Austin vs. Portland

The above video is from a Portlander who is quite anti-Austin, though in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

The issue of cross-city comparisons was on my mind for two reasons. First, Joel Kotkin wrote an article last fall in Forbes, America’s Next Great Metropolis Is Taking Shape In Texas, that friends are sharing on Facebook. Second, I’m someone who has lived in both cities (around downtown Austin and the Hawthorne neighborhood in Southeast Portland). I still travel between Texas and Oregon, and it’s pretty interesting how people react when they find out that I live in Texas or that I’m from Oregon in the other locale. Kind of a wary curiosity about my opinions (in Austin one is careful to mention one’s California days lest the wrath of the native be triggered).

In Oregon it rains gently at an angle; raincoat, not umbrella.

First thing, though the video above is kind of silly and not too serious, I do want to address one thing. Texas is not more arid than Oregon. I’m actually originally from eastern Oregon, so I have to remind people that 2/3 of the state is quite dry, whether it be semi-arid or arid. Inspection of the above map shows that a much larger portion of Oregon is extremely arid than Texas. Also, Portland gets 41 inches per year. Austin? 37. The difference is that Portland’s is frontal precipitation that is dispersed over much of the year in drizzles and overcast skies, while Austin is subject to more convective bursts. Where there are 145 sunny days in Portland per year (remember there is summer drought), there are 230 such days in Austin.

Austin combines a vertical downtown with huge expanses of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Austin still has a lower cost of living, mostly because of housing. Due to its rapid population growth, Austin’s transportation infrastructure and supply of health professionals is far inferior to Portland. But, the population growth is obviously due to an economic dynamism which Portland can’t match; unless you work at Intel it seems most educated young people in Portland are retired and working as a barista on the side (this is an exaggeration, but you get the point).

Can you name Portland’s iconic food?

I’d say Austin’s food is definitely better and cheaper. For beer, I will give the nod to Portland, which has a more well developed scene for microbrews. The same with coffee. It’s hard to compare outdoor amenities. The Pacific Northwest has real trees. The rest of the country has bushes. Austin is near the Texas hill country, but Oregon has hills, mountains, and gorges. It has Crater Lake. But because of the warm weather you can go swimming and enjoy the outdoors the whole year without much


preparation in Austin. The Colorado river in Austin is less geologically impressive than the Willamette, but there’s a lot more recreational activity because it’s warm and dry so much of the year.

A major difference between Portland and Austin is the university scene (or lack thereof). Portland State University has about half the student body of UT Austin, but its prominence within the city (and nationally) is far less than that simple quantitative measure. UT is located right north of downtown, so it’s an integral part of the Austin scene. In contrast, though PSU is located just south of downtown Portland, it is a much lower key presence. UT Austin is the flagship campus of the state university system of Texas. In contrast, PSU did not initially offer doctoral programs, and is a Research 2, a opposed to a Research 1, institution. Its roots were as a commuter school, and it still has many non-traditional students. In contrast UT Austin students are some of the most academically talented kids from all over Texas, which does not have large elite private universities, like California (Stanford and USC are both much larger than Rice).

Oregon has good beer

Finally, the arts & entertainment scene. This is really about taste obviously. Portland has a more artisanal arts scene, if that makes sense. More off the wall, homegrown, and organically and haphazardly presented. I didn’t really take advantage of it much when I lived in Portland, but honestly I’m not big into the arts scene here in Austin. But I’ve gone to shows now and then. It’s hard not to in Austin, which is crawling with musicians, and where live music is blasting up and down 6th street. But as Austin has gotten more popular and well known, it has also gotten more commercial and commoditized. National acts like Taylor Swift an Adele swing through town, and SxSW and ACL are huge draws. It’s easy to take it for granted, and honestly now it’s just part of the background furniture of my life.

Ritz beats the Baghdad

Note: I don’t have much to say about the fact that Austin is the capital of Texas. For me the main consequence of this fact is that perhaps this is one of the major reasons that the flagship university of the state system was located here (though usually it doesn’t work out like that). The Capitol is downtown, and there’s some political stuff going on there. But it’s pretty sealed off from the rest of the town. In contrast, Sacramento, probably is more affected by being the capital of California, since the city is less distinctive. And Albany is totally overshadowed by being the capital (I am naming three cities where I have actually lived at some point).

16 thoughts on “Austin vs. Portland

  1. Portland is between Seattle and the San Francisco Bay. The 21st century was invented in those two areas. What has Portland done? Portland reminds me of Orson Wells in “The Third Man” and Harry Lime’s great line:

    “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”

  2. I’ve never been to Austin, but Portland doesn’t seem diverse enough to me to even hint at the cosmopolitanism of a big city. It’s too white, and seemingly likeminded.

