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Carla Danley / Credit: Chris Lehman

If you wanted to start life over in a new place, would you choose somewhere with a chronically high unemployment rate and struggling schools, or one that’s known as a haven for slackers? The latter is one way to describe Portland, Oregon.

It seems like everyone is talking about Portland these days. Part of that has to do with the success of Portlandia, a sketch comedy show that pokes fun at Portland’s young hipster crowd. As one character explains, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”

But not everyone who moves to Portland is a twenty-something slacker. The city still draws out-of-state transplants, including highly educated professionals.

More than half of all Oregon residents were born somewhere else. As part of our Changing Gears project, reporter Chris Lehman introduces us to two families who moved to Portland from the Midwest.

Lehman met up with Marie Montalbano and Ted Layman. Layman is a social worker and Montalbano teaches special education students in the Portland Public School district.

Before they were married, Layman was living in small town Athens, Ohio. Montalbano was living in Chicago. Montalbano thought Athens was too small. For Layman, Chicago was, “A great place to visit and enjoy, but the noise, the congestion of people,” was too overwhelming.

“So we knew we would have to find a place that was a good compromise and a good fit,” says Montalbano.

That place was Portland, with big city amenities and a small-town vibe. The emphasis on local food, the mild winters, and the proximity to mountains and the ocean appealed to them.

Layman says they didn’t necessarily see all that when they first visited Portland, but, “We did see a woman with her turtle on a leash walking it across the street. And that definitely had this like, oh my god, this is so Portland.”

But unconventional pet care wasn’t the deciding factor. For that, we turn to Forest. He’s Layman’s 15-year-old son and in the end, it was Forest who played a key role in getting the family to move to Portland.

Forest Spiritdancer, Ted Layman, and Marie Montalbano / Credit: Chris Lehman

Forest takes his education seriously.

“I have very strong ideals about how children and kids and students should be equally respected and given more broad aspects in like learning and being able to pursue their own interests,” he says.

He figured the local public school system back in Athens, Ohio wasn’t going to cut the mustard. So he launched a nationwide search for the perfect high school. Two of his top choices were in Portland.

He carefully crafted an application essay. It was good enough to land a spot in the exclusive Metropolitan Learning Center. It’s a public school, but Forest says in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like one.

“It’s totally different from my old middle school,” he says.

For example, he’s on a first-name basis with his teachers. He says classes rarely follow a textbook, leaving plenty of breathing room for student creativity. Forest likes to get to school early to hang out with friends and catch up on schoolwork before classes begin. He says the Metropolitan Learning Center is turning out to be just the kind of student-oriented education he was looking for.

Detroit native Carla Danley was also looking for something new. “I think a lot of times when you think about people leaving the Midwest to go to other parts, it might be a story about job opportunities or an improved economy elsewhere,” she says. But Danley was looking for a nicer place to live.

She wouldn’t have found economic opportunity in Portland anyway. Repeated statewide budget cuts have shuttered schools. The unemployment rate has been above the national average since the mid-90′s.

But Danley already knew how bad Oregon’s economy was. She figured – correctly – that her skills as a nurse would land her a job anyway.

“I really embrace the beauty of the wilderness of Oregon. And I think that’s very different from places I’ve lived in the Midwest,” says Danley.

Danley also likes to get around without a car and she figured Portland’s bicycle-friendly reputation would suit her just fine. It did. Carla’s not here alone. She met her husband back east, and for a while they lived together in Detroit, where she grew up.

“Then I said to my husband, thank you so much for coming to Michigan and not divorcing me, because Michigan is sort of an acquired taste,” she says. “You love it if you’re from there, and not so much if you’re not.”

Her husband uses a wheelchair, and it was important for both of them to have easy access to public transportation. Their new neighborhood has light rail and frequent bus service.

But Danley says despite the good public transit, natural beauty, and abundant cultural offerings, there is something the city lacks.

“As a black person, life is a little tougher in Portland than it is east of the Mississippi. There isn’t really a sort of rich, diverse black community in a way that I’m accustomed to,” says Danley.

Just 6 percent of Portland residents are African-American, compared to 83 percent in Detroit. And Danley is not the only one to notice the homogenous nature of her adopted city.

Jack Ohman is a nationally syndicated political cartoonist with the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He’s also a Midwest native. “Portland is still not a diverse town, unless you count different shapes of beards as diversity,” he says.

Ohman agrees with Carla Danley on this: What the city lacks in diversity it makes up for in natural beauty. Ohman remembers when he flew out to Oregon for his job interview.

“I had never seen the Pacific Ocean. And it was the most beautiful day in the history of the Pacific Northwest. And once you see that, you’re not going back. You’re not gonna go back to Detroit. You’re not gonna go back to Columbus. You’re not going back to Minneapolis,” he says.

