Changing Gears
11:36 am
Tue April 17, 2012

Midwest Migration: Detroit native and others drawn to Portland

If you wanted to start life over in a new place, would you choose somewhere with a chronically high unemployment rate and struggling schools, or one that’s known as a haven for slackers? The latter is one way to describe Portland, Oregon.

It seems like everyone is talking about Portland these days. Part of that has to do with the success of Portlandia, a sketch comedy show that pokes fun at Portland’s young hipster crowd. As one character explains, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”

But not everyone who moves to Portland is a twenty-something slacker. The city still draws out-of-state transplants, including highly educated professionals.

More than half of all Oregon residents were born somewhere else. As part of our Changing Gears project, reporter Chris Lehman introduces us to two families who moved to Portland from the Midwest.

Lehman met up with Marie Montalbano and Ted Layman. Layman is a social worker and Montalbano teaches special education students in the Portland Public School district.

Before they were married, Layman was living in small town Athens, Ohio. Montalbano was living in Chicago. Montalbano thought Athens was too small. For Layman, Chicago was, “A great place to visit and enjoy, but the noise, the congestion of people,” was too overwhelming.

“So we knew we would have to find a place that was a good compromise and a good fit,” says Montalbano.

That place was Portland, with big city amenities and a small-town vibe. The emphasis on local food, the mild winters, and the proximity to mountains and the ocean appealed to them.

Layman says they didn’t necessarily see all that when they first visited Portland, but, “We did see a woman with her turtle on a leash walking it across the street. And that definitely had this like, oh my god, this is so Portland.”

But unconventional pet care wasn’t the deciding factor. For that, we turn to Forest. He’s Layman’s 15-year-old son and in the end, it was Forest who played a key role in getting the family to move to Portland.

Forest takes his education seriously.

“I have very strong ideals about how children and kids and students should be equally respected and given more broad aspects in like learning and being able to pursue their own interests,” he says.

He figured the local public school system back in Athens, Ohio wasn’t going to cut the mustard. So he launched a nationwide search for the perfect high school. Two of his top choices were in Portland.

He carefully crafted an application essay. It was good enough to land a spot in the exclusive Metropolitan Learning Center. It’s a public school, but Forest says in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like one.

“It’s totally different from my old middle school,” he says.

For example, he’s on a first-name basis with his teachers. He says classes rarely follow a textbook, leaving plenty of breathing room for student creativity. Forest likes to get to school early to hang out with friends and catch up on schoolwork before classes begin. He says the Metropolitan Learning Center is turning out to be just the kind of student-oriented education he was looking for.

Detroit native Carla Danley was also looking for something new. “I think a lot of times when you think about people leaving the Midwest to go to other parts, it might be a story about job opportunities or an improved economy elsewhere,” she says. But Danley was looking for a nicer place to live.

She wouldn’t have found economic opportunity in Portland anyway. Repeated statewide budget cuts have shuttered schools. The unemployment rate has been above the national average since the mid-90′s.

But Danley already knew how bad Oregon’s economy was. She figured – correctly – that her skills as a nurse would land her a job anyway.

“I really embrace the beauty of the wilderness of Oregon. And I think that’s very different from places I’ve lived in the Midwest,” says Danley.

Danley also likes to get around without a car and she figured Portland’s bicycle-friendly reputation would suit her just fine. It did. Carla’s not here alone. She met her husband back east, and for a while they lived together in Detroit, where she grew up.

“Then I said to my husband, thank you so much for coming to Michigan and not divorcing me, because Michigan is sort of an acquired taste,” she says. “You love it if you’re from there, and not so much if you’re not.”

Her husband uses a wheelchair, and it was important for both of them to have easy access to public transportation. Their new neighborhood has light rail and frequent bus service.

But Danley says despite the good public transit, natural beauty, and abundant cultural offerings, there is something the city lacks.

“As a black person, life is a little tougher in Portland than it is east of the Mississippi. There isn’t really a sort of rich, diverse black community in a way that I’m accustomed to,” says Danley.

Just 6 percent of Portland residents are African-American, compared to 83 percent in Detroit. And Danley is not the only one to notice the homogenous nature of her adopted city.

Jack Ohman is a nationally syndicated political cartoonist with the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He’s also a Midwest native. “Portland is still not a diverse town, unless you count different shapes of beards as diversity,” he says.

Ohman agrees with Carla Danley on this: What the city lacks in diversity it makes up for in natural beauty. Ohman remembers when he flew out to Oregon for his job interview.

“I had never seen the Pacific Ocean. And it was the most beautiful day in the history of the Pacific Northwest. And once you see that, you’re not going back. You’re not gonna go back to Detroit. You’re not gonna go back to Columbus. You’re not going back to Minneapolis,” he says.

But the mid-90′s is when something else started to happen, especially in Portland.

Ohman explains that, “all of sudden it was just this renaissance, where it was just the coolest place in the world to live. And I had not really experienced that before. Living in the Midwest, it was never the coolest place in the world to live.”

Ohman says it’s around that time that Portland started to feel like Portlandia.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the political culture here has established this kind of ‘Amsterdam without drugs’ vibe to Portland,” he says.

Ohman says that Portlanders bear little resemblance to the characters in the television series. You know…the ones who ask to see the pedigree of the chicken they’re ordering for dinner.

But most Portlanders have embraced their city’s namesake television series. It’s one of the many things that helps set their city apart. And after decades of embracing quirkiness and livability, Portland continues to be a magnet for people looking to make a change.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

You can read more stories about the Midwest Migration at http://midwestmigration.tumblr.com