If our Economic Meltdown Survey proved anything, it's this: In Portland in 2009, you're either a college graduate who moved here without work, or you really hate those people.
That's a bit of an oversimplification, given that our survey last month of Portlanders asked everything from whether Sam Adams should be replaced to whether the smoking ban made the bars better or worse. Nearly 1,000 of you responded—but no issue touched your economic meltdown-exposed nerve like the new kids on the block.
Of the survey respondents who've lived here more than five years, 38 percent would like to kick out everybody who arrived less than five years ago. Half of you say if the L.A. Lakers offered a trade for Brandon Roy, the first thing you'd ask for is that they take back all the Californians, too. But none of you is going anywhere: Forty-three percent say the lifestyle is too good to even consider moving, while only 7 percent say you're getting out of town.
Of course, we all know that. Everybody wants to live in Portland, even if they don't know what they'll do here. The Wall Street Journal reported this spring that only eight other U.S. cities added more college-educated migrants between 2005 and 2007. Oregon's 11.9 percent unemployment and 24 percent "misery rate" (the combined total of jobless and underemployed people) don't seem to be driving those numbers down—if you're going to be out of work anyway, the refrain goes, why not be unemployed in Portland? So the creative class, which was loosely defined in 2001 by economist Richard Florida as people ages 25 to 39 who work in artistic professions, has in Portland transformed into a lifestyle class: college graduates who come for the culture and aren't finding work at all.
Even with economists venturing that Oregon's slow recovery could begin this fall, we decided it was time to talk to the people you want to talk about. So we made a few phone calls to our survey respondents, and talked to five. All of them are college educated and have been looking for work. On the following pages, you'll find those interviews, along with the results of our survey.
But here's the short version: The only thing more frustrating than being surrounded by underemployed creatives is being one.
The Law School Grad
EMILY JACKSON: "The creditors have just started calling." IMAGE: Mike Perrault
Name: Emily Jackson
Job status: Unemployed
Twitter message to Portland: "As it turns out, they stop sending loan checks when you graduate from law school. Now what am I supposed to do?"
So, you have a law degree but no job. How did that happen?
I just graduated from Lewis Clark this May and sat for the bar exam on July 27 and 28. I am unemployed at this point, as are most of my classmates. So many of the jobs that people offered before we graduated were rescinded because of the recession. A lot of the big east schools that graduate fancy law folks are coming out this way and taking the jobs that used to go to people from U of O and Lewis Clark.
That has to suck.
It totally sucks. I did just apply to 24 Hour Fitness online, so I've got that going for me.
How much debt are you carrying?
My law school debts and my undergrad debts [together] are about $120,000. But again, I think that a lot of the graduates are in the same boat, and that helps just to sort of put it in perspective.
What are you doing for money?
I am draining the rest of my loans, and relying on family—which is not what I was hoping to do right after law school. My boyfriend [a Lewis Clark student] and I may move in together—he's renting a fancy condo that he can't afford anymore either. So whereas we would never take money into consideration a year ago when we talked about it, we're talking about it now.
It says on your survey that you still eat out for almost every meal, though.
Oh, gosh, that was a month ago, wasn't it? Now I'm on food stamps—$200 a month. Isn't that a trip?
It was a really heavy bummer. There was, I think, five of us that went down within two days of graduating and applied for food stamps. It was really interesting to sit with the counselor—each one of us, you'd fill out your highest degree of education, and we would write, "J.D., Lewis Clark Law School," and everyone was totally shocked.
Do you ever think about leaving Portland?
Think about it, yes, but not seriously—I don't know where I would go. I'm another tattooed white girl on a bike; this is really the only city that would have me.
The Canvassing Bear
MIKE GRIGSBY: "I have a bachelor's degree in Russian, which turned out to not be worth a bucket of worm spit." IMAGE: Mike Perrault
Name: Mike Grigsby
Twitter message to Portland: "I'll take any job. Anyone know of an employer that is hiring? I've looked everywhere."
Looks like you've been laid off in the past year.
I'm a political organizer. I got laid off after the 2008 elections.
How's the job market looking?
I had an interview last week, and it [was for] the same position that actually laid me off in November of last year, because we're gearing up for another ballot measure fight in January. Having done this over the years, I'm used to being laid off a lot. Normally I'm able to fill the gaps by folding laundry or scrubbing toilets; there's nothing out there, literally. [My] skills are not high enough to work professionally. I'm sort of a hack, politically. I come in and I do the dirty work and I move on.
What kind of dirty work?
I'm the canvass master. I get people out in the field, get them going door to door. My last little gig was against Sizemore's manic measures.
Your survey says your parents are conservative, but they're helping to support you.
My dad is super-conservative, yeah, although the arc bends around sometimes in that we were both opposed to the banking bailout: I was coming at it from a socialist [viewpoint], he from the libertarian perspective. [He's] in Virginia…in the coal fields.... My dad actually had a "Coal yes, No-bama" hat, which I found amusing. So we generally don't talk about politics. We don't talk about the fact I'm queer.
Yet he still helps support you.
How does that feel?
We do have other issues that we can communicate about. He was always there when I was a kid, to support the family. I see him as a misguided but sweet old man. And I'll take the help from wherever I can get it. If someone wants to give me money of their free will, I'm not going to turn that down.
You said that when it comes to dating life, Portland boys are wimps.
They're wimps if you're not a 20 waist, walking around with an emo haircut and skinny jeans and designer sunglasses. I'm a big bear guy; there's not a lot of love for us in town. There's a lot of talk among queer guys in Portland, "Oh, it's a great town for bears." I'm not seeing it. I haven't been laid yet.
