thrift-store decorating tips: the main room

main room, right side, with reclaimed-teak bookcase and tall vintage lamps

See that big window? It used to look out onto a brick wall. I know I keep talking about all the natural light in my apartment lately in tones of wonder, and yes, I did like that brick wall, but its being gone makes all the difference in how well this space photographs, so I can finally show this place to effect, give it justice. (And if you suspect I'm exaggerating, just compare the main-room photo in this post back in August versus these newer ones.) It actually gets so bright in here on sunny afternoons, now that the building next door is gone, that I must close at least one curtain if I want to see anything other than my reflection or the layer of dust on my laptop screen. It almost requires sunglasses in here on days between rainstorms. This is not a complaint, mind you, simply . . . adjustment. (The downside is all the head-rattling drilling and beeping noise on weekdays and most Saturdays, which is why I'm moving.)

Fifteen months ago, I was thrilled to find an apartment with hardwood floors and a great layout at the lower end of the rental market in a central downtown Portland location. Score, right? On the plus side, there's plenty of storage in here for such a small apartment: one long, narrow bedroom closet, a deep storage closet aside the entryway that I call The Garage, and a walk-in closet off the main room, leading to the bathroom. The floors, other than the kitchen and bathroom vinyl, are original blond oak in the entryway and main room and something rougher in the bedroom and walk-in closet, whose carpet I asked the manager to have pulled up and the wood refinished before I moved in. The ceilings are fairly high, nine feet. And the doors all have their original hardware, meaning beautiful glass knobs and brass fittings (some of which have been painted over by careless workers—Grrr!—since who cares about rentals?).

But despite the many positives of this apartment, I compromised on light and soon came to regret it. While lamps and candles make for cozy evenings, nothing can replace regular doses of sunlight. My lamps were switched on pretty much anytime I wasn't asleep because, though I had moved into a south- and west-facing corner apartment, which normally would get good sun, most of that light was blocked by neighboring buildings. And though the light's been wonderful this past month, the price for it has been high. Moreover, after the shiny fifteen-story building goes up, the light situation in this apartment will be even worse: future tenants will have no direct sunlight at all. Yet light is critical to health and mood, especially in gloomy-most-of-the-year climates that compound seasonal affective disorder (SAD) effects, as in the Northwest. The point is that if you crave natural light and don't like living in a cave, make sure the place you rent or buy has big windows and plenty of light. No hip vintage lamp can compensate for that lack.

view of main room from entryway

With that caveat, let's get on with the tour. Continuing into the apartment from the entryway into the main room, you must veer right or run into the dining table. Frankly, I never ate at the dining table—a no-name, round, Goodwill-thrifted, mid-century piece beautifully refinished by my talented vintage-reseller friend Jeff, who sanded down and oiled the beat-up legs and replaced the original wood-grain laminate top with white Formica for a more contemporary look. I love that table so much it was worth its hogging up the apartment's center, even if it was only used for folding laundry and wrapping packages. (I didn't have a dining chair till a few months ago, so I ate at the coffee table, seated on a floor pillow.)

refinished round mid-century dining table with new white Formica top; lone Thonet chair; Drexel secretary

vintage dining table detail

Opposite the entrance and beyond the dining table, a large paned window is the natural focal point of the room. Though the former old brick wall across the alley blocked a lot of light (see above), it also muffled most of the city street noise, so there's another of life's little trade-offs. The apartment windows are all original, giving lots of character, though this also means they're uninsulated and chilly in winter, especially in the main room around the large metal window that won't completely close. (If I had stayed here this winter, I would install some temporary weather stripping from the ReStore to reduce heat loss, which I should have done last year.)

And that's about it for the room tour itself. The kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all lie off the main room on the right (west) side. The deep storage closet sits to the left of the entryway. Altogether, the apartment's about 500 square feet, fairly small as American homes go, but a good size for me—even too big. One person doesn't technically need this much living space.

