Adam Zerner

Why Portland

Meta: This is a personal post. Almost like a journal entry, but also loosely intended to be enjoyable and/or useful to other people.

Why do people live where they live? Everyone's got a different answer.

I lived in Vegas for about five years. Why did I live there? My answer was pretty simple. My girlfriend went to school there. So she needed to be there for school. And I wanted to be with her. So I lived in Vegas.

But she graduated at the end of 2021. I work remotely, and she's open to whatever, so we were no longer tied to Vegas, and it was time to decide where we want to live.

Well, there are a lot of cool options on the table. So at first our plan was to live for something like three months at four or five different places to try em out and see what we think. But then, instead, we decided to just move to Portland, the top place on our list. Well, we're currently about five months into a year-long lease and are probably going to buy something in the next year or two.

Why did we decide to do this? To start, let's go over what we were looking for.

The big thing is walkability. There are so many reasons for this.

  • Cars are expensive.
  • Having to walk places is makes it easy to be active, which is good for both health and happiness.
  • Walkable areas are awesome for a bunch of reasons.
  • Cars are one of the most risky things when it comes to dying early, and I am weird and prefer to avoid that risk.

Unfortunately, walkable places tend to be quite expensive. Think: big cities like New York, Boston and SF. Places that expensive would really make it harder to retire early, something I'm pursuing, so I'd like to avoid them. But when you filter for cities that are both walkable and not crazy expensive, well there actually aren't a lot left! Here is the list I came up with:

  • Portland
  • Philly
  • Denver
  • Miami

And then as a ~second tier:

  • DC
  • Austin
  • Pittsburgh
  • San Diego
  • Boston
  • Smaller towns

Then there are also places outside of America, like Mexico, Costa Rica, Amsterdam, Berlin and Thailand. Perhaps we'll revisit that in the future. It'd make seeing friends and family really difficult, and my job requires me to be in America. Plus language barriers would be annoying.

Oh, and my girlfriend likes to smoke weed, so we want to be somewhere where she can do that.

Working backwards from the end of tier two...

There are some smaller towns (as opposed to real cities) I've been to where you'd sorta be able to get by without a car. Huntington on Long Island in New York is an example I stumbled across recently. They have a main street, and a few other streets that are effectively main street with a bunch of cool stuff. You'd probably be able to get by without a car in a place like that. And I have when I lived in Gainesville, Culver City and Vegas in the past. It's just inconvenient. I think it's worth paying more for a place that you are less constrained.

Boston is a pretty cool city. I visited it a few times. But it's pretty expensive. And it gets quite cold. That's a pretty big deal I think! Weather isn't as big a deal if you have a car since you'd just be spending your time inside when the weather is bad and using your car to go from point A to point B. But since we're going car free, it's a lot more annoying when the weather is bad. You don't want to be spending 20 minutes outside in the cold walking somewhere.

San Diego is beautiful. But it's not the most walkable. The downtown area is solid, but if you want to go beyond that they don't have subways to get you around. Plus it's expensive.

Pittsburgh I have a special place in my heart for. I went to school there. At Pitt. And I love the Steelers. And it's super cheap! Awesome! But it also just doesn't seem like it'd make sense. The downtown area is super small and ~all commercial, not residential. Moving outside the downtown area, they don't have subways to get you around. So it's not walkable. And it's very hilly. And it gets pretty cold. So it doesn't seem like a place where you'd be too happy without a car. Which is too bad. I love Pittsburgh.

Austin is intriguing. I hear it is just a really cool place to be. And the downtown area seems pretty walkable. But there are some issues that knock it out of tier one. It's hot. I really hate the heat. Like with the cold, it'd be annoying being without a car in bad weather. There aren't trains taking you outside of downtown. So if you want to venture beyond downtown you need to take the buses, which isn't great. And it's not as expensive as places like San Diego and Boston, but it's still on the expensive side.

