By Olga Kharif
Tanatip "Ten" Arunanondchai's love affair with Portland began when he came to the Oregon city to visit a friend—and say good-bye. After working in a Dallas design shop for seven months, the 24-year-old thought he'd had enough of the U.S.
"I didn't really like Dallas. You can't bike or walk anywhere," says Arunanondchai, who grew up in pedestrian-friendly Bangkok. "I was frustrated by the city." He felt ready to throw in the towel and go back to Thailand.
But while in Portland, Arunanondchai, who sports trendy square eyeglasses and a green T-shirt stating "Today is my lucky day," checked out local attractions like the concrete mounds of Burnside Skatepark, one of the first community-built skateparks in the country. He also joined in on an activity known as "zoo bombing." In this semilegal event, a few dozen adult tricycle-riders take the MAX light rail train to the Oregon Zoo, then barrel down a hill there at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour. These recreational opportunities enchanted Arunanondchai.
Instead of returning to Thailand, he ended up moving to Portland—and in doing so, exemplified something of a trend: young, hip professionals transferring to the City of Roses. Since 1990, metropolitan areas nationwide lost an average of 8% of 25- to 34-year-olds, while Portland had a 12% rise, 37,400 people in the same age group. As designers, architects, and engineers relocated from California, the East Coast, and even Europe, the college-grad population of Portland and nearby state capital Salem swelled by 50% between 1990 and 2000. The city's college-educated crowd grew five times faster than the U.S. metro average, according to Portland economic consultancy Impresa.
Why Portland? The city lies within an hour of the ocean (think surfing) and Mount Hood, which offers the longest ski season in North America. In addition, Portland lately has been revamping its neighborhoods, stomping for the arts, and revving up marketing for its great outdoors—gaining a national reputation as a great place to live.
Last year, Bicycling magazine named Portland, with its miles of bike paths, the top city for biking in North America. In April, Prevention magazine pegged Portland, with its 37,000 acres of parks, the No. 3 best walking town in the U.S.
And another trend adding to young adults' proclivity for choosing Portland: Nationwide, two out of three people in the 25- to 34-year-old demographic first decide on which community they want to live in— and then find a job there, according to Impresa's studies.
Portland hasn't always been a youth magnet. When Sohrab Vossoughi started the design firm Ziba in 1984, "it was very hard for us to get designers," he says. "People didn't know much about Portland." What they did know was that Portland got lots of rain. And that did little to fire up potential staffers' enthusiasm.
Oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, local firms can keep the it-doesn't-rain-here-that-much talk to a minimum. Of Ziba's 130 employees, 95 are based in Portland, and the rest are asking to be moved there, says Vossoughi.
And that's not the case only at Ziba. "Portland is on the mind of all young people in this country," says John Jay, executive creative director at famed ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, which has 300 staffers in Portland.
The revitalization of several Portland neighborhoods has helped draw newcomers as well. In the 1990s, big-time developers swooped into the Pearl District—bordering downtown and, back then, full of deteriorating warehouses and body shops—and started erecting expensive condo towers.
Art galleries and exclusive restaurants moved into the buildings' lower, retail floors. Creative firms, such as Ziba and Wieden & Kennedy, started relocating there, looking to draw energy from the neighborhood's newfound vibrance. "[For an office location], there should be character," says Vossoughi. "We wanted an urban space, because it's inspiring to designers."
In the Pearl, inspiration abounds. After work, Meral Middleton, a 26-year-old industrial designer who moved to Portland from California three years ago, loves venturing out to "First Thursday." Each first Thursday of the month, Portland galleries, many of them clustered in the Pearl, stay open late and make artists available to talk to passersby, who can also listen to performances by street musicians.
"Design is as much a lifestyle as it is a job," Middleton says. "The time away from the desk may be where you find that epiphany." And this year, AmericanStyle magazine, dedicated to craft art made in the U.S., selected Portland as the No. 10 best arts destination in the U.S. (New York is No. 1).
WIEDEN & KENNEDY STYLE.
Some First Thursdays might take Middleton to Wieden & Kennedy's building, which has artwork displays and an amphitheater that often serves as a venue for public concerts. The agency's headquarters occupies what was, until the year 2000, a dilapidated 1914 warehouse.
Redesigned by Brad Cloepfil, an architect with Allied Works Architecture, into six floors of high-ceilinged spaces, the building has a uniquely Oregonian feel. The structure features stairs made of square logs. A huge wooden beaver sculpture greets visitors at the building's entrance. On the sixth floor, one conference room is a nest, literally, its walls made of twigs woven together. For young professionals who work there, bonus features include a gym and an outside deck with a hammock.
A dog belonging to an employee weaves its way through Wieden & Kennedy's offices. Yes, this is Portland: It's laid back. Young professionals who come here rave about the casual officewear and flexible work schedules allowed. Ziba's Vossoughi often holds business meetings at nearby cafés, serving bubble tea (a tea-based beverage with tapioca mixed in). Natasha Stanley, a 30-year-old account director at Ziba and a transplant from Cambridge, Mass., might walk clients over to nearby Relish—a boutique that sells unusual gifts such as vases cut from wine bottles—to find design inspiration.
And Arunanondchai, a research analyst at Ziba, often comes up with design-trend ideas while flipping through magazines and sipping 12-ounce lattes at nearby Café Allora. "I can find everything right here in the Pearl," he says. "You can find all of the current design trends here."
Make that unusual design trends, because Portland's culture is, as is well known, quirky. "Here, you go get coffee, and there's a guy on a unicycle riding around" the street, Arunanondchai says. "It forces me to look at things a little bit differently. I just have more serendipity [here]."
Apparently, a large number of independent musicians and filmmakers also find the city full of nice surprises. A recent MovieMaker magazine named Portland the No. 3 city for independent filmmakers.
Another reason young adults flock to Portland: With its metro area population of 1.95 million, it is still more affordable than many other large cities. "There was no way I was ever able to buy a place I loved in Boston," says Middleton, who previously lived in the Massachusetts city as well as in Santa Barbara, Calif. But last September, she bought a house near downtown Portland. From there her boyfriend, an apparel designer for Adidas, is able to bike to work.
Stanley and her husband, in turn, bought a house on Hawthorne, a street full of hip boutiques, thrift stores, and coffee shops, all located across the river from downtown. "We pulled up in a U-haul, and renters in the next house helped us bring our stuff in. That would never happen in Boston," she says. And that's exactly why the couple moved to Portland—before securing jobs.
While visiting Portland for the first time several years ago, the Stanleys wandered into Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar in downtown Portland, where a bartender asked the couple where they were from and then said: "Boston, New York—these cities will be the same in 50 years. But Portland is changing, and you should be part of that." It reinforced the idea that that's going to be an adventure for us," Natasha Stanley says. "We saw this energy and this opportunity." And what young person doesn't want an adventure?
Kharif is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore. With Pete Engardio in New York
Edited by Rebecca Reisner