Being hot must be a strange sensation for mild, understated Oregon. It just booted all-powerful Washington, D.C., out of the top destination spot for people moving between states, with 61 percent of those relocating coming into Oregon rather than heading out. According to the annual United Van Lines survey of moving trends, the nation’s capital has now been relegated to No. 4 on the list, tied with South Dakota. But why are restless Americans leaving their hometowns, eschewing 49 other states, and settling in Oregon?
In the past few years, the metropolis of Portland has been lauded as the utopia du jour of Generation X: a midsize, family-friendly city, birthing beanie-clad, plaid-shirted young hipsters, serving locally harvested dishes, brewing “intimate” DIY coffee, and offering multiple bike-powered pubcrawls. Thanks to all of the above, the city has found itself lovably poked fun of in the spot-on satire of Portlandia. But are people moving to Oregon based on the good word of a string of praiseful Sunday New York Times articles, or is there real evidence to substantiate this veritable trend?
As a 17-year veteran of the Beaver State—a stint that included four years at the University of Oregon—I wasted no time after graduation in leapfrogging 2,909 miles across the country for the overcrowded excitement of New York City. While I haven’t looked back, it seems the rest of the country is eyeing Oregon’s low costs and laid-back attitude as the ultimate lifestyle: Even in the uber-cool depths of Brooklyn, I get impressed nods when I cite my home state. But I’ve found myself lacking the exuberant pride for Oregon that seems to have captured the nation.
Affordable living certainly still makes Oregon an attractive option compared to its southern and northern neighbors. My parents left the Bay Area and headed north to seek refuge from the rising home costs and exorbitant school fees in the early ‘90s—both still valid reasons now. Don’t get me wrong: The people are cool, outdoor activities are plentiful, and the eats are good, but the dreary weather, endless expanses of desert, and unattractive, ho-hum cities outside of Portland less than charmed me.
Oregon’s climate may be lauded as an alluringly mild feature of the state, but anyone who knows the Pacific Northwest can attest to a constant drizzle of rain that barely lets up for nine brutally gray months. Oregonians suffer through them in anticipation of the blissfully sunny and temperate summer. The overcast majority, though, makes more than a few rely on basking in a special sun-imitating light to fend off seasonal affective disorder. One Portland bar is entirely lit with the special lamps.
Billing itself as a cozier version of Seattle or San Francisco, Portland (pop. 603,000) has been deemed the country’s latest hip, progressive paradise (though it lost as America’s “Best City for Hipsters” in Travel & Leisure’s recent ranking, the title is still being battled). And it lives up to the reputation: For drinkers, Portland is undeniably tops, boasting more breweries than any other city in the world—69 total in the greater metro area. For bike riders, Portland has the country’s highest percentage of two-wheeled commuters and is constantly voted its bike-friendliest.
But for all the hippies and hipsters of the western coast, go a bit east and the state turns into an expansive bastion of gun-toting, gas station-centric towns that are a stark contrast to the blue state’s progressive reputation. In the 2004 election, Bush voters in Oregon were scored by FiveThirtyEight.com as the most conservative in the country—more so than those in Tennessee or Utah. All in all, the state is incredibly homogenous: Portland clocks in as the whitest major city in the country and is, apparently, getting even less diverse.
Oregon has offered itself up as an outdoorsy explorer’s haven, and it delivers. In the high-desert area of Bend, central Oregon’s largest city, an average of 300 sunny days defies the rest of the state’s insistence on dreariness. Mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests to explore are never too far if you have a car. The Oregon coast, much lauded for its rugged, natural beauty, is by all accounts windy, rocky, and gray, virtually year-round. The water’s only good for masochistic surfers who must don thick bodysuits no matter the season.
For those less inclined to scale cliff faces and whitewater raft, Oregon’s attractions are limited to what can be found in towns like Ashland, where an annual Shakespeare festival attracts Bard fans from far and wide. Or the inimitable Oregon Country Fair, a 45,000-person, three-day Woodstock-esque hippy festival in the woods outside Eugene. But coming into town from nature is a disappointment. Oregon lacks in history and architectural aesthetics, something the eastern part of the country is rife with. It has none of the quaint old houses, charming town squares, and rich cultural past of the East Coast and Southern United States. But according to this recent United Van Lines moving survey, states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are seeing more people moving out of the state than into it. And they’re heading west.
Apart from the leafy college campus, Eugene, the state’s second-largest city, offers little in-town entertainment to a visitor. Two malls comprise most of the shopping options, and a flailing downtown has only recently become populated with a movie theater and a few new restaurants. Corvallis, home to Oregon State University, boasts a small downtown to supplement the campus.
Despite Portland’s attractions, the state is absent from a 2013 Georgetown survey’s top-rated cities for young people, in which Minneapolis, Columbus, Denver, Boulder, and Washington took the top slots. Motivated young graduates look to larger metropolises to the north and south, and Oregon’s unemployment rate hovers .4 points above the national average, with a discouraging uptick over the summer.
So, for those ready to pack up a U-Haul after gawking at the Oregonian’s real-estate section and skimming the gastronomy buzz, take a trip down the backroads to see if the state really lives up to all the hype filling your ears and, possibly, clouding your eyes. Most importantly of all: Bring an umbrella.
This article has been changed to correct an earlier version that misstated the unemployment rate.