In Oregon, what some might call a lifestyle, others may consider a mindset or demographic. Each of these terms is an attempt to describe characteristics of those who live here and to put a ‘face’ to them. Why does this matter? Because arriving at a better understanding of Oregonians provides a better sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ This could be helpful if you’re an Oregon homebuyer or homeseller. Or as a visitor or future resident, perhaps you’d simply like to know more about those with whom you may be interacting.
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The diversity of Oregon residents is hardly surprising, given the fact that a majority of Oregonians are not native to our state. It turns out that fewer than half of Oregonians were born here, with more than half hailing from somewhere else—most often California & Washington. In fact, roughly one in five Oregon residents were born in California! This may remind Oregonians of the song California Revisited, with the lyrics ‘Everyone I Meet is From California.’ So what are the faces of Oregon…and how might they affect you if you’re buying or selling a home in our state? Find out more in this interesting Oregon real estate podcast.
‘Location, Location, Location.’
Sound familiar? That’s the usual mantra to describe the three most important factors in real estate. Similarly, determining the nature of individual Oregonians frequently involves what part of our state they call home, or possibly those features that most inspire them. For example, does everyone who enjoys a lake view either sail or fish? Not necessarily, but some do. So one way to determine more about Oregonians also includes examining their preferred activities, not solely their mailing address.
That’s because it’s common for Oregonians to live in a large town due to their job, then on the weekends retreat to our mountains, forests, deserts or coast to ski, hike, fish, or hunt. Or put another way, while some Oregon urban residents may truly embrace the city, other urban dwellers may have a penchant for a completely different lifestyle. And that’s another attraction of Oregon, because here, the possibilities for adventure in many forms are not very far away.
While Oregonians enjoy our state’s breathtaking natural beauty, we also rank high for what is typically considered indoor activity, too. That’s confirmed by a survey that ranks Oregon as among the most ‘well read’ states in the union. One clue is that Oregon is home to Powell’s Books, which bills itself as the world’s largest independent book store. So as a group, Oregonians are far more nuanced than you might think.
Some might laugh when Oregonians talk about the ‘big city’ of Portland, but compared to other towns in the region, Portland is the big one. You may be familiar with ‘Keep Portland Weird’ bumper stickers that copy a similar phrase from Austin, Texas. Fact is, while some in our state ascribe to avant-garde weirdness, just as many stay away from Portland for that very same reason. What this showcases is a cultural divide that reflects a far bigger, state-wide schism.
Gateway to the Pacific
Given our unique West Coast location, Oregon is one of the more global trade-dependent states. Historically, Oregon’s economy has been based on fishing, timber and agriculture. Helping to open our international trade—clear back in the 1970’s—was Governor Vic Atiyeh, who made frequent trips to Asia. More recently, Oregon’s economy has transitioned to include service industries and manufacturing, along with growing high tech industries.
How Oregon is Perceived
Perhaps you’ve heard of stereotypes like ‘straight talking’ New Yorkers, country music loving Southerners, or ‘friendly’ Midwesterners. What we’re talking about is the ‘face’ of a state or region. Studies suggest that certain categorizations based on location sometimes ring true. Interestingly, in a national personality ranking, Oregon rates highly for the trait of ‘cooperation, suggesting Oregonians get along well with others.
The impression of cooperative Oregonians may be due to the fact that there are so many transplants living here, they may be willing to see beyond differences and unshared experiences. Another possibility is that those yearning for Oregon are ‘self selected’ in appreciating that quality they sought in moving here.
Yet another nationwide personality ranking shows Oregonians as ‘relaxed and creative.’ But does a population of ‘relaxed and cooperative, creative types’ necessarily ring true of Oregonians? Or are these simply generalizations that lack substance?
Like our own individual faces which change as we age, Oregon is constantly changing, too. Location is also part of this phenomena. So when someone asks “What’s Oregon like?” the answer can sometimes hinge as much on the specific sense of place as anything else. A middle-aged logger from densely forested parts of our state may well exhibit different views and behavior than a young tech worker living in heavily populated Portland, a new mother living in Eastern Oregon, or a registered nurse commuting from Oregon’s suburbs. Yet not always. But they are all Oregonians. As we’ll see, sometimes that which defines us, like the state in which we reside can be arbitrary. At other times it can provide a more easily understood and frequently accurate thumbnail profile.
Oregon Is Many States
Given its size and diverse geography, some have made the case that Oregon is really many states and this helps to explain the different reasons why people migrate here. After all, Oregon is 81 times larger than Rhode Island, more than twice the size of Ohio and even slightly bigger than the United Kingdom. It’s reasonable therefore to assume that with such a big state sporting such different features and climates, affinities vary.
