IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Portland’s ‘young creatives’ tough it out

Thousands of well-educated young adults, called 'young creatives',  have flocked to Portland  and are determined to weather a recession that's testing their affection for the city.
Image: Heidi Sowa
Ceramics artist Heidi Sowa holds up one of her freshly thrown creations at her Portland, Ore., studio. Sowa, 26, is living on unemployment, sleeping in a single room apartment and eating from a refrigerator in the studio she shares with other artists under a bridge ramp in the city's industrial east riverbank.Don Ryan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ceramics artist Heidi Sowa had her eyes set on Portland for years. The city was not too big, had a cohesive arts community and plenty of easygoing and helpful people.

Within weeks of arriving, she landed a gig making costumes for 8-inch puppets in "Coraline," a 3-D stop-motion animated movie. Her job ended last year, and the movie opened in theaters earlier this year.

Now, at 26, Sowa is living on unemployment, sleeping in a single room apartment and eating from a refrigerator in a studio she shares with other artists under a bridge ramp in Portland's industrial east riverbank.

And she's not planning to go anywhere.

Like thousands of well-educated young adults who have flocked to Portland, she is determined to weather a recession that is testing their affection for the city.

The newcomers, called the "young creatives" by local economists, have helped give Portland the reputation over the past two decades for being one of the hippest cities in the country. They have been lured by the city's brew pubs, bicycle and mass transit culture, access to mountains and seacoast, and a tolerant, off-center way of life.

Now, they are trying to hang on while hanging out.

'Easygoing and helpful'
Sowa cites the city's love affair with bicycles and mass transit, its scale and its mood for her decision to stay.

"It seems a small enough but a big enough place," she said. "It's easy to meet people, and the art community is cohesive. People tend to be pretty easygoing and helpful, too. I haven't met many abrasive people."

Sowa is keeping busy with a whirl of projects and prospects, ranging from film pitches with a "Coraline" colleague to fashion corsets — she helped a designer create them in exchange for learning the how-tos of a trendy garment.

A Portland economist who has studied the "young creatives" says Sowa is typical.

"It's not as if it's great somewhere else," said Joseph Cortright, chairman of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's council of economic advisers and author in 2005 of a study of young people and American cities, "The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy."

Cortright said the United States soon will face a shortage of well-educated workers. Baby boomers are retiring, he said, and the rising percentages of women and college graduates in the work force are leveling off.

That, he said, will make winners of cities such as Portland that offer creative, entrepreneurial young people something distinctive, whether it is warm climate, cool culture, a combination of the two or something else entirely.

Cities with 'stickiness'
Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, are others that have Portland's "stickiness," he said, attracting outsize numbers of the 25- to 34-year-old cohort and keeping them.

High-tech entrepreneur Luke Sontag vows he'll stay in Portland despite a hard first year in town.

In September, Sontag led a crew of 34 high-tech workers on a latter-day "Oregon Trail" road trip, moving from Tulsa, Okla., in a convoy of rental vans and RVs, circling them at night on the western plains and building campfires to illuminate performances by the in-house band.

Within weeks after Vidoop Inc. arrived, the financial companies Sontag hoped to snag as customers were out of the market for his Internet security services. The layoffs started in November. The company, he said, was reincorporating, planning for new financing and workers.

In the meantime, he's plotting a company in mobile marketing with colleagues and living on savings. "If all went to hell with this, I would not be moving," he said. "I wouldn't give a flip if I had to pick up trash."

Living cheaply
Young creatives turn more often, though, to the coffee shops for work and their default job — barista.

Brodie Kelley, 29, is a comics artist and unpublished novelist who eventually landed a job behind a grocery store's deli counter. He tells a story about the competition for jobs slinging espresso drinks.

Attracted by an ad, he went into a jammed coffee shop, which he figured meant a thriving business and good prospects. Then the manager looked over the throng and said he'd begin taking applications: "But, first, is anyone here a customer?"

Some young creatives are nurturing enterprises on the cheap through co-working — renting space that's often loft-like with communal copiers and espresso machines. The environment is more businesslike than a home office.

CubeSpace, a prominent co-working spot, failed in June. Among the company's workers is Reid Beels, 24, a free-lance Web designer and programmer. He said CubeSpace was ideal for Saturday "code sprints," exercises in problem-solving that drew together otherwise independent high-tech workers.

These days, Beels said, he's doing his free-lance business out of coffee shops.

"I've been living very cheaply lately," he said. "I've still been doing enough work to pay the bills."

'I'm hanging in'
Hanging on in Portland is a month-to-month decision for 26-year-old Julia Sexton, who is originally from Florida. She came to Portland a few years ago to help a family member get married, and she fell in love with the scenery and the scene. "I couldn't believe this exists, the place I want to live," she said.

Hoping to work in interior design and architecture, she moved here for good last year. But she got laid off from a job in the sales room of a furniture builder in January. She sold her car, cashed her tax refund and hung on with family help.

"My grandma is awesome," she said.

By early July, she was working part-time and had a portfolio under consideration by an architectural firm. Her application, she said, is one of 41.

"I'm hanging in," she said. "I know this month's rent is paid for."