Why I left Portland and Returned to San Francisco
While friends in both cities asked why I planned to return, they asked the same question two different ways. Portland asked with the doubt of a dysfunctional parent, one who knows the answer and resents it. “It’s so expensive there. Isn’t that why you left in the first place?” I didn’t leave because the Bay Area was too expensive. I left because I couldn’t afford it.
San Francisco on the other hand asked what I was doing back here with warm surprise. “Wow. Look at how much we’ve changed.” I needed some time to fall in line with the city’s new beat, but eventually it took, or I took to it. What I found shocking was the impression San Franciscans have that Portland is an adequate substitute. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
That isn’t to say I hated/hate Portland. In fact, I always wanted to live near an active volcano, and I’m disappointed neither Mount Hood or Mount St. Helens erupted during my five-year stint. Portland is a great place to retire at age twenty-six with barely a thousand in your checking account. On paper, I left for honest, practical reasons. I got into grad school. My partner and I had the money. He then got a good-paying job before beginning his own grad school journey. When I answer this way, the story ends there. In truth, here’s why I left Portland to come back to San Francisco.
I missed the opportunities only San Francisco could offer.
When you swap a mid-size city for an urban metropolis, you’re usually looking for connections. That could mean finding new friends, the love of your life, or the best chances of networking for your career. You can find all that almost anywhere though. So far, only in the Bay Area have I felt synchronicity in all arenas at once. Where else am I likely to meet a publisher at a sex party?
I needed some uh, color back in my life.
It’s no joke: Portland really is that white—seventy-five percent according to the US Census. I thought, as a Native American, I would find other Natives to connect with. Looking back, I see my surprise was a symptom of disconnection from a rare pan-Indian truth. We Natives are invisible in cities. Our numbers are greatest on rural reservations. Indeed my dad was adopted from a rez in the Kansas countryside. That’s only because our tribe had been moved there.
People badmouth Portland’s performance-y activism and for good reason. The city has a long and ugly history of anti-Blackness. Well before BLM signs went up in the yards of formerly Black-owned homes, a levee along the Columbia River burst. One stormy day in 1948, a flood drowned the predominantly Black suburb of Vanport. Despite knowing the levees were weak, Portland authorities had advised residents to stay home.
“REMEMBER. DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY. YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON’T GET EXCITED.”
At 4:17 PM, floodwaters breached the wall and swept through Vanport. Over ten thousand homes were rendered uninhabitable. Fifteen people were killed.
I missed the ocean.
How soon I took that for granted. After a lifetime of landlocked prairie, you think I’d practically live at the shore, and for a moment, I did. When I moved here in 2011, the boyfriend I’d acquired lived above Baker Beach. I insisted he keep his bedroom window open despite the cold, so I could hear the crashing waves.
Soon the enormousness of the Bay and mechanical awe of its complicated crossings shrank to normal size. In Portland, locals bitch about crossing the Willamette River as if it were the San Francisco Bay. Only after I moved there did I properly appreciate our waterbound existence. I longed to get back to it.
COVID aside, I thought I’d visit the ocean more often than I have. Note to self: go to the beach more often.
Portland gets stiflingly hot.
Nevermind the rain. In a sort of meteorological Stockholm syndrome, I came to love the weeks of continuous rainfall. Oh yes, I thought anytime I woke to rain pelting my fifth-floor window. It was plenty good a reason to sleep in a little. Yes, this is nice.
It was summer I hated most. Because Portland’s population expanded before climate change took hold, few residences had air conditioning. That number shrinks dramatically each summer as heat waves and wildfires overtake the Willamette Valley. My partner and I caved and bought a window unit in 2015. If I mentioned San Francisco’s natural air conditioning once, I did so a thousand times. Now even that is in jeopardy.
I made myself a promise.
In 2011, I stopped snorting pills and applied to art school. Once accepted, I made plans to leave Kansas City for Oakland. I promised myself the night before my flight that I would stick it out, no matter how difficult things got. That’s why leaving in 2013 seemed like such a crime. I’d failed.
Returning to San Francisco was always the plan, though I can’t say I always knew I’d make it back here.
I was constantly at risk of settling for less. Sometimes I bought into the Oregonian perception of San Francisco as a lofty, inaccessible place. Seattle was on deck, but my partner (thankfully) prevented us from making what he called a lateral move. He could have hated the Bay Area just the same. Lucky for me, he likes it here. I wouldn’t be here without him.
If you’re considering a move to Portland, ask yourself if it’s just a phase or if you’re truly ready to give up. Either way, I understand. There’s no sales tax, no god, no stigma against day drinking. The weed is just as good at half the price. All it costs is the wind in your sails.