A simple living proponent, I believe not only in slow food and slowing life down generally, but, too, in slow decorating in small spaces. As someone on a tight budget who strongly believes well-off Westerners must drastically be reducing our rapacious consumption of Earth's resources and limiting both our space and our physical possessions, the only way to align my ethics and aesthetics with my finances has been to switch to secondhand use, secondhand goods. In slow decorating, it's taken lots of time to get this place looking as well as it does (or did, rather). And of course my personal tastes won't necessarily suit everyone else's, nor would I want them to. I've been in this apartment for 15 months, and I still wouldn't have called the space "finished," though it was getting there. The ceiling fixtures were never switched out and I still only have one dining chair, for example. But at least nesting is a highly enjoyable process for me, as good as, say, world travel.

So from real-life experimentation, here are some well considered and hard-won decorating lessons I've researched and practiced over the years as an amateur design lover, long-time secondhand shopper, and professional educator, with the goal of helping spread the joy of secondhand use—proving that previously owned things can indeed be better than new.

geranium pots on windowsill

Living Room Decorating Tips:

  • Make a big window the focal point, instead of the TV. I only have a TV at all because it was a (very nice) hand-me-down, but my sofa is instead pointed at the window, while enabling easy movie viewing via the angled TV seated low on the metro shelving to avoid eye and neck strain (see photos below).
  • Remove rental blinds and hang curtains or shades promptly after move-in. (Don't wait and waste a whole year like I did.) Decent natural-fiber curtain panels are easily found at the the thrift store. IKEA, sadly (because the quality is poor), is the most affordable curtain-rod source option without going a total DIY route, though you might get lucky at Goodwill and find a new rod set in box . . . with hardware . . . in the right size . . . that you actually like. (Good luck with that.) Thrifted tension rods, though, are a good option for smaller windows or for double coverage.
  • Add a large plant. If large enough, the plant in a striking pot can not only process air-based toxins but function as a dramatic statement piece, like my hairy Dracaena marginata, or the currently popular fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). Large plants are of course more expensive than smaller ones because of paying for prior growth time but worth the investment if you already know how to keep plants alive. Buy from a local nursery, or if that's out of budget, there's always IKEA (where, at least recently here in Portland, you can get a four-foot fiddle leaf fig for just $13).

kitchen view from main room

  • Hang round vintage mirrors adjacent to or across from windows as portholes of reflected light—alternate windows floating unexpectedly on interior walls. Round beveled mirrors tend to have more visual impact than rectangular ones because most windows aren't round, giving more oomph in less space. By contrast, large rectangular mirrors can mimic whole walls or full windows by essentially disappearing into the wall. So the shape choice really depends on what effect you're after. I own both circular and rectangular vintage mirrors but prefer the circles. Plus, circles, being smaller, are easier to move. Regardless, I strongly recommend buying vintage mirrors because, like most everything else, they will inevitably be better made, thicker and of better quality than newer mirrors, with a solid backing (though they might need to be rewired for safety). Such mirrors can be found fairly easily at resale shops, so check back at your favorite vintage store from time to time, especially if you're looking for a particular diameter.
  • Select sturdy coffee tables that don't require trips to the emergency room, constant dusting or fingerprint wiping, or the perpetual refinishing of water-glass rings. That means buying nothing made of easily dented soft wood like pine (think children and their toys—bang, bong, crash!) or anything with dark glass or sharp corners. I prefer metal or marble coffee tables for their durability, but I also don't have children to worry about. Nesting tables, like easily found mid-century sets or new acrylic ones, can be a good solution for small spaces. Here are a few pretty contemporary coffee tables as examples. Look for similar vintage or secondhand versions to reduce the price tag, while opting for reuse.