Oregon’s Frontier Mindset
Oregon also has a frontier mindset. This has made it a trailblazer of sorts. Some theorize that Oregonians continue this trend that began with Lewis & Clark, who arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805. Consider the Oregon Trail of the early 1830’s. People left their homes to go somewhere new. That place was Oregon, largely fulfilling the concept of Manifest Destiny. A case can be made that this has never really stopped. People keep arriving here to ‘start over’ and begin a new life. But from what were they—and are they—escaping?
In the case of westward migration on the Oregon Trail, poor economic conditions in the Mississippi Valley and disease prompted many to travel here. Captured by the idea of Oregon, the willing and determined ignored the naysayers to embrace the adventure. They took risks, as the saying went, ‘to see the elephant,’ a then-common phrase that meant enduring difficulty in order to experience the unbelievable.
Different Situations, Yet A Common Destiny
Since days of the Oregon Trail, other factors drove migrants to Oregon. For some, it was a desire to leave crime and urban congestion behind. For others, it was the harsh conditions of the Dust Bowl, or the result of a simple search for better, or more meaningful employment.
Natural beauty is another inescapable feature of Oregon and a magnet for many who weren’t born here. Yet not all stay. The image some have of Oregon doesn’t always measure up to the reality. Some who arrive are disillusioned, since while nowhere is more beautiful, some states are sunnier and others are less expensive to call home.
Demographics explain ‘who’ we are, such as age, gender, where we live and our occupation, while psychographics explain ‘why’ we behave the way we do. Common demographic information includes one’s birth year, home address, income and marital status – fairly straightforward facts. Alternatively, psychographics delve deeper into factors like what we believe and include our personality, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyle.
To determine what Oregon ‘looks like,’ it’s helpful to start with information that can be measured. Demography is one such measurable study of human populations. These figures of course can change, so what we’re looking at for now is a ‘snapshot.’
Oregon has more than four million citizens. This places us near the middle of other US states for population. The most populous state is California, with approximately 40 million citizens, or roughly ten times the population of Oregon. The state with the lowest population is Wyoming, with fewer than 1 million citizens is ranked 50th.
A Climate Differential
The climate is also radically different on each side of the Beaver State. Western Oregon is lush, green, and temperate all year. Eastern Oregon is dry; much of it is desert. It is colder in winter and hotter in summer, and it’s as sparsely populated as Wyoming. Vast and empty Malheur County—by itself, five times the size of Delaware—is the least densely populated place in the United States outside Alaska.
Oregon by the Numbers
Oregon is divided geographically, culturally, and politically by the Cascade Mountains, located about 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Their impact helps make Portland residents relate more to Seattle-ites than their fellow Oregonians in rural parts of the state.
Besides weather, population density varies significantly here, too. The Willamette Valley, including Portland, Salem and Eugene have large populations. Parts of Eastern Oregon are largely unpopulated. One statistic for Wheeler County shows a population density approximating one person per square mile, or only about 1% of the average density for the United States, which hovers around 100 persons per square mile.
Contrary to a common notion, Oregon is not entirely a liberal state. Outside the larger cities and a few other areas, you’ll find many moderate, even conservative Oregonians. This perception of a ‘left-leaning’ electorate is suggested by media interests which are often located in, you guessed it, large cities. Small town and even mid-town Oregon is far less politically lockstep with their big city cousins.
Oregon’s Political Composition
Oregon’s moderate leanings are supported with statistics from a 2013 Gallup poll:
- 34.8% moderate
- 33.6% conservative
- 27.9% liberal
A review of party affiliation also supports a similar statewide political composition:
- 36.1% Democratic Party
- 30.5% “Non-affiliated” with any party
- 26.3% Republican Party
- 4.5% Independent Party
This large non-affiliated segment of Oregonians even far surpasses Independents as a voting bloc. This suggests Oregon is still well-represented by those with an independent, somewhat ‘frontier’ mindset.
Differing Views on Livability
Oregon’s diversity includes diversity of thought. Among the most disparate views here are heterogenous opinions of what defines the term ‘livability.’ That’s because to an urban Eugene resident, livability might be measured by a home’s walkability score that includes lots of coffee shop choices. Yet to someone living in remote parts of the state, livability may be better measured by reduced government intrusion, such as removing a restriction that bans the use of hounds when hunting cougar. Different worlds? Yes. But that’s Oregon. And between these two groups are plenty of others, each with their own unique view of what makes our state a desirable place to live.
Private vs. Communal Property Rights
Oregon’s land use regulations are stricter than most. This impacts on the ability of many Oregonians to use their own property as they see fit. Oregon’s diversity includes those holding different ideas. So the view that livability is achieved by limiting private property rights in an attempt to control ‘sprawl’ through land use regulations is at odds with others having a desire to divide their property, or perhaps use it for a purpose other than current zoning allows. To libertarian minded and traditionalist Oregonians—and there are many—the key to higher livability isn’t in restricting cherished private property rights for a sometimes difficult-to-define ‘greater good’ that satisfies those holding state power. Instead, for them freedom itself provides for the highest form of livability.
