Leaving Portland
Protester throws tear gas canister back at police during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Tito Texidor III on Unsplash

Leaving Portland

Michael J. Totten
Michael J. Totten
21 min read

Portland, Oregon, has been the most politically violent city in the United States since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Just a few days after the result, a peaceful protest against the incoming president turned into a riot when anarchists broke off from the main group and rampaged through the Pearl District, a renovated SoHo-like neighborhood adjacent to downtown packed with art galleries, loft apartments, bookstores, and restaurants. Vandals used baseball bats and rocks to break cars, plate glass windows, bus shelters, electrical boxes, and anything else that looked smashable.

The election-night mayhem was not an attack against Republican voters. Donald Trump received a paltry 7.5 percent of the vote in that precinct. It was an assault on the urban middle class and bourgeois society itself, and it was perceived as such by most people who lived there. (The protest organizers, not incidentally, raised tens of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe and disbursed checks to damaged businesses.)

I was born and raised in Oregon, and it’s where I live now. I spent most of my adulthood in Portland and all of my childhood less than an hour away, and I instinctively knew that the violent postelection spasm was but an opening salvo. I was not proven wrong by events. Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, left-wing extremists battled it out with right-wing extremists in and around downtown, turning the central business district into a Thunderdome and the city as a whole into a poster child for urban dysfunction.

And that was before the perfect storm of 2020. First came the coronavirus pandemic, the evacuation of office workers from the towers downtown, and the terrifying economic freefall. Next, homeless camps mushroomed, not because anybody was freshly put onto the street (the governor issued a moratorium on evictions) but because the Centers for Disease Control recommended that local governments leave homeless tents in place until the pandemic subsides. And finally, protests following the death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minneapolis degenerated into riots that continued unabated for months. The urban core turned into a battle space every night as anarchists waged war against just about everyone: the police department, local elected officials, federal buildings, struggling businesses, the Oregon History Museum, statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and the local Democratic Party headquarters building.

Protester getting arrested during the Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Tito Texidor III (Unsplash)

After more than two decades in the city, my wife and I left.

It would make a more dramatic story, I suppose, if I told you that we were driven out or that we fled, but the truth is more prosaic: we had decided to move more than a year earlier because houses are cheaper almost everywhere else in the state. We were so close to downtown that we could see the skyline from our front yard, and we paid a premium for it. We could get more house for less money if we moved. So we slowly spiffed up our home, packed what we wanted to keep, donated what we no longer needed, and put our house on the market.

Leaving was a relief but also a loss. There’s plenty to love about Portland. It’s friendly. Affordable. The city has some of the best food, beer, wine, and coffee in the United States, even the world. Those who bemoan how every place increasingly looks and feels like everywhere else can’t help but appreciate the ways in which Portland does not. There are vastly fewer corporate chains there. Outside downtown and its somewhat hokey and dated mid-century skyline, the entire city west of SE 82nd Avenue looks and feels handcrafted.

Like most large metropolises, Portland is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own walkable “downtown” that functions as an urban village or small town unto itself, from hipster-friendly Sunnyside to yuppie Sellwood, from artsy Alberta to the more conventional Multnomah Village. Whatever kind of person you are, you’ll probably fit in well enough somewhere.

“This place has a completely different flavor from the rest of America,” a recent transplant told me in wonder. Indeed it does, but it was not always like this. I grew up 45 miles south of Portland in Salem, the state capital, and I vividly remember the before times.

Portland was a grim and gritty place in the 1970s and the early 1980s, weighed down by hard luck and decay. The local resource extraction industries, timber in particular, were in decline. Drug dealers and prostitutes set up shop on the street corners. Eruptions of far-Right and far-Left violence garnered the city nicknames like “Skinhead City” and “Little Beirut.”

Buildings looked like they hadn’t been maintained in ages, and disastrous postwar urban planning had made a mess of the place, with parking lots replacing historic hotels and nondescript apartment towers replacing razed Victorian neighborhoods. Gus Van Sant’s debut film, Drugstore Cowboy, perfectly captures the bleakness of that time. Almost everybody who lived there was from there. Three hours north, Seattle was doing no better. Real estate agents Jim Youngren and Bob McDonald erected a famous billboard that read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.”

