Archive for June, 2016

Community Glue: differentiating urban communities by their social emphasis

Since leaving college in Atlanta and “going West, young man!”, I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, the former a lot longer than the latter (15 vs. 3 years). People have asked in both places what I see as the big differences between the two urbanities, geography and topography aside. Usually I just respond that they aren’t terribly comparable; they’re just different. One isn’t “better” than the other. They each offer wonders and frustrations.

One of the key differences I do point to is social focus. I like to describe the Bay Area as a very “event-oriented” culture, where emphasis is placed on doing things together. Check out this event. We’re going to that event. Get your tickets now, they’ll sell out. I’ll see you there! Oh you went to that show? We danced our butts off! The social glue tends to bind itself around outwardly focused events, the places where people meet to talk, drink, dance, laugh, and have a good time together. “You mean you didn’t see my invite on Facebook?” I often hear. (Nevermind not getting a good old-fashioned call, that takes too much time and we’re all just, well, busy!) If you want to “keep up,” you’d better grok social media, babe.

San Francisco Skyline and iconic Golden Gate

And it comes at a price – for me anyway – physically, monetarily, and I dare say even psychically. I looked at my calendar today and was exhausted just thinking about it – every evening this month filled with the possibility and promise of something to do.  And don’t get me wrong, I love going out – well, sometimes anyway – and have a wonderful and supportive community of friends and beloveds. But even as my own single, unattached bread-winner, I’m starting to feel a pang in my pocketbook. I tallied up over a grand in event expenses in just the last few months. I balanced my checkbook and realized I don’t “go out” for under $50 any more – and usually not under a hundred if there’s a ticket to an event involved. Stuff’s gotten spendy in the nation’s most expensive city. Event halls are raking in the bucks to pay corporate landlords and performers who can either barely or completely not afford to live in the city’s confines. The home of the $5 happy hour cocktail has been evicted and now migrated as far away as Kansas City.

And as an introvert (my friends reading this will continue to turn their heads askew in disbelief) it takes a psychic toll. Going out takes a lot of energy for introverts. It’s refreshing and fun only in temporal (and short at that) and metered doses. The law of diminishing returns lives on a steep downward curve. Getting around this city has always been a bit challenging, and becoming more troublesome – parking always sucks, biking is increasingly dangerous even along the quieter bike-designated corridors, on-demand cars add up and are having mixed impacts on the social and physical fabric of the city. Surely you can walk anywhere if you have the time! But who does; the show starts in ten minutes!

Oops, it’s easy to slip into critique and kvetch about San Francisco. What about Portland? After my recent visit back to the fair City of Roses, I noticed immense changes in the six years I’ve been gone, both to the physical space and to the community dynamic. Economic pressures from heightened real estate investment are driving long-time residents away, making it challenging for new folks to establish root in a job market I never found terribly robust. The rental market is tight – places I knew rented for under a thousand a month are now double in price – and there’s no rent control measures.

The Goddess Portlandia lends a helping hand to Her denizens


But I want to focus instead on the Community Glue – the binding force that brings people together, strengthens relationships, and builds community capital. And Portland has that in spades. The emphasis is less about events – certainly Portland has plenty, albeit in much lesser magnitude and frequence than the Bay Area, it still remains culturally rich. People value relationships and connections. The “event” is usually just a means to the end of building and enjoying those connections. Jokes about having potlucks in Portland are endless. “Portlandia” did get many things right about the quirky social nature of the city’s rosy denizens (they’ll tell you it’s way off base, usually out of resentment for their own quirks being hyperbolically characterized; the show also way misses the mark in other ways, but that’s a different topic).

I remember when the markets crashed in 2008 and the mortgage debacles unraveled. I was standing in my kitchen in the cute Buckman neighborhood of Portland, discussing the implications with my economist housemate, when another housemate brought in the day’s Oregonian newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle headline might have read very scientifically and policy wonky: “Fannie Mae Lending Strategies Collapse in Market Debacle”. The Oregonian above-the-fold article was more likely, “Family Homes Lost in Mortgage Woes.” I remember such a front page article that centered primarily around a family in Gresham who had lost their home because they could no longer afford the underwater mortgage rates. It highlighted the same aspects of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess that the SF Chronicle did, but with a completely different frame: it was about people. Not events, not market mechanisms, not corporate greed. It focused on the hardships of people. And that story resonates much more deeply with Oregonians than the other.

The question I’m most often asked in San Francisco is “Do you want to go to [insert event here] this weekend?” The question I was most often asked in Portland was, “Do you want to take a walk up Mount Tabor?” People are connecting in both situations, but the emphasis and dynamic in which that connection occurs is, to me, very different.

Again, one isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different. They each have value. But I truly miss ending my week with a potluck of homegrown treats and singing together around a cozy fire. Seems like it’s high time to ignite that type of glue in my San Francisco living room.


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