seating area

  • Find a square cubby-style bookcase like this reclaimed-teak staircase style (that doubles as a cat exerciser!), and dress it up. I found various rocks and natural materials over time at thrift stores: local Oregon thundereggs and ancient leaf fossils, carved primitive stone tourist-trade figures, a stylized myrtlewood bird from the Oregon coast, a Russian carved-and-painted wooden treasure box (a long-ago gift), a framed family photo, and a gleaming brass bowl atop a pile of stacked books. (I'm also secretly hoping I can one day use my long-owned stair-step bookcase as an actual set of stairs!)
  • Place inexpensive can-style uplights in hidden corners for a warm, unobtrusive glow. I stole the idea from my friend Jeff and used one at the junction of the sofa and metro shelving by the wall. They take up much less space than a lamp and add variety to lighting scattered around a room. Remember the rule of three lighting sources per room, preferably non-overhead. Plus, can uplights can easily be found secondhand at Goodwill for around five bucks.

repurposed metro shelving entertainment center

  • Rethink the entertainment center. A basic six-shelf metro shelving unit is an extremely versatile, easily moveable, and inexpensive storage piece. On castors, it can be wheeled around, reconfigured, used with or without wheels, or even dismantled altogether for flat storage. This practical, industrial piece works just as well in a kitchen as the garage. I found mine secondhand on Craigslist five years ago and have used it for kitchen storage and in this apartment as a media cart (holding a flat-screen TV, radio, modem, router, and printer) and visible closet, with a variety of baskets storing everything from candles to an emergency hand-crank radio to hand-sewing supplies to vintage board games to medicine-cabinet items.
  • Source original art. With patience, good original pieces—professionally framed photographs, drawings, and oil paintings—can be found inexpensively at resale shops, thrift stores, and garage sales. Tip: Please avoid ironically hanging amateur oil portraits of people who look like your grandparents unless they actually were your grandparents. (And yes, I realize my current art collection has a solitary, antisocial theme.)

gallery wall of vintage art

  • Buy old furniture and furnishings, whatever your style, at thrift stores, garage sales, vintage shops, estate sales, or auctions. Though vintage or antique pieces at the lower price end will often need some light refinishing, reupholstery, or a new paint job, they will almost inevitably be better made than comparably priced contemporary options and maintain or exceed resale value, a win-win. 

vintage Drexel secretary with original white ceramic knobs & brass cuffs

  • Use round things to help break up all the right angles of most furniture: rounded lamps, round dining table, round coffee table, rounded chair backs, a vintage globe, round mirrors, a rounded pouf—even round knobs on a cabinet. The Franco Albini ottoman qualifies, as do the classic George Nelson bubble lamps, the Noguchi table, and those beautiful, pricey marble-topped Saarinen Pedestal tulip tables.
  • Mix furniture periods, even if your style mostly leans a particular way, such as antique aside a touch of high modern, or vice versa. It just makes everything more interesting. I prefer an eclectic look: antique Thonet cafĂ© chair, mid-century round dining table and low MCM sofa, industrial coffee table, vintage designer ottoman, reclaimed-wood bookcase, vintage lamps, and so on.

vintage oversized brass lamp, shade detail

  • Use oversized table lamps as floor lamps. Inspired by Abigail Ahern, master of juxtaposition, I set two oversized vintage table lamps directly on the floor and skipped side tables. (Note, though, that tall folks might not like looking directly down into the light source.)

vintage herringbone lamp & gold velvet chair

vintage brass lamp closeup

  • Finally, consider maintenance and disposal at the crossroads of any purchase or acquisition—in other words, how easily it will be to maintain and get rid of anything you buy. This is the least sexy part of thrifty decorating, but one of the most important parts. What comes into your home will eventually need to leave it, even if that time is after you die. So ask yourself whether that item is worth your a) "life energy" to afford it in the first place, b) time cleaning or otherwise maintaining it, and c) time selling or donating it. If it's not, pass.

main room view into bedroom

A home, by definition, is a sanctuary from the world outside. And when it no longer functions as such, when the outside encroaches either physically with construction noise and dust, or blocked light, or loud neighbors, or mentally with worries about finances or safety, it sadly is no longer functioning as a refuge. But I will miss this place and the convenience of downtown living.