When I was a kid, Portland both intimidated and fascinated me. I looked up in awe at the modestly tall buildings that I’d never seen anywhere else, and I’ll never forget the shock on my mother’s face when she found out that my aunt, her sister, had driven my younger brother and me up Burnside Street to gawk at the hookers and the undercover cops posing as hookers so they could bust the male clientele. I often wondered if the people who lived there worried about getting shot when they left the house.

Crime was never that bad even at its worst, but I was young, and the world I knew was small and provincial. My hometown of Salem was more orderly, more stable, and it still is. The streets were safer and cleaner, and they still are. The walls felt more solid back then, and they still do. If there was any evidence that both Portland and Seattle were on the cusp of a budding regional renaissance, most people were oblivious to it.

Two big changes turned the city around: the high-tech industry revitalized the local economy by establishing itself as one of the region’s largest employers, and visionary governors and city leaders—none more so than Mayor Vera Katz, a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany as a child—radically overhauled the postwar urban planning regime and transformed the place beyond all recognition.

Well-paying jobs were suddenly numerous, and the city became a supernova of urban redevelopment and renewal. Parking lots that never should have replaced historic hotels were themselves replaced with public squares, parks, and outdoor markets. The city ripped out a congested traffic artery downtown and replaced it with an expansive waterfront park. A ghastly railyard gave way to condos, restaurants, and boutiques. Commuter trains linked the suburbs to the city. Mixed-use residential and retail sprang up in derelict warehouses. On purely aesthetic grounds, regulators inspired by New Urbanism banned antisocial snout houses that have garage doors rather than porches, front doors, and windows facing the street. New retail construction required parking lots in the back instead of the front, emphasizing that people, not cars, live in cities. Portland increasingly felt more European—like Amsterdam in particular—than American.

With its mild Mediterranean-marine climate, well-preserved historic neighborhoods, easy access to spectacular scenery, and low cost of living—especially compared with the rest of the West Coast—Portland became one of the most popular destination cities in the country. Those who hoped to make a name for themselves moved to New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC, while Portland attracted those who valued quality of life as much as or more than professional ambition.

At a gathering at a friend’s apartment a few years ago, a man I hadn’t met before or since said something that stayed with me: “The great thing about living in Portland is that it’s enjoying its golden age now.” This was early in 2016. Donald Trump wasn’t president yet, but historic currents were already moving in dark and dangerous directions. I’d seen Portland in the before times, back when it was nicknamed “Little Beirut,” when anarchists and skinhead gangs prowled the streets. Those of us who had seen it with our own eyes couldn’t unsee it. And for the first time since I’d moved there, I had a gnawing feeling that Portland’s golden age was about to expire.

*     *     *

The coronavirus pandemic brought much of the world to its knees, but it didn’t strike everywhere in quite the same way or with the same force. It hit Portland harder than anywhere else in the state, not because more people got sick but because, like large cities everywhere, the central business district is where office workers and businesses that cater to them are concentrated.

Business activity was restricted everywhere in the state, though Oregon never shut down entirely like some parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and China. Retail stores remained open with masking and physical distancing requirements, and restaurants and coffeeshops were allowed to serve takeout. But when white collar professionals started working from home, their evacuation from downtown hit the city center like a neutron bomb that kills people while leaving most buildings intact. With most customers likewise staying home, every business large and small became an emergency room case. Homeless camps proliferated at the same time, and in May riots pushed the city over the edge.

In the early days, thousands of people took to the streets and demanded police accountability and reform. Most of the protesters were my middle class neighbors, and the vast majority of them were peaceful. A minuscule percentage broke windows, looted stores, and set fires. But as time went on, the mainstream protesters were more or less satisfied that their point had been made, and they had excellent reasons to believe this: the Oregon legislature enacted a comprehensive reform package with blazing speed, and Portland police drove around saying “Portland, we hear you” through loudspeakers. So nonviolent reform-minded protesters returned to their lives and to their jobs (if they still had jobs).

The black-clad criminal contingent didn’t stay home. They returned to the streets, night after night, throughout the entire summer and into the fall and even the winter, not to protest but to carry out what they call “direct action”—violent assaults against local businesses, police stations, the police union headquarters, the federal courthouse, and the private homes of local officials. They wore body armor. They threw bricks, frozen water bottles, and even Molotov cocktails at the cops. They returned night after night without letup as if brawling in the streets were their job. The recently passed police reforms were not even acknowledged. Most combatants were military-age white men.