But the mid-90′s is when something else started to happen, especially in Portland.

Ohman explains that, “all of sudden it was just this renaissance, where it was just the coolest place in the world to live. And I had not really experienced that before. Living in the Midwest, it was never the coolest place in the world to live.”

Ohman says it’s around that time that Portland started to feel like Portlandia.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the political culture here has established this kind of ‘Amsterdam without drugs’ vibe to Portland,” he says.

Ohman says that Portlanders bear little resemblance to the characters in the television series. You know…the ones who ask to see the pedigree of the chicken they’re ordering for dinner.

But most Portlanders have embraced their city’s namesake television series. It’s one of the many things that helps set their city apart. And after decades of embracing quirkiness and livability, Portland continues to be a magnet for people looking to make a change.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

You can read more stories about the Midwest Migration at http://midwestmigration.tumblr.com

Before this campaign season, many voters in the Great Lakes had only peripherally heard of Rick Santorum. But his surprisingly strong challenge to Mitt Romney in Midwest Republican primaries most likely kept his campaign alive. 

Now, Santorum is suspending his race for the Republican nomination, effective today.

That most likely clears the way for Romney to become the first Michigan-born Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. Romney, who hails from Detroit, is likely to face President Barack Obama in the fall.

“This race was as improbable as any you’ll ever see for president,” Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, said this afternoon. But, he added, “We are not done fighting.”

Santorum achieved one distinction during this winter’s primaries, by becoming the only Republican candidate to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He had a pasty for breakfast and picked up nearly all the UP’s delegates.

Read Changing Gears’ coverage of the Midwest Republican primaries here.

Pension problems Bloomberg News reports that Illinois’ pension system is a “basket case.” The state’s teacher pension system is only 47 percent funded, the lowest number of any similar system in the country.

Right to sue The Associated Press looks into a court challenge against Indiana’s Right to Work law, passed earlier this year. Among other things, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 argue that the law deprives them of free speech rights, since it forces them to represent members who do not pay dues, and that money would be used to support their political speech.

Raising casinos, raising taxes A ballot proposal in Michigan to allow eight more casinos in the state would also raise taxes on Detroit’s three existing casinos, according to Mlive.

Want to pick asparagus? Asparagus season has come early in Michigan, and farmers are desperate to find workers to pick this year’s crop. Partner station Michigan Radio reports there will be a job fair on Thursday to try to fill 220 jobs.

Detroit’s deal Last night, the Detroit City Council voted to approve a consent agreement with the state to avoid takeover by an emergency manager. That means, as long as the governor signs the deal as expected and the courts don’t strike the deal down, Detroit finally has the first step in a plan to avoid bankruptcy. Partner station Michigan Radio reports on what it all means.

Chicago’s debt problem The Chicago Sun-Times went looking for reasons why Chicago would turn to private partnerships to fund its new multi-billion dollar plan to rebuild infrastructure. One major reason: the city’s staggering debt. Chicago can’t take out any more bonds to pay for improvements because the city spends almost 23 percent of its annual budget paying off the $7.3 billion in debt it already has.

Illinois’ turn Illinois is getting into the fracking game. Crain’s Chicago Business says the state could see a natural gas-drilling “boomlet” as companies explore southern Illinois for possible drilling.

Bulldozing blitz Partner station WCPN Ideastream had a story on NPR’s Morning Edition today that looks at the effort to tear down vacant houses in Ohio. The state set aside $75 million from its share of the $25 billion nationwide mortgage fraud settlement to pay for demolitions.

No more coal ash The Ludington Daily News reports the city’s historic car ferry has received a grant to convert its fuel source. Without the grant, the coal powered ferry would have been forced to shut down by the EPA. The historic vessel dumps about 500 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan every year.

#goodnewsforDetroit Twitter says it will open a new office in Detroit. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra reported the news in tweet form. You have to hear it.

Settled in Saugatuck Officials in Saugatuck Township, Mich. have reached a settlement with billionaire Aubrey McClendon that could pave the way for new development. The proposed development has encountered fierce opposition since it was proposed a few years ago, because it would be near coastal dunes on Lake Michigan. Partner station Michigan Radio reports the settlement must be approved by a judge.

Denied FEMA has once again denied Illinois’ request for a state of emergency to be declared in the town of Harrisburg. Seven people died when tornadoes ripped through the city on Feb. 29. Partner station WBEZ reports a state of emergency declaration would open up federal grants to help pay for the recovery.

Wisconsin on deck The GOP presidential primary marches on, and after this weekend, Wisconsin is next in line to be the center of the political universe.

Modern slavery The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio says he believes there are hundreds of cases of human trafficking going on in the region at any time. It’s a problem “literally everywhere” he says, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Raise your cup A national icon is being sold. Solo Cup, based in Lake Forest, Ill.will be sold for $1 billion. The buyer is Mason, Michigan-based Dart Container Corp.