What's ahead? A new experience of living with a good friend, something I've never actually done before—roommates, yes, romantic partners, yes, friends, no—with its own pluses and minuses, the next chapter, so far blank.


thrift-store decorating tips: the entryway

view of main room from apartment entryway

Welcome to my home! Or at least this is how it all looked up until a few weeks ago before I started selling things off in preparation for moving (because of skyrocketing Portland rents and the major demolition/construction party next door). I already gave you the kitchen tour, and you do have my apologies for proceeding out of order, but things have gotten hectic around here. So it's better, at least for me, to offer up what comes out of my head when it does come than let unfinished posts pile up. (Please also forgive and don't look too closely at the embarrassing line of dust bunnies hiding under the sofa. Though I do vacuum often because of sharing space with that cute, furry cat in the photo above, the vacuum cleaner head does have a hard time reaching certain spots. And yes, I should just move the sofa once in a while. What can I say other than I like decorating more than cleaning?)

This house-tour series is my way of celebrating and grieving at the same time—a wake of sorts for the past year-and-several-months of my life. It's ironic that just when I had the apartment styled almost how I wanted it, the Universe yelled, Time's up! Truly, this is the hardest apartment I've ever had to leave because a) it's been all mine, b) it's in mostly original (early-1900's) condition, c) I finally have decent light (temporarily), and d) the layout is just about perfect.

In this charming vintage apartment with original oak floors, you walk into an actual entrance room—though, granted, this does eat up square footage—a holding area of sorts in which to remove or put on shoes and outerwear. Especially for shoeless homes like mine in places with cold, wet weather, entryways function as physical and mental way stations enabling the transition between indoor and outdoor life—clothing as the attired "armor" in which we face the outside world.

To that end and to the right of the entrance, I'd placed a small trunk for double-duty scarf-hat-glove storage and temporary seating, plus an extra-large vintage beveled mirror leaning against the left-side wall and another glossy-black-painted bamboo mirror hung above the trunk on the opposite right-side wall, in addition to a rotating shoe tree for pretty high heels (all secondhand, of course) and various thrifted hooks on two walls for scarves, coats, umbrellas, and shopping totes. For guests, I set a large white planter in the corner, holding like-new grass slippers, though hand-crocheted or handknit ones would be even more comfortable and quirky.

entryway mirrors with original antique Western Electric wall phone

Also in the entryway, there's even a built-in delivery box, formerly accessible from the exterior hallway, as well as the original vintage phone hung on the wall with a corded earpiece that still buzzes visitors into the building's front entrance (though the manager and maintenance buttons no longer ring downstairs for anyone). I love thinking about long-ago residents opening the tiny square closet door each morning and picking up their new creamy milk in glass bottles and their freshly shined shoes. These days, the building's little delivery closets lining the interior hallways are all blocked off and intentionally made useless for safety reasons, but they offer a quaint glimpse into a more trusting and convenient past.

entryway trunk/bench, pot of slippers, and antique delivery wall box

Simple Entryway Decorating Tips:

  • Double up mirrors to visually expand a dark, narrow space.
  • Add a storage bench for shoe donning and removal.
  • Include a shoe tree or cubby system for tidy shoe storage.
  • Drill up vintage hooks and a small shelf to hold tote bags, umbrellas, and outerwear. 
  • Hang original art, preferably made by friends. (Hi Carol!)
  • Place a console table (if space allows) with a lamp and tray for keys, mail, and assorted emptying-the-pocket items.
  • Offer a basket of clean slippers for guests (especially if a shoe-free home).
  • Place a little rug, something hard-wearing like jute or coir by the door for foot-wiping or, if the clearance threshold is too low, something textured or colorful that can easily be cleaned.

left-side entryway viewed from main room

The entrance to a home sets the stage and mood for the life lived within. Ideally, an entryway would frame a dramatic view—the Ta-da! effect—or hint at the quiet coziness and lovely surprises to be found ahead.

