While I was not born in Oregon, I have lived in Oregon long enough for it to be my home. Most of my life has been spent in a handful of towns: Oakridge, Cottage Grove, Eugene & Portland, with minor stints in Oregon City, Milwaukie & Globe. However, in all of these places, there was one city that was often mocked, reviled, became the butt of jokes, and on the whole was deemed the last place that anyone in Oregon would want to live.
This is the story of that city.
On the whole, Oregon does not really go in for Big Cities. Portland and the surrounding areas only get up into the 700,000 range, and in terms of Population Density in the US, PDX is so far down the list that it’s barely worth mentioning. (Mostly because after the first 40 cities I stopped counting.) Even if we include all of Marion County, it’s still only half the size of the Portland area. Salem is about one-sixth the overall size of our previous environment, and while the metric probably applies elsewhere, that does not mean that it’s one-sixth as enjoyable, merely one-sixth as cool.
To put this into perspective for PDX residents, living in Salem is like living in the rest of America. Portland is so spoiled, the people who live there forget that most of the rest of the country is not as clean, is actually a little rundown, isn’t a massive metropolis, and has fewer options for entertainment. We forget that the overly hip cultural capital that Portland carries affords it a look and feel unlike everywhere else. On most streets in Salem, you can see abandoned storefronts, the slow decay of buildings that have not been improved upon in years, graffiti that no one is in a hurry to paint over, and a number of other signs that indicate the run-down-ness. Litter actually piles up from time to time in different areas that are fairly public, and the odds that a broken window will not be repaired are pretty good if there’s nobody currently renting the space.
Instead of the rather large area that is called Downtown Portland, in Salem there is only a several block square region that make up downtown, where nearly all the city’s effort has gone in terms of upkeep and renovation. The Capital Building and recently remodeled Hospital are also pretty nice, but outside of the residential neighborhoods, the rest of the city could use a lot of work. That isn’t to say that there’s aren’t beautiful places to go; there are some parks that are really nice, some vineyards that are awesome, and being in a more rural area, lots of outdoorsy nooks and crannies that are very much worth exploring. But part of the small town aesthetic is that there just isn’t enough money to make everything look great, mostly because of Capitalism. Unless someone who is very well off is moving in, chances are the façade of any given building will only decay as the years slowly pass.
Many things that are common in PDX are just not going to be a part of the Salem landscape. I don’t think there’s a single vegan restaurant, and the odds against finding a movie theater that shows second run classics with beer available is going to be nearly impossible. The number of record and comic book stores is very small by comparison, and these places don’t seem to cater to many independent publishers or small labels any more than your average mall store would carry. (The obvious exception being labels based out of Portland, and Dark Horse Comics.) There’s a single grocery outlet in town where you can find all of your organic vegetables and home grown spices, a very small Farmer’s Market that seems geared more toward crafts than food, and I still don’t know if there are any places that sell ‘zines, period. (Perhaps at the one record store, but that remains to be seen.) The only bookstores in town sell used books, but before you begin imagining a small version of Powell’s, keep in mind these all double as thrift stores, and even then you’re more likely to find adult books and old Playboys than anything else. The only food carts and trucks are taco trucks, and have been selling tacos for decades, and don’t know anything about the insane food cart craze that exists up north. There are a number of bars in strip mall locations, and tons of “Adult Bookstores.”
By comparison, Salem seems to have a much more diverse population base than Portland, ironically. The overwhelming population base is still white, by a long shot. (We’re still in Oregon, after all.) However, you are much more likely to run into someone who is Black or Latino at any given shop you would enter, and on the whole there are a lot more ethnicities represented during a casual stroll. While this might seem odd on the surface, it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the average income of Salem residents compared to their PDX counterparts. Racial inequity is still very much along financial lines everywhere in America, and Salem is one of the many outlying areas where people who can’t afford big city life wind up.