Portland suddenly felt less like Amsterdam and more like perennially riot-stricken Paris during one of its bad months, as if Portland were experiencing something akin to an autoimmune disorder, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue. Protests are not riots, and riots are not protests. Protests are constitutionally protected activities vital to any functioning liberal democracy. Riots are violent crimes punishable by imprisonment. Activists, journalists, and politicians alike have a terrible habit of using the terms interchangeably. They might as well use fire and ice as synonyms if they can’t keep these opposites straight.

When civil rights icon John Lewis spoke of getting into “good trouble,” he was emphatically not referring to violence, arson, and looting. “I made a decision that it didn’t matter what happened,” he said after losing a student election in the mid-1960s, “I would continue to advocate the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.”

Each individual Portland riot was a minor kerfuffle compared to the Capitol riot on January 6th of this year. They were tiny in scale, and they didn’t threaten the system of government. And yet they were chronic. They wounded the broader community, deepened economic devastation, put mainstream police reformers on the defensive, and further radicalized right-wing extremist groups like Patriot Prayer, whose leaders have also been charged with rioting and assault in the city.

The center of Portland, already on its knees, was now on its back. Property values cratered downtown while skyrocketing in the suburbs. Insurance companies became reluctant to underwrite new business policies. The city’s reputation as a tourist destination has taken a terrible hit. It could take years to reverse all this even under a best-case scenario.

My house was only a few minutes from downtown, so I went there a couple of times. What I saw was disturbing: broken and boarded-up windows, squalid tent cities, garbage, graffiti, and chain-link fencing. Some streets looked postapocalyptic. Hardly anybody was there. With office workers at home, a dearth of tourists, and a negligible number of residents visiting downtown for business or pleasure, a huge percentage of people who were on the streets were homeless, mentally ill, drug addicts, or—if you were foolish enough to go down there at night—riot cops and insurgents.

Downtown wasn’t entirely dystopian—some streets looked and felt kinda sorta okay even if they were eerily quiet—but in general the place was in much worse shape than it ever was in the bad old days of the 1970s—or indeed at any other time in its history. It looks and feels no better now. Nowhere else in the state of Oregon is like this. Every other downtown area, including those in Portland’s suburbs and the metro area generally, are muddling through our annus horribilis as well as can be expected.

The United States is more politically polarized today than it has been since the Civil War, so naturally left-wing and right-wing partisan warriors all over America spent much of the past year yelling at each other about Portland, to the great embarrassment of so many who live there. In September, Donald Trump issued a memo labeling Portland an “anarchist jurisdiction” that “forbids the police from intervening.” He said the same thing about Seattle and New York City. This was a lie. With a handful of exceptions, the police “intervened” every night, frequently going overboard with the tear gas and the pepper balls and even the truncheons, at other times treading too lightly by attempting to disperse rather than arrest and prosecute rioters.

The dueling narratives in left-wing and right-wing media were more grounded in reality than anything Trump said. Conservatives decried the relentless rioting while progressives pointed out that 99.99 percent of Portland was perfectly calm. Both were correct, though neither properly captured what was actually happening. If you read nothing but conservative media, you might think most of the city had degenerated into a war zone. If you read nothing but left-wing analysis and reports, you likely came away with the impression that even most of downtown was doing just fine. Local journalists did a consistently excellent job describing the society-wide effects as well as the what, when, where, how, and why, but right-wing national media magnified the scale of the problem while left-wing national media downplayed it.

There were indeed riots every night, and they lasted for months. They still erupt once in a while, like aftershocks following a megathrust quake. No other city in the country went through this for so long. One local business after another took on thousands of dollars in damages at a time when they were already reeling. (And no, insurance policies don’t always cover the damage, and they never cover all of it.) Homeowners trying to sell their houses (ahem) couldn’t help but wonder how many tens of thousands of dollars this was going to cost. There was something like an insurgency downtown, but there weren’t any car bombs or mortar attacks or mass shootings. Portland is not Baghdad. It’s not even Belfast. I never feared for my physical safety or worried that my house would be hit.

The riots continued, albeit sporadically, even after Trump left the White House. The very evening after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, anarchists unfurled a banner that looked like something Hezbollah would create featuring an AK-47 beneath the words “We don’t want Biden! We want revenge!” Another announced, accurately enough, “We are ungovernable.” They smashed the windows of the local Democratic Party headquarters, set a dumpster on fire, and spray-painted “Fuck Biden” on the walls.

