Moving from Portland to Wisconsin to Write

Dotters Books in Eau Claire, WI, photograph: Elizabeth de Cleyre

In the dead of winter, I relocated from Portland, Oregon to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Donald Trump had just been elected president of the United States, sending shockwaves through the liberal bubble of PDX, as the once-blue state of Wisconsin blushed red. I didn’t have any close friends or family in Wisconsin. I didn’t move there for a job. As a writer and editor, I could theoretically live anywhere in the world with an internet connection. I chose what some might view as an unlikely location: Wisconsin, a flyover state that is not necessarily synonymous with literary, cultured, or creative. Eau Claire was even dubbed “backwater” in a recent Pitchfork article.

Most people thought I was insane to leave a literary hub like Portland, where I could attend free readings at Powell’s every night and potentially follow in the footsteps of authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, or Ursula K. LeGuin.

But after three years in the city of roses, my writing had withered alongside my bank account.

I had moved to Portland with literary ambitions, choosing the city for its access to bookstores and other writers. In 2013, it was cheaper than Boston, New York, Seattle, or San Francisco, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. As more and more people like me were priced out elsewhere, we set our sights on PDX for its relative affordability and “Keep Portland Weird” mentality. Tech companies in Seattle and San Francisco squeezed residents out of the market and they met in the middle, in Portland.

People who were used to paying more for rent were — surprise! — willing to pay more than current residents, thereby contributing to a cycle wherein the people who made Portland weird could no longer afford to live in Portland.

It was a cycle I’d heard about at coffee shops and cocktail parties. Everyone had a friend who had a friend who had a friend whose friend had been pushed out of Portland. It was anecdotal until it wasn’t.

A 2016 article reported a 63% increase in rent from 2006 to 2015. Income for renters increased 39% in the same period, with median incomes for renters coming in at half that of the median homeowner. Portland has the nation’s highest year-over-year increases in home prices.

According to Oregon Metro, “A person would have to earn an hourly wage of $19.73 — approximately twice Oregon’s current minimum wage of $9.75 per hour — to afford fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment.”

I earned $12 an hour at a boutique selling high-end shoes — working full time before the holidays, part time the rest of the year, and subsidizing my income with editing. I was privileged to have a partner who worked full time at a company that provided benefits. My graduate degree imbued me with high hopes of being highly employable, but most of my applications to teach, write or edit went unanswered. Finally, one company hired me as a freelancer to edit (read: ghostwrite) nonfiction books for approximately $50 an hour.

I didn’t own a car and relied on public transportation. One of my favorite hobbies was walking through the Southeast Portland neighborhoods with my partner at the time, where we’d take turns guessing how much the houses cost. Most were easily half a million dollars. We’d laugh and ask ourselves what these people did for a living.

I lived in a built-up four-bedroom house on SE Division Street, on the cusp of the historic Ladd’s Addition neighborhood. I shared the house with my then-partner and three other roommates, which became a rotating cast of characters: a graduate student in engineering, a graphic designer/DJ, an unemployed dude who hotboxed the basement, a radio and podcast producer, and a hair stylist, whose girlfriend unofficially lived there half the week. We split the $2200 per month in rent according to the size of our rooms.

The owners bought the house in 2008 with the intention to flip it, but when the market crashed they rented it for $1850 a month. In 2013, the rent was raised to $2200. I moved into the house in August of 2014. In March of 2016, the owners sent a notice to increase the rent to $2695.

Since the whole point of living in a built-up four-bedroom was to save money on rent, my then-partner and I decided to find our own place. We settled on a nearby one-bedroom, six-hundred square-foot apartment for $1300 a month — almost twice what we’d paid with roommates just to have a space of our own.

The house we’d shared was marketed as having three bedrooms and 2,500 square feet. It was listed for $550,000 and sold in less than a month for $630,000.

The disillusionment that had been quietly building for years finally crescendoed. I just hadn’t been able to hear it over my own internal monologue: I was privileged and it was unreasonable to want more — to want a full time job in my field, to not have to depend on a partner for healthcare, an apartment of my own, a growing savings account, money to set aside for retirement, the ability to pay off student loans and purchase a home one day.

I wanted free time and the disposable income to actually enjoy the city’s offerings. I wanted to see my friends, but our schedules were brimming with multiple gigs needed just to make ends meet. I tried to start a book club (twice) but everyone I knew was too busy. I wanted a community of other writers, but all the literary events I’d attended felt cold and unwelcoming, and most people I met were closed off — understandably threatened by newcomers who threatened to push them out of Portland.

Sitting beside homeless people on the bus and passing tent cities erected on sidewalks, I crushed any shred of desire for financial security or belonging, chiding myself for wanting more when so many had much less. The notion that I needed to leave Portland gnawed at me, but I felt like I had nowhere else to go.

Cue Wisconsin, in summertime, in the midst of my disillusionment.

A music festival lured me there — Eaux Claires was launched the previous year by Wisconsin native Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National. My then-partner and I stayed at an Airbnb run by a young couple who almost instantly became close friends. When we enacted our usual hobby of walking through neighborhoods and guessing how much houses cost, we found a fixer-upper listed for $60,000. I thought they’d forgotten a zero.

Six months later, we signed a lease on an apartment 1800 miles away, sold most of our belongings, and shipped the rest. Accustomed to astronomical housing costs in Portland, I thought we’d have enough for a down payment on a house within a few years. I was astonished to be able to afford one immediately, closing three months after we moved.