DC is also intriguing. They say amazing things about the public transportation there. That's very appealing. I feel like that's something that'll really make us happy in the long run and might be worth paying more money for. The weather can get cold in DC, but I think that's mitigated at least somewhat by the fact that we'd be spending more time on subways and less time on foot there. The thing that keeps it out of tier one is that it is a bit pricey. But it's close to tier one I think.

Miami is pretty cool. And it's surprisingly affordable there! Midtown and Miami Beach, it seems like you can get a place for something like $300-400k. Pretty cool for such a beautiful place to live! It's also surprisingly walkable there. It's pretty urban and concentrated with cool shuttles. Well, it's walkable within a given neighborhood. Going between neighborhood seems rough. In eg. NYC you can utilize the fantastic subway system to go from Greenwich Village to Harlem in about a half hour. But if you want to go from Miami Beach to Little Havanna in Miami, it'd be an hour and a half and you have to take the bus. Plus it gets quite hot.

Denver seems like an awesome place to be. I like the vibes there. But like too many other places, the public transportation just doesn't really cut it if you want to live there without a car. It's more geared to get commuters into the city than to help people who are already in the city get around. The downtown area itself seems reasonably walkable, but venturing beyond that you either need a car or be willing to sit on the buses for a while. And it's cold.

Philly took me by surprise. Being such a big city, I initially just assumed that it would be similar to something like Boston or Seattle as far as being expensive. But no! Somehow it's super cheap! Center City, Fairmount and Fishtown are the three areas I looked at, and average prices are around $300k with it being plausible to find something nice in the mid $200ks. Wow. And it's pretty walkable with solid transit. Something that hit me is that it'd take as long to get from Philly to NYC (via an Amtrack) as it would to get from Miami Beach to Little Havana. So then: what's the catch? My college friends who are familiar with the area said it's dirty and can be dangerous. I'm not the type of person who is bother by either of those things much though. So for me the downside that stands out is the cold, but given the other benefits, we can probably live with the cold.

But Portland is just so great. Philly would be good too, but Portland is just better.

To me, and to a slightly lesser extent my girlfriend, the weather is just perfect. The temperatures range pretty much from the 40s to the 80s, which is moderate enough to be comfortable outside. Sometimes it hits the 30s and 90s, but that's not too common. People complain about it being gray and cloudy, but having lived here from January to July, we haven't found that. Sometimes it is, but it's kind of a nice change of pace, and we both find that there is something charming and relaxing about gray and rainy weather. If it were all the time it'd be annoying, but as a change of pace every so often it's nice.

The other thing is the rain. That too we haven't found to be a big deal, and also find it to be charming once in a while. The thing that we didn't realize until moving here is that there is a difference between rain and, er, mist? Most of the time when it "rains" in Portland, it is more like a mist. It's light enough where you don't really get wet. Which surprised me, because before moving here, in my mind, when it rains outside you will get wet. Anyway, when it mists it doesn't really get in your way. And that's why they say you'll look like a tourist if you use an umbrella in Portland. It's not that Portlanders are tough and don't mind being drenched. I haven't found that it rains (not mists) often enough to be an inconvenience. When it legitimately rains, I just stay inside. It's nice to relax and stay inside sometiems anyway, so I make my inside days the days where it rains.

So, it's pretty awesome how the weather is moderate in Portland. But it's also very beautiful here. All of that "rain" helps lots of cool stuff grow, I hear, so it's very green here in Portland, even in the urban areas. And in some areas like Nob Hill, "colorful" would be a better word than "green". There's lots of flowers and bushes and stuff that are also purple, blue, yellow, etc. In a place like NYC you have to go to Central Park to get that nature feel, but here it is a lot more interspersed with the urban environment, which is really cool.

And it's nice being in close proximity to nice nature stuff (I'm so articulate aren't I). This past week I was walking along 23rd street, which is a main street with lots of shops. Then just a few blocks west on 30th and a little bit north, about a 15 minute walk, I arrived at the Lower MacLeay Trail. Check it out. It's amazing. I think it's really cool how you could go from urban (Midtown, Pearl district), to charming semi-urban (Nob Hill) to straight up being in the forest so quickly. And then venturing out further, there are all of these great waterfalls and other nature-y things that I haven't had the chance to experience yet, but hear is absolutely amazing.

