First Impressions
A newcomer’s view of Portland

Illustration by Camden Benesh

I moved to Portland less than four months ago, in September 2022. It was an unseasonably warm month. My grandma’s minivan was packed with things I thought I’d need: a record player, a newly-purchased brass floor lamp, and a couch salvaged from a local coffee shop.  I was shepherded by not only my family, but my friends as well, to the new apartment that I spent a month looking for, unpersuaded by its price tag–on my own for the first time. I was to be taking public transportation everywhere–having sold my car prior to my move–and to be making new friends, and going to a new school. The world was open and I was small. 

When I first arrived, I was taking TriMet to a new friend’s house when the bus passed under an overpass with a shudder and a flickering of the interior running lights. When we emerged, the green hills rose up on both sides, interspersed with signage pointing to the zoo or downtown, covered in graffiti on their blank sides painted by brave artists who have, at some point, risked their lives to add their own spots of color to this already lush highway. The jungle in the city. 

Portland is an oft-romanticized city in a part of the country that most people think of as bucolic and wild. This image, peddled by for-profit travel agencies and popular media (Portlandia and Twilight come to mind), has served the city well. The locals do their best to Keep Portland Weird, as the slogan goes.

Some images from my early days in the city:

  • Old, repurposed buildings line the narrow streets, excellent coffee shops and evergreen trees are ubiquitous. We have the largest and smallest city parks in the country (so they say). We have fog and of course, we have rain. Water is central to the identity of Stumptown.

  • The dim Edison-bulb running lights at the Goose Hollow Inn, the wide overhead canopy of the Memory Den, the floor-to-ceiling windows at the PSU library; all giving off a diffused glow which lights these scenes in muted colors and soft outlines.

  • Going over any of the 12 bridges that have given Bridgetown its name, the claustrophobic hum and rush of the streets on either side drop below and away and a vista of glass and wood and steel opens around you and to the sides. As a friend remarked when we were crawling over the Hawthorne bridge, “where else can you get skyline, forested hills, river, and traffic all at the same time?”

However, the most captivating aspects of Portland are not found suspended over the Willamette. It is found in the tastefully-lit bars, the goth hangouts, the basement shows, the bike shops, the bookstores, The 1874  House where you can buy chandeliers lifted from bygone ballrooms. The feeling of being in the city is one of curiosity. 

When I get on the MAX or the streetcar, there is always going to be one person more inebriated than me no matter what, and when I get off, I may find myself in the midst of a naked bike ride, see a man strutting down the street in full 1940’s attire (complete with feathered fedora), walk through a cloud of weed smoke or into a sex shop. Any visitor to this town will see all possible varieties of hairstyle, from a rat tail to multicolored bob, and all varieties of fashion, zoot suit to Gucci. 

In short, adventure is every day for an outsider in Rose City. 

As is beauty. 

At the risk of sounding like a Travel Oregon ad-

Serene patches of nature hide within walking distance from downtown. Washington Park and all its subdivisions, Forest Park and its sprawling trails. Pittock Mansion secluded on a hill, even though it’s constantly thronged with tourists. The feeling in these places have the opportunity to be one of peaceful introspection, though often you may wish there were less people around. Just outside the city is the Columbia Gorge, Mount Hood, and an hour and a half to the coast and its cold and windy brand of natural beauty. These easy-access mini-vacation spots, which people the world over travel many thousands of miles and tens of hours to see, are sometimes taken for granted when living here. But these things are the soul of Portland, and of the Northwest in general. There would not be a city here without these natural wonders. 

And so, what should a newcomer expect, in my opinion…

Expect to have your opinions tested and your perspective changed. Expect to get wet. Expect to purchase at least one kitschy knick-knack and at least one piece of Patagonia or Columbia merchandise. Expect rain, yes, but also sunny days. Expect to become a fan of locally-made goods. Expect to try things you didn’t think were fun or interesting, and most of all, expect to be yourself. In a city this weird, nobody will judge you, and you shouldn’t judge them. 

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