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Why Portland Beats Vancouver

If you're young, creative and low on cash, Oregon's biggest city has much to envy.

By Christine McLaren, 3 Aug 2009, TheTyee.ca

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[Editor's note: Each of us views a city through a distinctly personal lens. Tyee reporter Christine McLaren visited Portland recently and found it superior to her home base of Vancouver, B.C. by three criteria that matter most to her. Is the city welcoming to young creative people? Is it bicycle friendly? And is it dealing effectively with homelessness? This is the first of her three reported essays.]

The first time I meet Katherine and Alec is when I walk through the door of their live-work art gallery, and lay my backpack and sleeping bag on the bed they've already set up for me on the gallery floor. A giant mural of green and brown -- painted by Alec, I later find out -- swirls up to their loft, where maps of Portland's farmers markets and third-world coffee suppliers cover the walls, and fresh canvasses lay neatly stacked in a corner. The gallery is called SEA Change, Social Environmental Art.

They know nothing about me, except that I'm on mission to learn about their city. The reason for their trust and generosity is two-fold. Creating a community of shared space and shared ideas is one of the reasons their gallery exists, they tell me. Plus, it wasn't that long ago they themselves came to Portland for the first time, wide eyed and searching for answers.

Katherine and Alec met in first year university on the steps of a fraternity house in Madison, Wisconsin. Both artists and alternative, progressive thinkers feeling out of place at the party, they found comfort in each others' conversation. If the discussion at all mirrored what they talk about today, it would have danced from worldwide social injustices, environmental movements and vegan cuisine, to the purpose of art and how it can be used to change the world. They soon found themselves exploring art through social movements, and spending hours pouring over predicaments like how to create an eco-friendly firing glaze. That was over seven years ago.

After leaving Madison they spent a year in Aspen, Colorado and left a year later, disgusted by the materialism the city represented. "So many rich people, and so much excess..."

They needed a place in tune with their values. They sought vitality, creativity, and energy. They tried Portland and stayed, joining a wave of what native-born Portlanders call The Transplants.

Go to a local hang-out in any of Portland's many funky neighborhoods, and you'll be hard pressed to find a young person who actually grew up in Portland. According to The Young and the Restless, a study released in 2004 by the Portland Development Commission, Portland's population of college-educated people ages 25 to 34 is growing at five times the national rate. The city sits fourth, trailing only behind Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Austin in terms of the recent growth of this population in the U.S.

But in Vancouver, B.C., the story is different. Since 1996, Vancouver's population of 55 to 64 year olds has increased by 36.1 per cent, and by 27.4 per cent for citizens ages 45 to 54. During that period, the Vancouver population has grown within every age bracket above the age of four -- with one exception. Since 1996 the population of young people in Metro Vancouver has actually decreased by 10.1 percent.

And who can blame people my age for looking elsewhere?

"'Blandcouver' looks great on TV, where it often masquerades as other, more interesting cities. This Canadian metropolis is indeed like many other places, just duller." So wrote the compiler of a list for Frommer's titled: "Don't Go There: Top 10 Overrated Travel Experiences." On the list of letdowns, shortly after New York's Little Italy and the changing of the guards in London, came Vancouver in its entirety.

"Anyone who thinks Vancouver is cosmopolitan has never been south or east of Portland," the writer asserted. "Most of Vancouver's other attributes, meanwhile, are seen in better form in either Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco. Spend your time in Victoria instead, or Whistler, or, heck, Nanaimo."

Ouch.

Not what you want to hear when you are in your twenties and looking for a fun, vibrant place to pursue your creative potential.

Especially if, by necessity, you're trying to do it on the cheap.

'A general indifference to wealth'

Let's be honest. In many ways when it comes to young people, everything comes down to cost. What's the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver? About $880 per month. In Canada, only Calgary and Toronto are more expensive.

But even if you are blowing all your money on rent, somehow it's easier to be broke in Portland. Just this May, the New York Times travel section published a story called "Frugal Portland."