Buying a home was something I always swore I’d never do — I claimed I didn’t want permanence, but my obstinance was a convenient cloak for my dismay at the fact that I might never be able to, especially in places like New England, where I grew up, or cities like Portland and Brooklyn. Only 37% of millennials ages 25–34 are homeowners, compared to 45% of Gen Xers and baby boomers at the same age. In Wisconsin, my monthly mortgage payment was hundreds of dollars less than my apartment in Portland and twice the size. When my partner and I amicably split and sold the house, we paid off the mortgage, earned a small profit, and cleared all of our remaining credit card debt.

The financial security I felt in Wisconsin engendered a swift and profound sense of freedom — able to meet my basic needs, it kindled previously unforeseen possibilities.

Within a month of my move, I launched a book club at a local shop simply by emailing the owner, even though we’d never met. She agreed and then introduced me to a novelist, who also offered to connect and discuss writing. He introduced me to another author, who told me about the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, which introduced me to a whole flock of other writers. Everyone I met had someone else they wanted me to meet. Nearly everyone I met was open, welcoming, and warm — a stark contrast from Portland.

People remarked at how quickly I made friends those first few months, but it wasn’t a reflection of me — it was a testament to the incredible kindness of those I had been lucky enough to meet. Having lived in six US states and four countries in my life, the sense of inclusion and belonging I felt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The burgeoning community of writers possessed a collaborative — not competitive — spirit, one where writers supported their own craft as much as they supported one another’s work. Maybe it’s the Midwest work ethic, but people didn’t talk about wanting to write, they just wrote, and being in the midst of such prolific people was expansive.

Selfishly wanting to learn more from the community, I organized a series of events for the state’s Creative Economy Week: a roundtable to discuss the state of literature in the region, a panel on the concept of “Writing for Exposure,” and a launch party for a literary magazine. I started a book club, where I met Margaret Leonard and Jill Heinke Moen. When Margaret mentioned her lifelong dream of starting a bookstore, I echoed that it had been one of mine as well. Within six months, we launched Dotters Books: a women-owned, independent bookseller, dubbed the state’s best indie bookstore by Mental Floss.

Yet my contributions are miniscule compared to other creatives here, one of whom writes one book a year, publishes articles and essays, teaches full time, spearheads the writing guild, and is raising three children.

This is not to brag or be self-effacing, but to point out that literally none of this could have happened in a larger city.

So much stock is placed into cultural hubs like Portland or Brooklyn, but the cost of living is prohibitive not just for writers but also for entrepreneurs, especially those in creative industries or retail. Bookstores aren’t a highly lucrative endeavor, but they provide immense value to the community, signifying the importance of literature, diversity, conversation, and connection through reading. One would be hard-pressed to afford a retail space in a city like Portland, and Dotters Books is in good company with other millennial-owned businesses in Eau Claire: design firms Odd Brand Strategy and Knorth Studios, homegoods store Red’s Mercantile, florist Fersk Floral Artistry, and print shop Ambient Inks, among others.

And yet I write this with a degree of hesitancy, having experienced and witnessed firsthand how people who are pushed out of expensive cities move to relatively cheaper cities and thereby make it unaffordable for the people currently residing there. What made Portland weird were the people who lived there. What makes Eau Claire unique are the residents who wove the fabric of the city’s current culture. People who move to a city without regard to its history and context slowly chip away at its roots — perhaps not conspicuously but subtly, such as ignoring local businesses in favor of Amazon Prime delivery.

There’s a deep-seated fear of contributing to that same phenomenon — both by moving here and by talking about my experience of moving here in such glowing terms, glossing over the downsides or inconveniences of living in a smaller city. I’m now less interested in questions around how to move to a more affordable place and more interested in how to be a better citizen in an adopted hometown, and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

These were questions I never cared about in a city because I was too consumed with trying to make ends meet.

Gentrification is real. And focusing on the individual’s actions while ignoring systemic and structural issues — like access to affordable housing and tenant rights — won’t alleviate the problems it poses. While larger cities may have more resources, smaller cities have the advantage of being easier breeding grounds for change.

The three-bedroom house I rented in Portland? It sold for $630,000 in 2016, $80,000 above its asking price. It was listed again in 2019 and sold for $695,000.

Around the same time it sold, the Eau Claire City Council approved a resolution to increase funding for low-income housing from $200,000 to $700,000.

The cost of a single three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2500 square-foot home in Portland is the same as one Midwestern city’s budget to help tackle the issue of affordable housing.

If everyone who cared about these issues left big cities, what would remain could be bleak. There’s an argument to be made for staying and advocating for change where you live. Bailing at the first sign of hardship or crisis and trading large cities for smaller ones because of rising rental rates isn’t an answer to the affordable housing crisis. Leaving won’t solve those problems — it’ll arguably make them worse. A solution requires both stepping up on an individual level, and necessitates cities make a concerted effort in engaging and retaining citizens.

It’s not an exaggeration to state that it’s unlikely I would have ever realized my dreams — of homeownership, of launching a bookstore — if it hadn’t been for the affordability and support of a city like Eau Claire.

If I were in Portland, I’d still be writing on borrowed time and in stolen moments — on breaks at work and on the bus ride home. The oversaturation of living in a city — tempted by well-curated shops and inundated with advertisements on my commute — gave way to a certain spaciousness in Eau Claire, wherein I could think and therefore write.

writer, editor, & bookstore co-founder — elizabethdecleyre.com/about

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