My wife and I had been touring new apartment buildings in Portland for two months. After I saw this shiny new building in Kerns, I told her I didn't need to see any more. We moved in with our dog, a queen-size bed, and a used chaise longue with love seat two days before the start of 2015 after signing the lease in early December.
We live at Burnside 26, and we love it.
I grew up in Kent, Wash.; my wife, Chicago. We chose Portland as our home
because we wanted to walk and bike and not sit in traffic. I've never
owned an umbrella. My wife bikes to her job as a marketer for a local
company in the Pearl District. I work from home as a freelance writer
and run almost daily, usually around the waterfront. The companies we
work for have headquarters in either Portland or Seattle. We own a
Nissan Cube, one bike (my wife's was stolen, she now rides mine), two
computers, two iPhones, a TV and an iPad. Together, we earn about
$85,000 a year before taxes.
We have good jobs, no kids and the simple desire to enjoy our city while taking up as little space as possible—and our apartment allows us to live that life.
We thought we were just like other Portlanders.
But because of the building we live in, we've been mocked on the Internet, with haters labeling us trust-fund kids, privileged, idiots, morons, hipsters, yupsters, and everything else people think is wrong with this city. It turns out Burnside 26 has become a symbol to many of what is going very wrong in a Portland facing rising rents, neighborhoods crowded by new-apartment bunkers, and growing unease about the changing city.
I believed that people who thought this were wrong—but when I tried to respond to online commenters, the attacks turned personal.
The first city that felt like home hated me, not because of something I'd done, but because of my address. Our dream, the one that included
sacrificing our honeymoon so we could afford the move, wasn't the right
kind of "weird." I felt like I was being punished because we chose a
I saw critics as whiny, mostly anonymous, cowards. They saw me as a symbol of everything wrong with their fair city. And what I've learned in the past three weeks is that the vitriol aimed at me personally is really about something else: a Portland at war with itself over the city everyone wants it to become.
It started with a marketing video for Burnside 26, a 52-unit, four-story building that opened in July 2014 at East Burnside Street and 26th Avenue. The video stars Luke and Jess—in reality, actors playing a fictional couple in their late 20s, dressed in clichéd stocking caps during the day, jean jackets at night, and many layers of sweaters. The video shows Luke and Jess' adventures: enjoying drinks, singing karaoke at a bar next door, having pillow fights—every cutesy, roll-your-eyes moment corporations produce when they're trying to entice couples to buy stuff.
We didn't require such enticements. Since college, I had lived in makeshift situations and dingy rooms. We moved to Portland in November 2012, to Wimbledon Square next to Reed College, an Ewok village for college
students. At Burnside 26, we pay $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment
that's all of 592 square feet, takes minutes to clean, and has an open
floor plan. My home office is here, making our rent competitive for the
area, including our living space and all the amenities—yep, we use the
bike rack and dog wash. When the dishwasher broke, the managers fixed it
We can walk to drinks at Portland Cider Co. or dinner at Fonda Rosa, and
then catch the sunset from Burnside 26's rooftop lounge. What I really
love is the silence. I'm a writer, and even though our apartment looks
over East Burnside Street, our apartment is quiet. The one window we can
open provides plenty of soothing road noise from Burnside, and it's
open every second I'm not working. But it's quiet when I want it to be. I
I watched online as friends, and friends of friends, passed the video around with cutting comments about Luke and Jess. "Trust-fund towers," they said. "Leave
Portland," said another.
I winced at the stupidity of the video. I thought the commenters had been fooled by the marketing fiction.
I'm cynical and sarcastic and delight in Internet fuckery as much as the
next mean bastard. So I get it. And I'd also sneer at anyone like the
characters in this ad.
To my surprise, the attacks about the video made me wince. My wife and I were being typecast in a make-believe world that makes the Friends gang look erudite.
It shouldn't have gotten to me. But it did. What should my wife and I feel
bad about? Liking our apartment building? Earning more than minimum
wage? Choosing to spend my money on housing instead of bars, clothes and
trips? Not wanting kids or a house? Preferring to live and work in a
The apartment life that earned so many nasty comments actually fulfills the
ethic this city says it wants. Portland wants to control growth, provide
opportunities for people-based transportation, and be kind to the
environment (did I mention this place is LEED certified?), all to make
room for more people.
What would the alternatives be? Should we be living in an older complex that
takes up more space, or crowd into a sagging bungalow with six other
people, just to make a political point? We're renters, and I didn't
understand why this wasn't obvious to everyone writing a rent check
every month. Just like us.
I fell in love with Portland during childhood visits and again while interning at Western Oregon University. I'd long been interested in modern buildings. As a writer, I'd published stories about homes I couldn't afford. The staff of the magazine I worked for was so poor many of us had to live together. I did that through my 20s, and I'd do it again.