"Amid economic catastrophe -- Oregon has the country's second-highest unemployment rate -- there was a general indifference to wealth," author Matt Gross writes. "In its place was a dedication to the things that really matter: hearty food and drink, cultural pursuits both high and low, days in the outdoors and evenings out with friends. It's the good life, and in Portland it still comes cheap."

Gross is right. The city is full of semi to un-employed twenty-somethings happy to work casual hours carting coffee beans in exchange for an easy lifestyle. Free art gallery shows every first Thursday of the month? Massive burritos with all the fixings for under $5? $2 Beer!? You can't afford not to have quality, creative fun in Portland.

So... why? What does Portland know that Vancouver doesn’t?

The art of happiness

Artists like Katherine and Alec struggle everywhere. A rich painter, jazz musician, or modern dancer is almost something to be suspicious of, some might say. Portland is no different. Standing in Katherine and Alec's kitchen, I can read their monthly budget and spending laid out in front of me on sticky notes, noted to the last cent. Meanwhile, Alec's paintings hang on the art gallery walls bearing bright green sales tags. One has been marked down to $15.

The city tries hard to fund the arts. A recent allotment from Portland Mayor Sam Adams of over $4 million (US) to the Portland Regional Arts and Culture Council is being chipped away by local artists; like Ryan Burn, featured artist in the SEA Change Gallery who received $6000 from the fund to create an installation exploring the link between civil war in the Congo and the mining exploitation of coltan, one of the main ingredients in many high-tech gadgets.

If looked at only in terms of financial investment, Vancouver can't be knocked per se. Last year the city handed out over $10.43 million dollars in arts and culture grants across the city. In truth, much of that money goes to large, already established events like the Juno Awards, but strictly speaking, Vancouver tries hard when it comes to supporting the arts. Perhaps even a little too hard.

Ask a Portland artist what makes their life easiest and some, like Katherine, will tell you that the city's greatest contribution to the arts is not necessarily what they do; it's what they don't do.

"I don't feel like Portland has a lot of money to give to people. I feel like Portland gives a lot of leeway. Portland does a pretty good job of getting out of the way."

It's an underlying sentiment in many movements for a more fun city in Vancouver: creativity is happening organically all over. But as city council flaps it's wings to create a more culturally stimulating city, it's own policies are pushing true vibrancy underground.

This song is for the task force

Melissa James is just beginning her career as a documentary film maker. And although it's her first feature length film, and it’s not even finished yet, her documentary about Vancouver's live music scene is already garnering unprecedented attention. It's called No Fun City. The movie explores Vancouver's underground music scene, and the policies that keep it from surviving on the surface. A native of Montreal, James says that one of Vancouver's biggest problems is that the city tries hard to promote an image of artistic, creative community, but does so with too narrow a mind.

"Art is happening all over the city, but the city has this narrow idea of which art should be promoted. As a result, the arts being supported are un-organic. It doesn't truly reflect the true art culture. You can feel the inauthenticness of it in comparison to what's really going on in Vancouver," she says.

For instance, in 2004 the City of Vancouver approved the creation of the Creative City Task Force, "to identify strategic goals, directions and priority objectives together with recommendations for the City's role in development of the arts, culture, community celebrations, and special events," as described by the city's website.

The plan vows to support and protect "spaces and places for the creation, production, exhibition and experience and enjoyment of artistic expression in all its forms."

Yet in Vancouver, space for musicians to perform is at an extreme premium, and is only shrinking as bars go out of business, are shut down for regulatory reasons, or sell out to larger companies or condo developers, like Richard's on Richards. On top of that, strict zoning in bars and other establishments dictates everything from how many performers can be on stage at a time, how late -- or not late -- they can play and whether or not the audience is allowed to participate (ie. dance).

But the problem goes beyond just the arts. Culture comes in many different forms, and young people in general, even those not wanting to listen to music or art, want places to go out.

Zoned out

In Vancouver, zoning restrictions are fierce. Liquor primary licenses -- where alcohol is the primary thing sold, and hours of operation can go much later -- are almost impossible to get outside of the Granville entertainment, or central business districts. In any other area, such as Main Street, Commercial Drive, Gastown, or the West End, the most that the majority of establishments can get is a restaurant license. This means that in order to operate, the restaurant must sell as much food as they do liquor, and they must close by midnight on weekdays. Earlier this year, restaurant owners and other citizens campaigned before city council to have restaurant hours rolled back to 1:00 AM citywide. The discussion was shelved to be further investigated by the city.

There is, of course, a loophole. Even if it's not possible for a venue's owner to buy a new primary liquor license if it isn't in the right zone for it, they can buy someone else's license from another zone, and bring it into their own. This means, though, that anyone owning one of the coveted licenses has one of Vancouver's hottest commodities in their hands.

David Duprey is one of Vancouver's primary crusaders for more venues in Vancouver. Born in Vancouver, David left the city for San Francisco years ago for the same reason that many probably flee today.

"There just wasn't enough to do here," he says.

But now he's back, and wants to transform the city into the vibrant place he knows it has the potential to be. He's taking up cheap, long term leases on vacant buildings and transforming them into affordable artist spaces, galleries, and theaters.

But his restaurant, the Narrow, a cozy tucked away tunnel on Main and 3rd, has encountered the same problem as many others.

"All of us struggle with the same thing, and that's people come in here and they want to treat it like a bar. Just like they want to treat pretty much every single place in this city," he says. "There’s one liquor primary on Main Street, and that’s the Legion. Not very many people realize that."

Despite the fact that the Narrow is bordered by a wood shop, miscellanious industry, and one of Vancouver's busiest streets, Duprey can't get approved for a liquor primary license from the city. But to buy one from someone else is out of the question.

"I was offered a 50 seat liquor license for $600,000. Most liquor licenses in this town cost half a million dollars," which means you can throw the concept of a relaxed, frugal city for young people out the window, says Duprey.

"If you were to go out and get a liquor license for a club, you would have to be so focused on getting getting alcohol across the bar and selling alcohol at a premium price; you'd have to charge up the ying yang. You'd have to charge big cover, you're going to have to get people in there that want to drink, which is 22 year olds, and you have get them fucking loaded because you’ve got to make your money back."

Duprey says that in order to improve, Vancouver needs to change its zoning, which could take years. But looking at Portland, it seems there could be an even easier option.

Licensed for conviviality

Opening a bar in Portland is an almost universally obtainable goal. Assuming you pass the proper criminal record check and provide a statement of funding, a full on liquor license from the state costs a grand total of $402.62 on top of a $100 business license from the city and a few other small fees. And it shows. In every district, high streets teem with watering holes of all descriptions filled with happy young Portlander's sipping happy hour specials (banned in Vancouver) of Portland's renowned micro breweries.

But it is not necessarily loose zoning restrictions that dictate the ease of opening these establishments; it’s the far looser definitions.

In the city of Portland, in order to serve beer, wine, and hard liquor, a venue of any sort must only have a minimum of five separate food items available on the menu; even if no one buys them. This means that the variety of venue types -- nightclubs, bars, taverns, restaurants, etc. -- blend smoothly into one another without obvious distinctions, and have both the same restrictions and the same freedoms. They all have the same allowance for hours of operation -- open until 2:30 AM -- and have far more choice in which city zone they can open their establishment.

The naked truth

Of course, it's not as though Alec or Katherine have any time to spend in bars. They're far too busy revelling in the throng of excitement pulsing elsewhere in the city; starting free organic produce markets (The Free Market!), or riding their bikes naked with 5,000 other people through the streets of Portland in the World Naked Bike Ride, which I obliged to join towards the end of my stay.

As I ride beside Katherine, a newfound friend of only a few days, stark naked on a rental bike, a man on the side of the street drops his pants in solidarity, clapping slowly as we jiggle by. I buckle over laughing.

"People just love nudity here," I say, aware that I'm probably making a rather sweeping generalization.

Katherine keeps pedaling into the night.

"No," she says. "People just love freedom."  [Tyee]

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