Two and a half years ago, Meaghin and I moved from Washington, DC to Brooklyn. Our move came as a bit of a shock to our family and friends – partly because of its suddenness, and also because of its proximity to our marriage. The move to Brooklyn was not motivated by a job opportunity or anything similar; instead, we had started feeling constrained by DC after five years of living there, and couldn’t imagine a more challenging and exciting place to live than New York (and Brooklyn in particular). A week after getting married, we made the decision to move, and three weeks after that, we found ourselves surrounded by boxes in an apartment overlooking the East River and Manhattan.
The first few months of living in New York definitely delivered on the “challenging” part of our expectations; not a day went by that didn’t evoke memories of Seinfeld plot-lines. Crazy co-op boards? Difficult supers? Ridiculous encounters on the subway? More than one New York stereotype proved its roots in authenticity. But as we grew used to the city and its neighborhoods, learned how to quickly cut from one area to another, discovered which subway lines consistently failed, and realized that one should avoid 5th Ave and Times Square at all costs, the challenges started to dissipate and left only excitement. New York, in its intensity and genuine melting pot of cultures and backgrounds, presents an amazing opportunity for people to define themselves. What matters most to you, and why does it matter? In a city where practically any hobby or interest can be pursued, you’ve got to seriously prioritize your time, and that prioritization goes a long way towards identifying exactly who you are.
But for all the excitement and growth, I started to notice another development in myself: pernicious cynicism. While I had once dreamed of tackling big problems and making the world a better place, years of living in DC and New York made me view such ideas as hopelessly naive. The seeming intractability of so many daily problems, the realization that apparently important movements were actually driven by petty motivations; older, wiser me didn’t look at idealists with disdain, but rather with a wistful admiration of their blissful ignorance.
Then I spent time in Portland, OR.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of Portland. And I don’t mean the city
portrayed on Portlandia – although that show is certainly accurate in its
skewering. I have never been to a place where so many people devote themselves
to mastering a craft, not just because of the rewards of the mastery, but
because not mastering that craft is simply not an option. There’s an
entrepreneurial spirit that pervades Portland, but it’s one that’s devoted to
developing new ideas and contributing back to the community. Even this “return
to community” is not the traditional “I’ve done well so I’m giving back” idea,
but rather a networked entrepreneurship, a continuous exploration of “How can
my idea involve the unique work of that awesome
Mikeal Rogers, organizer of NodeConf, described Portland with admiration:
There are times and places, great cities, that are remembered much more fondly than they were thought of at the time. Paris in the twenties when it was home to Hemingway, Picaso and Fitzgerald. Or San Francisco in the 50s when the beat generation migrated from New York to call it home. So impressionable were those years that the echo fuels future, lesser, generations for decades. When you're in Portland, Oregon you can't help but think it might be such a place and the time. For what it will be remembered I have no idea, but everyone seems to be bursting with creativity and no one is content until they have done more.
Spending time in Portland pierced the shell of cynicism that I’d developed, and rekindled my motivations to build something real and lasting, to improve my community. Portland provides the inspiration; New York has provided the confidence and skillset to do something about it.
So once again Meaghin and I find ourselves surrounded by boxes and preparing for a big move. In a month I’ll be a resident of Portland. I can’t wait to find out what the future will bring.