What are the essential elements of your home's entryway?


thrift-store decorating tips: the kitchen

kitchen view (October 2014)

As the kitchen is one of the most-used spaces in a home, it should be a comfortable and pretty, as well as functional, space. But the most important part of decorating a kitchen isn't what's at the thrift store or garage sales but in the apartment selection itself. I looked at dozens of rental kitchens in photos and several in person while apartment hunting last year, and this unit by far had the best layout—a basic galley kitchen with none of the weird spatial gaps and odd appliance placements of many older apartment kitchens. That's step one: a good, practical layout. Sometimes, of course, renters must take what they can get. So, as I prepare to leave this most favorite apartment to date and give up my solo kitchen (small sob), here are some tips practiced over the years that may help others create an attractive kitchen on a limited, environmentally-friendly budget, prioritizing secondhand reuse.

Simple Kitchen Decorating Tips:

1. Change out the cupboard knobs or drawer pulls. The cheapo gray plastic kitchen knobs in this kitchen looked like a lactating woman's nipples, only silver (seriously, who designs this stuff?), so, over time, I found an unmatched array of bronze knobs at Goodwill and our local ReStore and ReBuilding Center, which came preloaded with patina. The search took time—a few trips to the building reuse stores over several months—but I much prefer the dark knobs contrasted with the cream paint. It's a cheap fix and makes a huge difference in looks. The plastic nipples, of course, will be replaced upon move-out, while the bronze hoard will go with me.

vintage bronze knob via Goodwill grab bag

2. Remove (and store, if a renter) blinds and put up shades or curtains. Let's be frank: aluminum blinds suck. They're dust-and-grime magnets almost impossible to keep clean. Avoid them—take them down, donate them, temporarily store them, but never ever buy them. I added the simple linen curtain panel on a tension rod only recently—something that should have been done right after I first moved in because of how much the curtain panel dresses the room (and limits what the neighbors can see). Both the linen Pottery Barn panel and thin white tension rod were Goodwill-thrifted, so this window fix cost under $10. My apartment manager, fortunately, was okay with my storing the old blinds elsewhere in the building, though they will need to be reinstalled upon move-out.

Pottery Barn linen panel, knotted

3. Add ceiling hooks or a pot rack for vertical storage. I found the hanging metal basket at a Goodwill "Bins" Outlet and my friend Jeff found for me the large black hook at a regular Goodwill. We didn't think the lathe-and-plaster ceiling could bear the weight of a heavy pot rack, but that's what I'd do in a future kitchen to free up cupboard space, especially to show off a thrifted cast-iron or Le Creuset pot-and-pan collection. (For example, here's a clever DIY pot-rack from 3191 Miles Apart.)

4. Use stackable jars for dry goods storage. I have a useful collection of square Anchor Hocking jars in different sizes, a mix of new (bought fifteen years ago when I had more income and less sense) and others thrifted within the last several years. (See a previous incarnation of them here.) Lined up along the counter against the wall, they store beans, lentils, unmilled grains, and other dry goods not needing refrigeration. In this kitchen, they happen to fit on a wall ledge above a countertop. Stacked this way, out in the open, pantry supplies are easily visible and add a changing variety of natural textures and colors as food is used and replaced, primarily via grocery-store bulk bins. Liking the storage idea, my friend Jeff built up his own collection entirely from Goodwill, thrifted here and there over the last couple of years. He has at least as many square jars as I do now, so they can be found 100% secondhand, with patience. And the biggest bonus aside from looks and functionality is that Anchor Hocking glass is one of those few remaining products still made in U.S.A.

5. Repurpose filing cabinets or carts. Standard filing cabinets, easily found for $15-20 each at thrift stores, or rolling butcher-block or stainless-steel carts can offer extra storage and prep space in corners too small or layouts too wonky for a table and chairs. Two black HON filing cabinets I'd gotten for free (from a previous employer who was tossing them out) happened to fit perfectly, side-by-side, between the left-side kitchen counter and the gas wall heater (see top photo). If you dislike the standard black, beige, or gray options, paint them something colorful using one of many online tutorials.

cork roll via Goodwill

6. Line cupboard shelves and drawers with cork. Cork gives great texture and natural protection without adding to the list of off-gassing household chemicals. (See cupboard examples here.) My cork liners give me a little inner glow every time I look at them.

