"Vancouver isn't a suburb of Portland, you asshats!" they scream in our online comments. ("They," in this case, is a guy named Steve.) "Vancouver was around when Portland was just a place to ship lumber. Henry Weinhard began brewing in Vancouver."
We get it. It's hard to be the small, uncool brother who always has a terrible haircut and a snotty nose. But 100 years ago this July, Portland annexed St. Johns, growing its city limits all the way to the Columbia, bringing us to the very edge of Vancouver. Were it not in a separate state, Vancouver itself might have been annexed. But as you cannot annex across state lines, it remains independent of our government, though inextricably drawn into our comparatively vast cultural and economic orbit. It's our Hoboken, you might say.
Facts are facts. Every day, tens of thousands of people get in their cars in
the 360 area code, drive over the river and park near their places of employment in the 503. Are we "asshats" for pointing this out? Maybe. But are we indisputably correct asshats? We are. And are we thorough asshats? Of course we are. This is journalism.
It is our contention that everyone knows the 'Couv is a suburb and deniers are just being willfully ignorant. To make sure we weren't completely off base, we spoke with Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, who walked us through the basics of the Portland metropolitan area. "The U.S. census defines suburbs using commuting relationships," he said over the phone.
The Portland metropolitan area is defined as Multnomah, Washington,
Clackamas, Columbia and Yamhill counties in Oregon and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington.
Seltzer was full of knowledge that should not be surprising to anyone who knows
how numbers work or has ever set foot inside the Portland metro area: "Within the metropolitan area, they identify a primary city, and that is Portland. That makes the other cities, by default, suburbs of Portland."
"It's unquestionable that Portland is the major city in this broad area," he
adds. "It has 600,000 people, and the next biggest is Vancouver, which has 170,000. Suburbs are a subset; they are smaller. Whether they are in Oregon or Washington is kind of immaterial."
Since Seltzer lives in Portland, we thought it would be only fair to ask
someone official from Vancouver for her perspective. Carol M. Bua is communications manager for the city of Vancouver, and as such, her declarations of Vancouver's suburbhood are a bit tempered.
"Whether or not one would say that Vancouver is a 'suburb' of Portland would
depend on the individual opinion or perspective of the person you are asking," she told us by email.
That said, she does agree with Seltzer that "they are in the same Metropolitan Statistical Area," which is why they "are often linked so closely."
For Bua, it seems a matter of semantics, reasonable since she's a spokeswoman for a city that feels a bit overshadowed by its smart, funny big sister across the river.
And it's true, when the word "suburb" gets mentioned, people get squirrelly. Even the U.S. Census Bureau, when asked for a comment on whether Vancouver was a suburb of Portland, said, "We do not define suburbs."
But even though the word "suburb" has fallen out of favor, Seltzer doesn't think it has to be associated with boring bedroom communities and white flight. "It would be incorrect to assume that the definition of suburb here represents some sort of subservient role to Portland," he says, "because that's just not how they developed."
However, he adds: "It would probably be harmful to Vancouver's prospects to not embrace its relationship to [the Portland metro area], because frankly it's fate is directly tied to Portland."
When we asked him point blank if Vancouver was a suburb of Portland, he said, "Absolutely."
This man is an expert, ladies and gentlemen: a tenured professor with 20-plus years of service at the metro area's pre-eminent public university.
And his position is in no way new.
In 1894, in his book, The Oregonian's Handbook of the Pacific Northwest, Edward Gardner Jones wrote: "In Vancouver, which is really a suburb of Portland…"
That means Vancouver has been generally considered a suburb of Portland for,
at the very least, 121 years. Before, even, we'd annexed up to its shores. If that makes you uneasy, if the word sounds funny coming out of your mouth, feel free not to say it. But you know—we all know—even Steve the commenter knows that Vancouver is definitely a suburb of Portland.