*     *     *

It’s no accident of history that Portland has become the most politically violent city in the United States, with Seattle in neighboring Washington a close second, even though neither Oregon nor Washington are crime-ridden states. Quite the contrary. Never in my adult life have I seriously worried about crime here. The region is far more Shire than Mordor. But the Pacific Northwest is a distinct cultural region with its own political DNA birthed in the earliest days of white settlement, and its distinctness partly explains what’s going on.

The West Coast north of Monterrey, California, is the America of America. In the early 1800s, people from all over the country drove covered wagons to Oregon’s Willamette Valley over the Oregon Trail, but two groups predominated: an elite from New England and a rugged class of farmers and laborers from Greater Appalachia. Both were drawn by promises of free land and hoped to make real what America’s third president Thomas Jefferson called an Empire of Liberty from the East Coast to the Pacific. Much of the western United States was inhospitable at the time (and it still is), but not the Willamette Valley. “From the fertility of its soil,” Oregon City Mayor John McLoughlin said in 1850, “and the salubrity and mildness of its climate, [Oregon is] the finest place in North America for the residence of civilized man.”

The New England elitists set much of the cultural tone here from the start. They founded universities, newspapers, religious missions, timber and woolen mills, business empires, and governing institutions. The name of Oregon’s now-largest city was determined by a coin toss when two locally famous New Englanders couldn’t agree on a name. Asa Lovejoy from Boston and Francis Pettygrove from Portland, Maine, wanted to name the new city after their respective hometowns. Pettygrove won two out of three tosses, so the United States has two Portlands instead of two Bostons. Even so, members of the local Chinook tribes commonly referred to the white settlers as “Bostons.”

But the Bostons were a minority. While they hoped to create another “city on a hill,” an even larger wave of pioneers from Greater Appalachia brought a Don’t-Tread-on-Me ethos that traced back not only to the American Revolution but to the Scottish borderlands from which many of their ancestors hailed. They “carried to Oregon an allegiance to… local sovereignty, grass-roots organization, an independent producer ethic and the ‘doctrine of the negative state,’” historian David Alan Johnson writes in Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada.

New England has long had a utopian streak, a tendency that Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont represents well. Appalachia was “libertarian” and anti-government before Kentucky and Tennessee were admitted to the union as states, and Senator Rand Paul represents that tendency well. The Yankee project out west was further scrambled by the Gold Rush, which brought in wild folks popularly caricatured as a barbarian horde that enjoyed knife fights and brothels a lot more than art museums and fine dining. But these diametrically opposite cultures didn’t clash as much as one might expect when they met on new ground. They blended more or less smoothly and created something new in America. Call it utopian libertarianism, individualistic collectivism, rugged idealism, or another compound of your choice so long as one half applies to Puritan Massachusetts and the other to defiant West Virginia.

The Pacific Northwest is a place where many Republicans smoke pot and plenty of Democrats shoot guns. This complicates the national culture war narrative, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel strange to those of us who are from here. For the most part, the Pacific Northwest’s regional culture combines the best of Appalachia and New England while rejecting the worst. But a small minority of the population retrieved the rejected parts of the recipe from the cutting room floor and combined the worst instead of the best, melding Kentucky’s vigilantism and feuding with New England’s Puritanism and witch hunting.

The anarchists in Portland who throw things, smash things, and burn things are not protesting for progressive reforms. They insist that we abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish borders and nation-states, and return the land to Native American sovereignty. They are demanding the impossible, and they are demanding it violently. New England’s utopian streak tends to attach itself to big, strong government. Appalachia has been radically anti-government for hundreds of years, but utopianism is alien to that part of America. Only in the Pacific Northwest are these contrary attitudes fused at scale.

This doesn’t entirely explain Portland’s riots, of course. While impossible to prove, it seems unlikely that the city would have veered as out of control as it did were 2020 not a plague year, with rising angst, surging unemployment, the flourishing of extremist movements that always accompanies pandemics, and the abandonment of the professional class that once commuted downtown every day.

On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic has spared the Pacific Northwest the worst of its ravages. The cumulative COVID-19 caseload in Oregon and Washington is only a third of the national average. After Australia and New Zealand, Oregon is weathering the pandemic with fewer infections and deaths per capita than almost anywhere else in the developed Western world, not because we had heavier lockdowns here (we did not) but because we follow the health guidelines. We are not fighting a culture war over COVID-19. I haven’t seen a single mask-free person in a grocery store for eight months, not even in Republican-majority areas. And no, our economy has not been doubly crippled. Oregon’s unemployment rate is below the national average. Face coverings do not cost jobs; they keep the economy open by giving people the confidence they need to interact and do business with others outside their households. The other region of America that has done similarly well during the pandemic (aside from remote Alaska and Hawaii) is the northern portion of New England. We’re not entirely dysfunctional out here, and our cultural overlap with yesteryear’s Puritans does have its upside.