7. Store cooking utensils upright in vintage containers. Keeping oft-used utensils vertical frees up drawer space and offers easy access to wooden spoons, rubber scrapers, and such when cooking. A few years ago at Goodwill, I'd found a vintage 1980's set of flour-sugar-coffee canisters whose wooden lids had seen better days, so the round canisters were repurposed as utensil holders. (Here they sit in a previous apartment.)

8. Put a plant or two by the window. Plants clean indoor air and fill a room with life. Research easy-care plants like Mother-in-Law's Tongue, jade/Money Tree, or common orchids and water them regularly per their variety. Or see if family or friends will give you free cuttings off a philodendron or pothos, if you have more time than money. Hang a plant to free up counter space. Replace any plants that happen to die (bad energy). But whatever you do, don't buy fake plants. Fake plants are just that—false—which is no way to live. Use a grow light instead, if the kitchen lacks windows or good light.

gifted: golden pothos cutting, July 2013

9. Use coated wire shelves for added storage and organization. I found a couple black-coated freestanding wire shelves at Goodwill, which enabled me to store more in my largest cabinet. Underhanging shelf baskets are also a great idea for extra storage if cupboard and shelf sizes allow.

10. Switch out an unwanted light fixture. Instead of the standard boob light found in many rentals and new-home construction units, find a secondhand ceiling light you actually like. I found some simple but striking white globe fixtures at Portland's Rebuilding Center for very little money but never got around to completing this fix in this apartment (next time, though!) because it would have required finding (or making) a ceiling medallion and repainting that area of the ceiling since the landlord's light fixture covered the extra-wide electrical hole (?!) but the globes didn't. Sadly, this fix isn't as easy as it should be in theory. You'll need basic wiring skills or a friend with such skills.

vintage Stemlite lamp on refrigerator, striped African shopping basket, hanging pizza peel

11. Add a table lamp. Non-overheard lighting provides ambience, even in the kitchen. I tried out various secondhand lamps (on loan from my reseller friend Jeff) on top of the refrigerator before finding this small mid-century Stemlite globe lamp sitting lonely and out of place at an antique mall down in Sellwood. Because of keeping a lamp on the fridge, I rarely turn on the harsher overhead light.

12. Hang secondhand art. I had started a gallery wall of framed black-and-white food photos (found at thrift stores and garage sales), an original watercolor (via the thrift store), and a painting gifted by an artist friend. Avoid poster prints and instead seek out original pieces, real visuals to inspire your cooking. They don't have to be food-themed, though mine are.

basket-hung onions

13. Skip the rug. While they look cozy, rugs in the kitchen are hard to keep clean if you actually cook. (Food does spill during prep and cooking, even at the hands of careful clean-freaks.)

The kitchen is (or should be) the heart of the home, not just the hearth. Those who both cook and lack a dishwasher spend a good chunk of each day in there, so it's worth making the room comfortable and welcoming. Keeping a music source and even candles nearby can also help turn kitchen tasks into something more pleasurable and relaxing than mere chores. (This is life. Be present for it.) With time and patience for the hunt, along with attention to sensory details like sounds, smells, and cleanliness, a thrifty decorator doesn't have to spend much money to create an organized kitchen with a full, generous heart.