Illinoisans are casting their votes today in the state’s Republican primary. If polls are correct, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is heading for his first blow out victory in a Midwestern state. 

He had unexpectedly close contests with former Sen. Rick Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, which made the Illinois primary more important than most political watchers thought it would be.

Illinois has 54 delegates up for grabs, fewer than Ohio, but more than Michigan. Romney has a strong organization in the state, while Santorum failed to file full slates of delegate candidates in four Congressional districts. If he were to upset Romney, he could win no more than 44 delegates, the Chicago Tribune said. 

During Monday’s campaigning, Santorum and Romney exchanged barbs about the economy. Santorum, who made appearances in northwest Illinois, said he “didn’t care about the unemployment rate” and said the race was about smaller government, individual and social freedom.

At his own campaign stop in Peoria, Romney said, “I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me. I want to get people back to work.”

Tuesday’s primary also will see some contested Congressional races. Check our partner station WBEZ for full election results on the air and on line.

Our friends at PBS NewsHour had this analysis of the Illinois race. Here are anchor Judy Woodruff and political editor Christina Bellantoni.

Republican presidential candidates are making their final push in Illinois before tomorrow’s primary. They’ve flooded the airwaves with advertisements. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney alone has spent nearly $4 million in the state, according to the Chicago Tribune.

But Illinois firefighters have countered with their own anti-Romney ad, paid for by their union, the International Association of Firefighters.

The ad focuses in part on SAFER, a government program that provided $10.2 million in grants to Illinois communities last year to hire or retrain firefighters.

The IAFF endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, and ran commercials in that campaign criticizing Republican nominee John McCain.

The firefighters’ effort may not make much difference. Romney appears to have a wide lead over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Illinois.  Public Policy Polling says Romney is ahead by 45 percent to 30 percent for Santorum, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulling in 12 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul receiving support from 10 percent of likely voters.

Take a look at the ad and tell us what you think. And tomorrow, be sure to check our partner station WBEZ in Chicago for extensive coverage of the Illinois primary.

Patently down The number of patent applications filed in Illinois dropped almost 6 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Chicago Tribune. The city of Chicago also didn’t grow its patent applications as quickly as other big cities. Patent applications are seen as one indicator of innovation in a region.

Casino vote City leaders in Lansing will vote on several items related to a proposed casino tonight. Partner station Michigan Radio has a preview of what the vote could mean for the $245 million proposal.

A send off The U.S. Postal Service is getting ready to shut facilities in Michigan, affecting 475 jobs. The plan is on hold until May to allow members of Congress a chance to come up with a new proposal. But a spokesman for the Service says something will have to give one way or the other. He told the Associated Press the Postal Service has “too much real estate for the amount of mail.”

Buh bye banks The Ohio Treasurer is ending the state’s relationship with two banks. Treasurer Josh Mandel says the banks have defrauded Ohio pensioners of millions of dollars.

How are they going to vote? The Illinois GOP primary is tomorrow. Partner station WBEZ has been tracking three GOP voters for months.

Next Tuesday is the illinois Republican primary. But today, Illinois is the center of the political universe (not that it doesn’t always think it is).

Two Republican presidential candidates and President Obama are all in the state today, looking for votes, and in the case of the president, money.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum makes two stops in Arlington Heights today, with three downstate on Saturday.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hit a Rosemont restaurant Friday morning, with more stops planned ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Obama, meanwhile, spoke to a fundraising luncheon in Chicago before heading to Atlanta.

Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich was in Illinois on Thursday. His performance in the state could determine whether the GOP race narrows to Romney and Santorum, or whether it remains a three-way contest.

 

The political world didn’t think the Republican primary season would last this long. But after Rick Santorum’s victories last night in Mississippi and Alabama, eyes are now turning to Illinois, which holds its primary next Tuesday. 

A big question about Illinois is whether it will be the last stand for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — or whether it keep him in the race longer.

He finished second behind Santorum in both southern primaries, and he is heading straight for Illinois for two days of campaigning. Gingrich told a Chicago radio station that he’s staying in the race until the August convention.

Said Gingrich: “When I was on a roll and Rick wasn’t, I was for Rick getting out of the race, too. And he correctly said no. And I’ve learned from him so I liked his answer.”

As he did in Michigan and Ohio, Mitt Romney and the Super PAC that’s backing him are expected to saturate the airwaves.

The Chicago Tribune reports the pair are pouring another $1.35 million in purchasing advertising time, even though the candidate isn’t expected in the state until Monday. That’s on top of $2.26 million already spent there.

Santorum doesn’t have that kind of budget, but conservative counties in southern Illinois seem ready made for his followers. He’s scheduled to hold a “Rally for Rick” in suburban Arlington Heights, Ill., on Friday.