However, with a smaller town also comes more overt racial tension, and that has been a huge shock to me. The recent Basketball Coach shenanigans has probably further pushed this kind of thinking and behaving further into hiding, but as the recent shenanigans have also revealed, that is about as far out of the public mind as these beliefs have ever been moved – into hiding, but still very much at work. There have been a few interactions I’ve witnessed that caused me to openly gasp, and it is difficult to remember that we are now very close to the places where Fox News and the Tea Party Agenda are considered important social values. With that in mind, all that comes with this kind of thinking is also lurking in these very same neighborhoods: Universal Health Care is bad, women should be oppressed by their husbands, homosexuality is questionable at best, and education is really only relevant until you’re about 15. I’m only just now finding my way in this community, but I can tell that there will be some difficult moments on the horizon.
There are other things that make Salem seem worse than Portland in terms of places to live, if you want to look for them. The public transportation is not nearly as good, and chain stores, malls, and outlets dominate the landscape. Local breweries are few and far between (but not nonexistent), and the food scene is spare at best (a few places in addition to a couple of local McMenemin’s franchise locations, and that’s it). Cars – overwhelmingly – are a business that you can sink your teeth into, and every single street has a garage, a used car lot, a windshield replacement shop, or some other kind of place where you can fix up / buy stuff for your car. If you aren’t car-centric, chances are you will find little to do, as the idea of being able to walk to something in the neighborhood is a little foreign to Salem. While I’m sure that I will absolutely feel safer riding a bike in Salem because there is far less traffic (ironically), it is far from a bike-friendly city, as there are fewer bike lanes and public places to lock up safely, let alone almost no bike culture in town of which to speak.
There are animated billboards all over the area, in places where drivers should not be distracted any more than they are already distracted by their phones. Golf, car racing and High School football seem to be the most popular pastimes of Salem residents. While there are a number of tattoo parlors, the quality of the tattoos is rather poor overall, and the only kinds of people who have funny hair or piercings are usually the trailer-park incarnation of those kinds of folks; hygiene & style has yet to filter down to the subcultures, but extreme shadiness and questionable piercings have.
To be honest, The City of Cherries does not really compare to life in The Big City, and chances are we will always be in a second-rate berg when we compare it to where we came from. However, that does not mean we’re in a terrible place to live. It is no Big Rock Candy Mountain, that’s for sure, but neither is most of America, and Salem still has some charm. Part of living anywhere is learning to find a way to fit into the community, and work toward making your corner of it a good as possible. In the process, we’ve found a few things that are extremely attractive to us.
First off: Thrift & Antique Stores. Wow. Any Antique Store you find is going to have PDX Thrift Store prices on their “really expensive stuff,” making even the coolest old shit that you find affordable by the standards we are used to. And Thrift Stores themselves are not yet picked over the way they are in PDX, leaving all sorts of amazing discoveries on a shelf being passed up by people who don’t know what they’re missing. (Mid-century style has yet to really catch on.) And, for that matter, the overall cost of living is just lower anyway; everything is slightly cheaper. No one wants to live in Salem, so housing and basic costs are a fraction of what they are up north, and offers you essentially the same quality of product.
There are a handful of venues in town that put on shows, both of the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Comedy variety, and with people that I actually want to see. While the names are not as big as they are in PDX, the lack of entertainment means that people tend to show up in large numbers for even the smallest performers. (Apparently, Drew Carey draws massive crowds in Salem.) While there are fewer record stores and comic book stores, I can honestly say that the last thing I need in my life are more records and comics (in spite of what I might want), and if I can’t find something I want, there’s always the Inter-Web-A-Tron.
On the whole, what I find the most intriguing about living in Salem is the lack of cool that it happens to offer. I’ve probably said something to this effect previously, but it bears repeating just to make the point: Portland’s entire social capital is based on cool, how cool you are, how cool your neighborhood is, how cool the bar you are at happens to be, and anything else that can be measured in Seven Inches or DJ Gigs. Now, imagine a town where none of that exists, and what little cool does exist is overlooked by most people, and revered by the few people who get it. Imagine a town where, but virtue of wearing a bow tie in public, you are not one of many, but extremely eccentric. Imagine a town where there is not gossip surrounding which bars are now lame, and which bars are out of sight, and instead picture a town where neighborhood bars do not have underground hip-hop shows or a secret drag show Sunday mornings.
Imagine a place that you can afford, where you are the coolest person in town, and where you no longer give a fuck about what anyone thinks, because they’re too busy not giving a fuck about what you think. Sounds like paradise to me.