Editor's note: Three days after this interview, Mike Grigsby was hired again by Defend Oregon.
The Former Cocktail Waitress
JAMIE MOSES "What was I supposed to do? Keep a job that I despise just because I'm afraid of not getting another one?" IMAGE: Mike Perrault
Name: Jamie Moses
Job status: Film major at Portland State University, unemployed
Twitter message to Portland: "If you are going to go out, then don't skimp on the gratuity. Servers, bartenders, and the like have to eat, too."
Are low tips something you've experienced personally?
Well, when I had a job, yes. I mean, like, there's always the people that have always skimped on tips and always will, you know? Just cheap bastards. But I think there are people that are being a little stingier, you know? And, also, I think people that would ordinarily over-tip—which makes up for the difference between the cheap ones—I feel that they're not doing that anymore.
What restaurant did you work at before you lost your job?
I was working at Dante's. Actually, I quit my job, which seems stupid now but at the time seemed like the right thing to do. I just really was not happy there, and definitely wasn't making enough money for it to be worth it.
What was so bad about it?
Well, I was cocktailing, and had I been bartending, it probably would have been a lot of fun. But just being out in the crowd was really awful, especially on Sinferno nights, and it was just like I was moving around the crowd and trying to coerce people to order drinks so [I] could make some money. And some of the clientele that went in there was not my favorite, particularly on Sinferno nights. If somebody was bothering me, I could go right to [security] and be like, "This guy grabbed my ass" or whatever, and they'd throw them out immediately. But whether they get thrown out or not, you still got your ass grabbed.
Are you on unemployment right now?
No. I don't think I can get unemployment because I quit, and I didn't get fired or anything.
How you holding up?
Not well. I've been kind of living on student loans and borrowing money from my mom and trying to sell my car, which would help for a little while…. I've been in school all summer, five days a week, like 2 1/2 hours a day, so that takes up a ton of my time. I don't know; I've been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies. I really got addicted to Battlestar Galactica.
The New Hire
EMILY HEBBRON: Has a degree in social anthropology, just hired as a "knowledge manager." IMAGE: Mike Perrault
Name: Emily Hebbron
Job status: User-experience designer for a California-based government contractor
Twitter message to Portland: "Please hire me."
Did you get someone to hire you?
Actually, I moved here on Aug. 8 of last year, and on Aug. 8 of this year—a year after moving to Portland—I finally got employed.
Who hired you?
Actually, a company that's not in Portland. They are based out of California.
So you've been in Portland for a year without a job.
My husband was employed. He was hired by a [Web analytics] company here, so we actually relocated from the U.K. We were living in Cambridge.
What were you doing for a year with no job?
I picked up some political internships. And those wrapped up in February and March. And then came the really depressing time. The worst part was in about March, [having lived] abroad for the previous year, we had to have our taxes done by a professional. And I had just finished up my degree and was very proud of everything that I had done—but had yet to really accomplish anything, of course—and sat down with this lady. And she asked me what my occupation was, and I said, "I'm unemployed right now, but I'm seeking work," and she said, "You're married, right?" and I said, "Well, yeah, but I'm looking for work," and she typed in "housewife," and I nearly died on the spot. It was probably the most dehumanizing point of the whole thing. Here I was, a very solid feminist, to have "housewife" typed into my IRS form.
Did you ever feel that Portland resented you for glutting up the job market?
I think that's part of the reason I didn't apply for—God forbid—the part-time working-at-Starbucks kind of jobs. Every once in a while I would read something, or hear somebody say something, [and] I'd go, "Oh yeah, that's terrible about all those people moving [here]…. Oh, wait, that's me. Never mind. I suck too."
Is the Portland lifestyle worth being unemployed?
It's tough to be unemployed anywhere, but you definitely feel a little sidelined by being unemployed in Portland. I found it really difficult to meet people. I know this is a young city, but I haven't met a lot of people my own age.
What did you do to combat that?
I took up knitting, actually. Luckily, there were a lot of knitting clubs around Portland—but again, it wasn't exactly hitting the age range. I love my knitting group, but more often than not, there's people my mom's age there.
The Guy Who Left
ANDY MILLER IN NYC: "You want to start making money! So you need the competition." IMAGE: Janet Linnell
Name: Andy Miller
Job status: Unemployed
Twitter message to Portland: "Goodbye, Portland—I'm moving to New York next month. I hear the creative class is actually still working over there."
Where are you now?
It's called Englewood; it's in upper Manhattan, just south of the Bronx but north of Harlem. It's me and my girlfriend. And her dog. He's a Saint Bernard-Australian shepherd.
What made you decide to call it quits on Portland?
I just couldn't find any decent work. And my girlfriend got into Columbia. I've been working in publishing. I have a background in English, a creative writing degree. And then music [in a band called] the Red Dakota Revival. And the shows, they were just getting pretty ridiculous with the payment methods. The live show we played, I think we brought in about 50 people and instead of paying us they gave us a round of shots.
What have you found in New York?
I'm still looking. But the biggest difference I've noticed is that there's a lot of talk in Portland about a creative class, but everyone I knew was working at coffee shops and their creative side had been more of a hobby. And in New York they're actually making a living and have careers based around these things. With all the schools and industry out here, there's just so much more [opportunity] for work, as opposed to hobbies.
What's wrong with Portland's creative class?
There's just not much opportunity; there's no entry level anywhere, and no one's really retiring, either. It seems like to be in the creative class in Portland, you almost have to start your own company.
What was the best thing about Portland?
I made the best friendships of my life. And because [art] was so much a hobby, and doing things out of love, there was a lot more of a communal spirit. It was less competitive than anywhere I've ever lived.
WW news intern Anvi Bui contributed to this story.