*     *     *

If Portland is a poster child for urban dysfunction, the poster child for fecklessness in the city is Mayor Ted Wheeler. Trumpworld media likes to portray him as a far-left Democrat who’s complicit in the city’s destruction, but the truth is he’s a squishy, conventional Democrat who feebly attempted to stake out a centrist position.

Rhetorically, at least, he could hardly be tougher. “ENOUGH,” he tweeted on May 30th, 2020, after riots got going in earnest. “I had to leave Portland today because my mother is dying. I am with family to prepare for her final moments. This is hard, this is personal, but so is watching my city get destroyed. I’m coming back NOW. You will be hearing from me, @PortlandPolice, community leaders.”

Two days later, he asked Governor Kate Brown to deploy the national guard, months before Donald Trump called him incompetent for refusing to do so. Wheeler accused arsonists of “attempted murder” for setting a police station on fire and blocking the exits. More recently, he compared Portland’s anarchists to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight: “There are just some people on this planet who are bent on criminal destruction,” he said. “There are just some people who want to watch the world burn.”

Wheeler is not only the mayor. He’s also the police commissioner. And he’s overseeing long-overdue police reforms such as the creation of a new organization that will answer calls about the mentally ill and the homeless, freeing up police officers to focus on what they’re trained to do and what they signed up for. (A significant percentage of citizens shot by police in the city over the past couple of years were suffering a mental health crisis at the time.)

Wheeler banned chokeholds. He prohibited the use of tear gas as a crowd control measure. He dissolved the police department’s gun violence reduction team, a controversial (to say the least) move considering that gun violence more than doubled in 2020. Would violence have spiked anyway due to the pandemic if the team had not been disbanded? Probably. It happened all over the country, including in cities with Republican mayors.

Wheeler buckled under pressure at times, telling the police to stand down and hoping to deescalate tension and convince the rioters to go home. (It didn’t work.) But he also called for a new law that would impose tougher penalties on repeat offenders, and he wants judges to compel them to meet with business owners they’ve harmed and learn firsthand what kind of destruction they’re inflicting on innocent people.

The mayor’s record is mixed whether you’re looking at it from the Left, from the Right, or from the center. A better leader might have succeeded by staking out not a squishy, moderate position but a strong, majoritarian one by vigorously pursuing police reform, leaving peaceful protesters the hell alone, and getting rioters off the streets. These are not contradictory positions. They’re what virtually everyone wants. But Wheeler spent much of the year hemming and hawing, Hamlet-style, vacillating between cracking down and standing down, and he managed to alienate just about everyone. The far-Left thinks he’s a fascist, the far-Right thinks he’s an anarchist, and middle-of-the-road voters wonder if he’s simply in over his head.

His incoherence resolved over time, more or less. A mob demanding the abolition of the police department and prisons no later than 2022 assaulted his apartment building in the Pearl District, breaking windows, setting fires on the ground floor, and terrifying the residents. Wheeler sold his condo, and if he has hemmed and hawed about anarchists at any time since, I’m not aware of it.

Roughly 2.5 million people live in the Portland metropolitan area, and downtown has been wrecked by maybe 200 anarchists, a percentage of the population that’s vanishingly close to zero point zero. This should not be a difficult problem to solve. Easier said than done, I’m sure, but there are only so many of them out there. Just arrest them and prosecute them, and that would be that. The city could then go about its business of police reform, pandemic disaster recovery, and sheltering the homeless.

It’s not entirely the mayor’s fault that this hasn’t happened. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt deserves his own share of the blame. He has routinely dropped charges against those who have been arrested unless the individual can be personally proven to have engaged in an act of violence against persons or property. This was of course the only just course of action at the beginning. If 10 people smash windows while another 10,000 are peacefully protesting, no reasonable prosecutor will charge whoever the police happen to scoop up if they can’t prove that the accused was one of the 10 who smashed windows.

Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Tito Texidor III (Unsplash)

But the early days of mass demonstrations gave way to an entirely different dynamic, with large peaceful demonstrations during the day involving thousands of people and small violent riots at night involving dozens of people. The riots were not spontaneous. They were scheduled in advance. No arrested person could plausibly claim, as they could in the spring, that they had no idea things would get out of hand. Mike Schmidt nevertheless kept dropping charges, and the same individuals showed up night after night in their battle gear. Living in Portland felt like a dystopian version of Groundhog Day for months.

There are dozens of municipalities in the Portland metropolitan area, with suburban residents outnumbering city residents by more than two-to-one, but only Portland experiences chronic anarchism. “I’m seeing a tale of two cities,” suburban Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton told local KOIN news. “I’m seeing Portland, and I’m seeing everybody else… There’s clearly a fire happening in Portland right now. Question is, can they put that fire out, and can they keep it from spreading to Washington County?” Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote is not happy either. “The current DA in Multnomah County, who has no real-life experience doing any of this, comes in with his ideology,” he said in another interview with the station. “None of his ideas are time tested anywhere.” Both Clackamas and Washington counties are heavily Democratic, so this is not a partisan argument.

Portland residents are disgruntled too, and they’ve registered their discontent at the ballot box. Ted Wheeler should have lost his bid for reelection in 2020. His approval rating was in the dismal mid-20s, but his opponent, Sarah Iannarone, billed herself as the Antifa candidate. “I am antifa,” she wrote on Twitter in January 2019. She repeatedly refused to condemn political violence during her quixotic campaign, and she ventured into public wearing a dress festooned with the faces of mass-murdering tyrants, including China’s Mao Zedong. Sarah Iannarone pulled off the nearly impossible by losing an election to a man whose approval rating was barely half that of Donald Trump.

Loretta Smith ran against Dan Ryan for city council, and she too refused to condemn political violence, choosing to say this instead: “Telling people who are traumatized and exhausted from generations of systemic violence and oppression that they can only communicate their angst through peaceful protest is tone-deaf and inconsistent with the ideals of restorative justice and equity.” She lost the election.

Left-wing populist Chloe Eudaly lost her own city council election, and she was the incumbent. She made enemies everywhere with her pugilistic, my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Critics accused her of “strangling democracy.” She had a more combative relationship with the press than anyone else on the city council. She got yelled at even in art galleries. Few were surprised to see her lose to her moderate challenger, Mingus Mapps.

Suburban moderates and rural conservatives take note: Portlanders aren’t as different from you as you think they are.

*     *     *

Selling my house during this turbulent hell year was an adventure. My wife and I white-knuckled it for almost two months while it sat idle with very few showings. In a normal real estate market, two months to sell is hardly unusual, but houses in the suburbs were selling in hours, sometimes in bidding wars with dozens of offers that drove the final price stratospherically higher. But we had to cut our price just to get anybody to look at it.

Our house was on a moderately busy street, which surely shrank our pool of potential buyers, but the real problem was that we lived in the shadow of a broken-down city center that hardly anybody needed or wanted to live near anymore. With homeowners bolting to the suburbs and to the countryside, our location had suddenly become a liability. I lost a great deal of sleep worrying that we were going to be trapped in the city and unable to leave without losing our shirts. (It worked out okay in the end.)

We’re living now in a city that’s suburban in function if not in form, a bubble of urbanism with its own history, culture, and identity. We don’t need instant access to thousands of restaurants. A few dozen nearby is enough. Our new neighborhood even looks a lot like our old one—it was platted at the same time, in the mid-19th century, which in Oregon is ancient history—but the streets are quieter, the air fresher, the sky darker at night.

Just two blocks from our new place, we can see the countryside beyond the metropolitan boundary. We hear coyotes howling at night. I am not yet used to the silence. Sometimes I irrationally wonder, where is everybody? What am I doing out here on the edge? I’m right where I want to be, but a small part of me has not yet recovered from urban withdrawal.

I don’t miss the city as it is now, but I do miss what it was. Portland will probably be on the mend later this year when the pandemic is (hopefully) over, but will it snap back into a golden age? Not right away, and certainly not automatically. Even so, while suburbs are generally more stable than cities, nearly all cities are more dynamic, with a critical mass of people and energy and capital and creativity. Cities change faster than suburbs and small towns, for the better and for the worse. Everything that was ever great about Portland is still great even now. Hopefully, recovery won’t require a decade-long dig-out.

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Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten is the author of nine books, including Where the West Ends and Tower of the Sun. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and others.