When times get tough, economic realities hit hard. That’s when policy questions, like ‘what defines livability?’ are sometimes re-evaluated in greater detail. A path that provides optimum livability is a dynamic that Oregonians wrestle with among themselves in good times and in bad. The answer is more likely to look uniquely different in different parts of the state. For example, mass transit may be desired in highly populated areas of Portland and Eugene. But expect resistance among those in outlying areas who either (1). don’t see the benefit, (2). don’t think they should pay for it, or (3). don’t like the side affects it may bring.
Greater Portland remains the ‘big engine’ that powers much of Oregon’s economy, since many jobs are based there. This involves many big name corporations and plenty of smaller ones. As a group, the ‘big three’ of Portland, Salem and Eugene politically and economically dwarf the influence of other regional cities. This includes heightened influence over state policy decisions. Whether the topic is taxation, environmentalism, social policy, or governance in general, conservatives and libertarians frequently lament how the state operates without what they believe is fair representation. This partly due to a state that up to now, has largely had one-party rule since the 1980’s. The end result as many see it, is a disconnect between Oregon’s leadership and its residents.
Oregon’s States of Confusion: Introducing Jefferson & Cascadia
So far, we’ve largely focused on Oregon as a geographical entity. However, regional identities can transcend state boundaries. Some suggest that a realignment of existing boundaries may better reflect the common ideals of our region’s residents. Depending on whom you ask, two regional proposals gaining notice have been called alternatively ‘secessionist’ and movements of ‘independence.’
One proposed realignment calls for an independent state named Jefferson that would join part of Northern California with Southern Oregon. The following issues are from the State of Jefferson’s website:
A parallel, but somewhat opposite movement affecting Oregon is labeled Cascadia, described by some as both social and cultural. The proposed country of Cascadia would annex Oregon northward, bringing together the Canadian province of British Columbia, plus the state of Washington.
So one movement (Cascadia) brings Oregon into a northerly orbit, the other (Jefferson) south. This says a great deal about the schizophrenic nature of Oregon as it relates to those on each end of the political, social or cultural spectrum who see the region differently. This underscores the sentiment some have observed that a resident of Eastern Oregon has more in common with a rural Canadian than their fellow Oregonians in the big city.
While both Cascadia & Jefferson appear to be opposing movements, they are perhaps more similar than at first glance. One view from the Jeffersonian perspective is that urban progressives in Oregon’s larger cities have more power in state government and therefore don’t understand the impact their decisions have on rural Oregonians. Similarly, the perspective from Cascadia is about self-determination and letting the community decide, ensuring those impacted by decisions on their surrounding environment have a role in making them.
A Desire for Independence
A desire from each side of these two groups appears to be one of independence without undue outside interference. Thus it seems both Jefferson and Cascadia are two sides of the same coin in representing a considerable swath of views popular among those living in their respective regions. Another interesting parallel both Jefferson and Cascadia seem to have in common is being tied to the land, with Jefferson advocates largely promoting agricultural interests and Cascadia advocates targeting environmentalism as a primary concern. Along with independence, this further underscores the importance of what each group sees as livability and stewardship of Oregon’s resources.
So while policies are a key difference of Cascadia and Jefferson, a key similarity they share is in supporting the idea that state maps are arbitrary. That’s because rather than comprising a group of like-minded citizens, states like Oregon sometimes resemble a political, cultural and economic boxing ring, where opposing sides are left to ‘duke it out,’ each largely fending for themselves.
Land Use Planning: Power in the Hands of a Few
Both Cascadia and Jefferson movements center largely around this land we call Oregon. Oregon has had a centralized land-use program and depending on where you live in the state, often plenty of layered regulations on top of that. Land-use plans are subject to approval or rejection by such rules. Environmental activists tend to love them. Farmers, ranchers and private property enthusiasts do not. And many point out that what some describe as arbitrary and onerous zoning regulations are partially responsible for housing shortages and a rise in housing prices.
Urban Oregonians are, however, familiar with the statewide mandatory urban-growth boundaries that surround cities and metro areas and prevent sprawl. In addition to impacting private property rights, such boundaries force greater urban density. The Tri-County area even has an added layer of government surrounding Portland, called Metro. The bottom line is that resolving the highest and best use of Oregon’s public and private lands remains largely a political process. And given some deep-seated political differences about livability, therein lies the rub.
Oregon Remains Special
Don’t expect Oregon to change in a hurry. Yet change will come and that applies to those who live here. Like those who traveled the Oregon Trail and as evidenced by the many who still arrive, Oregon remains a special place where freedom, independence and the opportunity for a new start are still sought.
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