker Martine, who has produced Jesse Sykes, Modest Mouse, and Laura Veirs and spent three months in Portland working on the new Decemberists album before deciding to relocate. "It feels like moving to a different part of Seattle."
More accurately, it feels like moving to an earlier period of Seattle's history. Back in the early '90s, rents were low enough for artists and musicians to work barista jobs and take time off to tour or work on their art. Musicians crowded into communal homes and rehearsed in the basement. Today, many of those same folks hold down jobs at Microsoft and Amazon and rising real-estate costs keep pushing the creative community farther away from the city center.
City vehicles in Portland are outfitted with the motto "Portland—The City That Works." It's a popular joke that it should be reworked to "Portland—The City That Works Part-Time." The cost of living is still low enough to support an incredibly vibrant artistic community. Part-time jobs mean more free time for creative pursuits, and low rents throughout the city put everyone in closer proximity to one another and therefore better able to experience and perhaps to collaborate on others' art.
Martine describes it this way. "It feels like a ton of people are coming out of the woodwork with a lot of interesting ideas, and there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for what's happening. People have pride in the community. They love to tell you about a new venue that just popped up or a cool new band they just saw or a fledgling label they are excited to be a part of.
"It feels like it has the ingredients for what makes up a healthy community of artists encouraging each other," he continues. "There is a grass-roots element to it but enough existing infrastructure to provide outlets for the explosion of artists. And where there doesn't seem to be an outlet, the community creates one."
A big part of that infrastructure is the abundance of places to see live music. From coffeehouses and bakeries to house parties and the clubs whose ads run in the Portland Mercury (The Stranger's sister paper) and Willamette Week, there's always something (sometimes too much) going on.
There's also a relatively new sense of professionalism within the scene. The opening of the Doug Fir Lounge almost two years ago gave Portland one thing it had been missing—an extraordinarily artist- and audience-friendly venue with consistent booking. In addition to increasing the number of national and international touring artists coming through town, it's also upped the ante within the local scene. Anyone can play a house party; if you want to play Doug Fir, you've got to get your act together.
For all those reasons, now is a pretty exciting time to live in the Rose City. While Ballard Avenue will always feel like home, I haven't been this excited about so many bands, venues, restaurants, artists, etc. in years. There's a palpable buzz in the air, and a growing number of transplants—older and recognizable and younger and unknown—drawn here because of that.
Having said all that, there's no way I would have moved to Portland without reservation or hesitation if Seattle weren't so close and I didn't still feel so connected. I listen to KEXP on my laptop. My ex-boss (and Gang of Four bassist/fellow Portlander) Dave Allen and I are booking a monthly night at the Sunset Tavern that spotlights two great up-and-coming Portland artists. Truth be told, you're almost as likely to bump into me at a show at the Crocodile as you are at the Doug Fir. It feels like the wall that has always existed between the two cities is collapsing, and I'm excited to be a part of that.
Once upon a time, Seattle was funky and laid-back. That was before the "Center of the Universe" became a business center and glittering condos dotted the Belltown skyline. Somehow, I can't imagine the Fremont Troll getting the green light today.
"It's always been a place for misfits such as myself to run away to, it seems," opines ex-Spokane denizen Michael Maker of the Makers. "I just love this little town. I've never felt so much at home. Honestly, I value my life here so much, and the creative community, I would rather that Seattle stay in the dark about Portland, keep believing it to be a dirty, little nowhere town."
For better or worse, I think the cat's already out of the firstname.lastname@example.org