Speaking of venturing out, the public transportation is pretty solid here in Portland. There is a nice trolley car that runs in a loop and makes it easy to get around when you're downtown. But there is also the MAX train that ventures out in five different directions, maybe 45 minutes or so in each direction. So if you want to venture away from downtown, for a doctors appointment or special restaurant or something, you can. Perfect. Even if you only end up needing to do so once every three months, it's just nice. It makes you feel like you're not "trapped". And the buses are solid here too.

The food is also very good here. There are good expensive options, but I really like how there are also lots of genuinely good options in the $10-15 price range. Living in Vegas before, I felt like even though there were good pricy places, we were missing those $ and $$ places. At least the good $ and $$ places. And I love food carts. The small business vibe is awesome. I love being at the food cart pods. It's fun getting to sample things from different carts, especially in a larger group.

What else? My girlfriend says the weed is amazing. My understanding is that you can't transport weed between states, so Vegas can't get weed from Cali or Oregon. I guess the ecology of Oregon is good for weed. And it's cheap here.

There is a (multiple?) poker room here. So if I want to play poker, I can do it. But I like how it's not as convenient as Vegas. I don't want to be tempted to play every weekend.

Price-wise, you can get something for $300-400k here in Portland. That's a step below other cities like Austin and DC, at least in the downtown areas.

Oh, homelessness. Right. That's a big drawback for a lot of people. Here's my take on it. I agree with Mr. Money Mustache when he says that Safety is an Expensive Illusion. The homeless situation doesn't actually lead to much risk. It probably does lower rent prices though, in which case I'm glad we have it! In most areas, the homelessness isn't concentrated enough to really get in your way. Chinatown is the exception. So if concentrated homelessness bothers you, just avoid Chinatown.

Also, utilize a little bit of street smarts. If you see someone who looks a little physically unstable, cross the street and don't get close to them. OTOH, if someone is peacefully sleeping in their tent, don't worry about it. They are not going to randomly jump out of their tent and attack you as you walk by in the middle of the day with lots of other people around. I promise. I guess there are in-between cases where you can use your judgement based on your risk tolerance. Ie. if you feel uncomfortable, just cross the street. IME the concentration of homeless isn't high enough in most areas where such street crossing would be more than a minor inconvenience.

That said, peace of mind is important. If you can achieve peace of mind via street smarts and crossing the street if a situation makes you uncomfortable, then great. If you can't, then Portland isn't the place for you. And there's nothing wrong with that. There's plenty of situations where I struggle to achieve peace of mind even though the logical part of me doesn't think I should struggle.

The biking in Portland is... solid I guess? Idk. It's not really good enough where I'd feel comfortable doing much biking in the streets. It's better than other places in the US I guess, but it still doesn't cross the relevant threshold for me.

Personally, I enjoy the whole Portland Weird thing. It's refreshing and fun. I could definitely see others being put off by it though.

It's nice being near a body of water -- the Willamette River -- for when you are craving that.

Where we currently live, it happens to be a pretty perfect location: one block from a grocery store that is open until midnight, three blocks from the gym, and three blocks from where my girlfriend works.

Oh, dogs! We have a cute little boy and he is welcomed everywhere! I run into people who carry around dog treats even though they don't have dogs (with them at the moment), just because they expect to bump into dogs and feel compelled to have treats available to give to them!

I really like how it is so small business/mom-and-pop-shop oreinted. There aren't as many big chains here. It makes me feel good to support them, and especially with food, I feel like the value is usually better. is available for stand up comedy! Pretty solid! I love stand up comedy.

There is a university downtown. I haven't utilized it yet, but there's something cool about being near a university. Plus I like college town vibes.

I don't drink, but I hear the local breweries are legit and noteworthy.

I know some people say that Portland can be lacking in diversity. I really don't know where they get that from though. Look around, there are so many different types of white people!


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