It used to be easy to avoid the litany of error that inevitably followed “I’m from Vancouver, Washington,”—Canada? D.C.?—by offering the simpler, “I’m from Portland.” No confusion there, it’s true enough—and in its early seasons, the TV show Portlandia gave you something to talk about with strangers. But the changes of the last decade, and even the last few years, have made it harder to elide the state line between Washington and Oregon that is the Columbia River.
Both Portland and Vancouver have grown enormously, with the latter now boasting a population of 172,000—adding nearly 30,000 residents since 2000. One rejected annexation plan from 2006 would have added even more residents, surpassing Tacoma and Spokane to become Washington’s second largest city. Vancouver has also grown a personality beyond just the not-Portland sentiment expressed when “Keep Portland Weird” was answered with “Keep Vancouver Normal.”
My official hometown has been called Vantucky, The Couve—and the chip on Vancouver’s shoulder is perfectly understandable. It is, in fact, the first Vancouver, with the Canadian metropolis to the north only a very, very wealthy knockoff. Historic Fort Vancouver (a national park, actually) was the Pacific headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company until Americans scared the Brits north to Victoria, and it is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest permanent non-native settlement. What’s more, even before all that, Lewis and Clark gave it five stars on Yelp, or would have, calling it “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.”
I moved to the Midwest for college and now am attempting to live cheap as a young writer on the Eastern seaboard. But one early hop across the Columbia River was also a hop across state lines, and it’s left me confused about where I’m from ever since.
Before I was from Vancouver, I was born in Portland. My parents and mewling and squalling me shared a tiny apartment down the street from a Moroccan restaurant. Because they were house managers for a domestic violence shelter in the building, they didn’t pay rent, but today similar (though somewhat larger) one-bedroom pads go for $1,585. The apartment contracted when confronted with kid and crib, so in 1995 it was time to move across the river.
In the suburbs of Vancouver, which was then essentially a suburb of Portland—and remains treated as such by my father, who commutes to work in the larger city—my parents bought an 1800 square foot, three-bedroom ranch home on a quarter acre for $129,000. With providential timing, they sold in 2007 for $230,000, right before the market tanked. We had bought a new house, also on quarter acre, in 2004 for $329,000. My dad guesses it is probably worth $375,000 now, but prior to the Great Recession it likely went to $450,000, and receded below $300,000 at the nadir of the housing market.
But while I grew up attending school in church basements throughout Vancouver, and ostensibly lived there, for most of my life a few free hours has meant taking the 20 minute drive over the bridge to Portland. Downtown Vancouver had little to offer growing up, and the city was growing multipolar, its new developments and economic growth mainly happening in East Vancouver, away from the historic district. It was a 20 minute drive east to suburban sprawl—strip malls and McMansions—or the same time south to a real city with real neighborhoods.
The realness of Portland and her neighborhoods is a conversation for another day; it is admittedly the most gentrified city in the country. But that has produced delightful, walkable mixed-use hubs even beyond it’s exhaustively profiled Pearl district. Mississippi Ave., NE MLK, Hawthorne, NW 23rd—Portland is a city of streets that have their own identities even as they share in the oh-so-easily-satirized personality of the city. The culture orients around food, coffee, beer, weed, exercise, and the outdoors. We are happy Epicureans inclined to full-out hedonism.
But can I say “we” anymore? Vancouver isn’t just the weirdly distended, angsty suburb it used to be. The population has boomed and prices are rising on both sides of the river. If you had a baby now and could make the tiny one-bedroom apartment work, maybe you’d stick to that. With traffic as bad as it has become over the desperately-in-need-of-replacement I-5 bridge and Vancouver’s growth, buying your starter house up north and working in Portland isn’t the same calculation it was for my parents.
Meanwhile, Vancouver is finally building along its waterfront, while its downtown is growing and revitalizing. A new central library building’s opening in 2011 marks the turning point in my experience of the city, and I spent a lot of my last visit home on Main Street. (Shoutout to the Thirsty Sasquatch tap house giving Portland shops a real competitor.)
Sure, Portland has Powell’s City of Books, more than 100 breweries in its immediate environs, a seemingly limitless supply of new restaurants and food carts, and great neighborhoods. But it was almost called Boston. Vancouver is Vancouver, the first one. Fort Vancouver stands reconstructed with its wood palisade and towers, and the surrounding parkland, the neighboring airfield, and the barracks above are all roots for the city, a sustaining history. Even when we were completely overshadowed by the younger upstart on the Willamette next door, we could take pride in our past and place.
Micah Meadowcroft is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.