But I also moved on—not just because the Great Recession killed the
magazine's advertising base, but because I wanted to find that lifestyle
promised by well-designed urban homes. It involved modern, small
apartments close enough to most amenities so I didn't have to drive.
That's why the hatred over Burnside 26 struck me as so wrong, so stupid. The wholesale blog attacks inspired by Luke and Jess got so ridiculous that I came home one night in late May to find a KATU reporter standing on the sidewalk in front of my home, having people read Internet rants about how awful we were to live in our building.
So I did what I know how to do: I wrote an article.
It was an angry rant disguised as a personal essay. I took it on at WW's
request, and it posted on wweek.com May 23. A lot of what I say in this
article I said in that post. I tried to make sense of why a building
had taken on such a stigma. I tried to make light of the whole debate.
Most of all, I wanted to let people know I didn't think I should feel
guilty about the choice we made.
I ended it by saying, "My home is pretty rad. Sorry yours isn't worth talking and making videos about."
A few commenters on my post made reasonable points mentioning gentrification and housing for the poor, and I received five private messages from people who agreed with me or appreciated the fact I'd started the discussion.
But the vast majority of the 1,280-plus comments made earlier rants feel like lullabies.
I was—and, frankly, had made myself—the personification of everything that had people pissed off. "You are truly a first-class piece of shit," read one assessment
of me. "You really are evil and, yes, you should be ashamed of yourself, just for being you."
And: "I will simply say, you are a moron. Yes. That is a pointedly, purposely intended insult. You are a complete and total idiot douchebag."
And also: "You just waved your dick in the face of an already pissed off group of people. And then told them where you live. Hope that works out for you."
What I began to see through the shimmering heat coming off these comments
was a meaningful pattern of worry and concern that I hadn't considered
"You're a suburbanite briefly playing at being a city dweller. If you don't end up buying in Beaverton, it'll be some suburb somewhere."
"He doesn't give a rat's ass about any of those things. He is too busy
cultivating his douche image and being a 'Portlander' living in his
shitty building that makes him feel cool…but he will never know how it
felt to live in Portland 10 years ago."
"Did you ever get a chance to see Portland when it was how it used to be? If
so, you might understand. It was a killer little gem of a place."
What was I really seeing? Aside from sharing fury, these commenters were all
talking about the same thing, and I don't mean their ginned-up hatred
They were talking about what they see as the place we live, the place where
we want to live, and the place we would never want to live, all in the
same city. They were talking about identity: mine, theirs, and the
Portland that each of us holds in our minds. A city we imagine is a gem,
our gem—or it was a gem, until all these other people moved here.
The heart of these complaints is change.
People want a city that's great to live in, so more people want to live there. Neighborhoods morph, property values go up, rents climb, and a minimum-wage earner can no longer afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment close to downtown or the Willamette River. It's even more acute here, where the urban growth boundary ringing Portland encourages residential density.
Every city has been through this change. It's heartbreaking, painful, and not
fair. It's not fair that people with money can come in and change a
neighborhood. It's not fair that longtime renters have no say in how the
property they call home is maintained or sold. It's not fair that wages
have been stagnant for years. It's not fair that the people who helped
make Portland awesome are now being pushed farther away because
outsiders see how great this place is. It's not fair at all.
Nor is it fair to love a city and not want to share it.
None of us, not a single damn one of us, is entitled to live where we want
to live for as long as we want to live at a price we can easily afford.
That may be how it's worked in the past, but you only have to look to San
Francisco, Austin and Brooklyn, cities that filled with the very kind of
person moving here now.
Maybe Portland needs rent control. Maybe we need to rethink the standards
that allow blocky apartments to be dropped from the sky on our
But maybe it's really about this central truth: Portland's culture is itself an art.
The strip clubs and the breweries and the food carts—they're all the art of
our shared experience. The music—available nearly every night—is art. So
is cider made in someone's garage, and fancy lattes, and naked bike
It shouldn't have surprised me that what I said generated so much hatred.
As I tried to explain myself, I could have been more adept at saying
what I meant to say.
What surprised me is that so many Portlanders don't accept that creativity
requires destruction. Order needs chaos. Old needs new. It requires
friction, new voices, and, yes, lots of money.
And it creates noise—a din you can't just close the window on.
The mosaic of dreams shifts every time we adjust our gaze, and no amount of
blinking can restore the image of a moment ago. Portland for me can
never be what Portland is for someone else. So maybe it's time we see
the reality of the choice in front of us. We can pursue the city we
want, or work together to create the city we all need.
Grow Up, Portland: