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Is Portland infiltrating Seattle? Which city wins? Reporter's notebook

caption: Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.
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Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.
Robert Ritchie / Justin Shen / Unsplash

Portland vs. Seattle. Having lived in both cities, this is a debate I've heard quite often. It once again popped up after I wrote about Portland-based Voodoo Doughnut opening a Seattle location.

Aside from Voodoo showing up, Portland’s Salt & Straw is expanding its footprint in the Seattle area, and Stumptown just booted Starbucks off of Alaska Airlines. And I hear some folks are even getting their news from a Portland State graduate who has infiltrated Seattle public radio...

“Is Seattle being ‘infiltrated’ by Portland brands?” one voice murmured around the KUOW office. Is Portland better? Is Portland winning?

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It’s something to think about when you’re getting your haircut at Bishops in Fremont (and surrounding suburbs), tying up your Nike shoes, throwing on a jacket from Columbia Sportswear, or quoting Old Spice commercials that came from Wieden + Kennedy (I’m on a horse!). Or even while you’re watching reruns of “The Librarians,” “Grimm,” “Leverage,” and the cancelled-way-to-soon “Stumptown” (because they actually film things in Portland).

Such thoughts added up to Online Managing Editor Isolde Raftery messaging (aka spamming) me on Slack, over and over again, while editing this very article.

"Portland is a lot cheaper, but there are a lot more annoying tech bros in Seattle. Seattle has breathtaking views of the mountains and water, and Portland does not."

"Homelessness is huge in both cities. Portland feels younger and gayer and more free than Seattle."

"I think Portland has been ranked the whitest city before, and Seattle the second whitest city, which is pretty funny, given the cities’ sense of liberal self. Both cities have a history of redlining."

Portland and Seattle, there is no more need for debate. After years meditating in long brunch lines, taking the gorgeous train ride between both cities, traversing the Kennedy School and Capitol Hill to get my McMenamins passport stamped (Oh, McMenamins, that’s another one!) — I have the answer to this perennial Northwest arm-wrestling match.

Neither city “wins.” Let's get over it.

Here's the deal, Seattle and Portland: You're in the same family. You’re both riding in the same family car, and that car is likely stuck in traffic on I-5. Maybe you think you can get around that traffic by taking I-405, but that's a mess too. When you arrive, there won't be parking. Which city am I referencing? Doesn't matter.

Seattle vs Portland

Chris Schultz worked for many years at Seattle-based Starbucks and MOD Pizza, and is currently CEO of Portland's Voodoo Doughnut. Kim Malek spent most of her life living in Seattle before moving to Portland, starting up Salt & Straw, and expanding those ice cream shops back into Seattle. It makes sense that these two would be involved with some cross pollination between the Northwest's two largest cities.

"I think the attitude and essence are more similar than they are different," Schultz said about Portland and Seattle.

"Having lived for many, many years in Seattle, and now Portland, obviously the downtowns are different, but the attitudes of the people are more alike ... They're more similar than they are apart."

Malek said Seattle and Portland are more like “cousins,” adding, "I love Portland, but I don't think we compete with Seattle.”

"Portland is so much smaller than Seattle," Malek said. "We don't have those super huge companies. We only have a couple Fortune 500 companies."

If you Google pros and cons about Seattle or Portland, you'll get lists that state the same things: Close to nature, people are cold/reserved, decent job opportunities, it rains a lot, food scene is great, cost of living is horrid. Also, coffee, beer, entrepreneurialism. I'd add that no matter if I'm in Seattle or Portland, I can easily find a pinball machine.

Look at the big picture. Portland sent up Stumptown coffee, Salt & Straw, and Nike shoes. Seattle sent down Starbucks (obviously), MOD Pizza, and I'll claim Seattle cred for Red Robin, too. Portland sent up Bishops barbershop, and Seattle sent down Rudy's, so it's not worth splitting hairs there. Notice all those Columbia jackets around Seattle? Well, Portland got an REI (which sells Columbia jackets). I'd throw out some beer examples, but let's be honest, you all just drink IPA anyway. Portland has "Portlandia," and Seattle has "Almost Live!" (it's still relevant, fight me). Both cities shop on Amazon and lie about it to their friends.

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If I were forced to note the differences, I’d say Portland can feel like a lot more of Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. Seattle feels like more of Portland's Pearl District. It balances out.

Now, if we could get a Dick's Drive-In down in Portland, and a Pastini in Seattle, I'd be pretty happy. Though if you ask Malek, she's pushing for a Cupcake Royale in Portland.

The one upside to this Portland vs Seattle debate is that it does draw all the attention, and nobody is watching Spokane, Tacoma, Eugene, Bend, or any of the other middle children who quietly get away with doing their own thing.

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