  3. In anno 2000 I had my choice of anywhere to live in Texas for a four month gig, so of course I chose Austin. Summer way too hot (Barton Springs a godsend, hope the Springs hasn’t gotten too-too crowded by now). Food good, live music of high quality all over town (even for instance at the plywood-decor Green Mesquite BBQ–go there for a rack of ribs mid-day on the large covered patio and some local unit playing retro-rockabilly jump-swing really really well–for free! Music-and-food fun stuff like that abounding). The city was turning into too much of a sprawling car-hell metropolis for my taste though, and the U-district was starting to lose local flavor. Still, I figure it’s as good as it gets in Texas. The people were generally pretty darn cool: cosmopolitan, with that Texican forthrightness and wit. Plenty of outdoor stuff always going on, and a good variety of opinionating freely expressed. From the fields by Barton, I saw a supercell storm looming two counties away, as big as five counties and as high as the sky, emitting evolving color palettes and structured, a flowing terraced epochal palace of the macrothermodynamic gods…Overall, looking at it from your current perspective, I say Austin’s a fine housing-affordable place to raise some cosmopolitan, wisecracking, thoughtful, University-exposed kids. Yup, doin’ good there, Razib. =]

  4. Portland, while urbane and fun and has great Western terrain abounding, really is just too overcast and drizzly too much of the time. The sunless gloom does get to you after awhile. If it had its amenities and setting yet with Baker City’s more arid and vigorous four-season continental climate, it would indeed be an indisputable paradise.

  5. I’ve spent limited time in Austin, but my impression is that despite the reputation as being hip, it’s not really any more urban and walkable than the average large Sun Belt city. That is to say, basically outside of downtown and a little area around the UT-Austin, the commercial areas are gloried strip malls, and the residential areas are dominated by detached single-family homes. Admittedly this is true for much of Portland as well by land area. Although a lot of it may be my Northeastern bias – I don’t think any neighborhood really “looks urban” unless it dominated either by apartment buildings or rowhouses which are built as close to the sidewalk as possible.

  6. it’s changed a lot apparently. population in 2000 was 700K. today probably north of 1 million (just the city). many areas which were sketch have totally gentrified.

  7. the 6th street area (west to east) seems pretty different from other areas of the sunbelt though. the out areas of austin are quite suburban.

    ZIP code 78701 — which encompasses downtown — has been named the top neighborhood in the entire country to find a bar.

    In anticipation of St. Paddy’s Day, housing data site RealtyTrac released a list of America’s best neighborhoods for a pub crawl. Downtown Austin ranked No. 1, based on the number of bars per capita. That’s right: 78701 has the highest number of bars per capita in the entire country.

    According to RealtyTrac, 78701 has 88 bars — one for every 67 people. That puts us way ahead of the No. 2-ranking ZIP code, 01103 in Springfield, Massachusetts. There, you’ll find one bar for every 122 people — 21 bars total

  8. I actually like this about it. Grew up in Sacramento and never got used to the summers. HATE THEM.

    Austin is too humid. That alone makes Portland superior.

  9. We live right in the middle of 78701 – bars everywhere breaking the local anti-noise ordinance with impunity. Luckily we just got
    new windows blocking most of the racket. The music is second-rate cover bands.

  10. Portland may not get drenched, but the consistent overcast skies seem to have their effect. I have never seen such vampirically white white people as I saw in Portland.

    Anyway, that was my impression during the week I spent there. Willing to be corrected.

  11. O/T but:

    “Scientists Say People Arrived Earlier Than Thought in North America: Early humans first inhabited North America more than 130,000 years ago, new report says”
    By Robert Lee Hotz
    April 26, 2017

    Fractured mastodon bones and stone tools unearthed in southern California offer evidence that people first inhabited North America more than 130,000 years ago, substantially earlier than archaeologists have long believed, according to a new report in Nature. …

    “The controversy centers on discoveries during freeway construction in the heart of San Diego, where paleontologists from the San Diego Natural History Museum found splintered mastodon bones and the heavy stones likely used to crack them open. The site was first excavated in 1992, but until now scientists had been unable to date the age of the bones accurately. …

    “By their calculations, the timing of that first migration reaches so far back in evolutionary history that any one of several different early human species, including Neanderthals, could have been the trailblazer. …

    “With no direct evidence of humans to be found there, the scientists analyzed impact marks on bones belonging to a single mastodon and five distinctive “hammer stones” uncovered with them. …

    “Finally, they turned to a technique that measures the natural decay of uranium. They singled out three mastodon bones for testing and arrived at an age of 130,000 years old, give or take 9,000 years.”

  12. Baker City was frozen for nearly three months this year. The freeway was closed on a regular basis.

  13. I’ve been to Austin a few times and had a great time, everytime but never had the opportunity to go to Portland until this year. I will head up there this summer for the timber fest about 30 miles south of Portland in Estacada. We are definitely going to checkout Portland after my tree service Waterbury crew compete in Estacada. In addition, I love Albany but never been to Sac-town.

    Thanks for the article, Razib.


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