Michael Totten

Small is Beautiful

Whenever I come home from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles I feel like I live in a hopelessly small cow town. Compared with our world-class cities, Portland is pokey. Objectively speaking, Portland isn’t really that small. Roughly two million people live in the metro area. It’s no megalopolis, surely, but nor is it Chitlin Switch, Kansas.
Last time I went to down to Los Angeles I asked Matt Welch and Cathy Seipp how much it would cost to buy a house in the bohemian Silverlake neighborhood. Matt said I could pick up a stucco piece-of-crap box for a half million dollars. Gads. My three-bedroom Victorian cost less than half that, and I’m not exactly stranded out in the boondocks. I can see the skyline right down the street from my front yard. That was just one of a series of reality checks I have run into whenever I get restless and start thinking I’m outgrowing this place.
My father moved to Los Angeles when I was seventeen years old. He and my mother had just divorced and he wanted a fresh start somewhere else. Two years later, he came home and bought another house in the Willamette Valley south of Portland. I asked him what it was like living in Southern California. He told me there were so many problems down there that don’t exist in the Pacific Northwest that it just isn’t worth it. That was a reality check of a kind.
Nancy Rommelmann moved up here from Los Angeles a little over a year ago and she told me this is the smallest city she has ever lived in. She did not mean that as a compliment. When I heard her say that, once again I felt the stirrings of restlessness. But she and her husband are starting to think they were right to move up here after all. L.A. is…well, you know. It’s L.A. It is what it is. Spectacular and wonderful in many ways, and utterly exasperating in others. Things are different up north, and I hope I’m not being obnoxious by saying so. (Unlike many Oregonians, I’m happy when outsiders decide to move to my state.) If you want to know how life is different around here from the perspepctive of someone who was not born and raised in this place, read Nancy’s dead-accurate essay The Beauty of Kindness.