Please add tips of your own to the comments!


empty apartment (before)

entry to main room (June 2013)

June 26, 21013 (journal entry):
I want enough floor space freed up to easily be able to do yoga without moving everything around every time. What I don't want is every square foot full of furniture.

main room (June 2013)

June 26, 2013 (journal entry):
Before I move in, [in addition to having the bedroom and closet carpeting removed] I also want all the blinds off, the ceiling fan down, and all the walls painted white.

kitchen (June 2013)

June 23, 2013 (journal entry):
I still go back and forth about whether I'm doing the right thing financially . . . but then M— brings home a friend for the evening or leaves his usual crumbs all over the kitchen and can't take a shower without pulling the curtain askew and I think, "This is why I'm moving": so I can live in my own home the way I want, when I want, in ways that make me happy and comfortable.

bedroom (June 2013)

June 16, 2013 (journal entry):
I'm terrified I'm getting into a situation I can't afford, and honestly, moving downtown isn't going to help shorten my commute much, though it will make errands easier . . . . [But] based on the apartment listings, it's not more expensive to live downtown compared to other neighborhoods in Portland, unlike what most people think—unless you want more space, good light, a balcony, or a view.

walk-in closet (June 2013)

June 9, 2013 (journal entry):
If E—'s income-restricted building weren't carpeted, it'd be a pretty good deal: large windows and bright light, at least on the south side. But I don't want to compromise on hardwood floors, which means an older building. . . . 
I keep wondering if I'm making a huge mistake re moving downtown. It seems so expensive. But I don't want a roommate any longer.

bathroom (June 2013)

June 7, 2013 (journal entry):
I stopped at Powell's on the way home from work this afternoon to get books for the [school] kids . . . . And I kept thinking, "Soon this will be my part of town." And it felt really good. I just need the courage to make it happen without major compromises on location, south-facing light, or hardwood flooring.

storage closet (aka "the Garage") (June 2013)

(Returning to the present day . . .)

And so she lived (a little more) happily with her companion-animal cat in her modest-but-charming hundred-year-old downtown-Portland apartment, with original hardwood floors and south-and-west-facing light—though saving no money—until the hundred-year-old brick building next door (the Jefferson West) was clawed down to make way for a tall, shiny apartment tower erected by Nevadan developers, and her landlord raised her rent despite the horrific demolition noise next door, even on Saturdays. But since the corporate property management company explicitly seeks to "maximize rents," she should have known it would end this way. And so she began packing up to hitch a ride out of town.

Dear Mayor Charlie Hales, Portland City Council, and Assorted City Planners,
You claim to be working to make city living affordable for the average person. You want more people to give up their cars and start biking and using public transportation. You want to create more dense, walkable neighborhoods accessible to local retail. But many well educated single professionals like me, earning well above minimum wage, some of whom, like me, have even given up their cars, still can't afford Portland's dense urban neighborhoods without being part of a two-income household or shacking up with roommates into decades long past their college years.
Since nearly three-quarters of Portland-area renters making less than $50,000 a year are already paying more than a third of their income on housing expenses, making such rents officially unaffordable, and since much greater percentages of those in lower income groups (people like myself) are paying over half their incomes on housing and thus officially labeled as "severely burdened"—and, yes, this problem is nationwide, though Portland isn't even close to offering the amenities, culture, and job opportunities of higher-cost places like New York or the Bay Area, the latter where I once lived and was also priced out of—how can they save easily for a down payment on a mortgage (without help from older baby-boomer family members who benefited from living at the apex of the American Empire) to raise themselves from the renter class, when basic living expenses (housing, food, health care, education, transportation) continue to rise and wages aren't keeping up?
When will you start fighting the rentier corporate overlords on behalf of the majority of citizens, the ones actually paying, instead of loophole-dodging, taxes?
—about-to-be-former downtown Portland/Multnomah County resident


room with a view

curtain hanging off interior wall, Jefferson West (September 15th, 2014)

Coming home from work a few weeks ago, I swung open the front door to the shock of a real downtown Portland view—impermanent, but a view of something other than a wall. Let there be light, said God (or, rather, the development company)and south-facing light at that. I can't remember how many times I've stood in my apartment in the last year, especially in winter when trying to snap photos, wishing I had more light. It reminds me of that Oprah quote, "You can have it all. Just not all at once."
Everything has a price. The cost of all this light has been the five Saturdays in a row (and counting) that the demolition crew has woken me up at 7:15 AM on my day off, for the increased layers of dust on everything I own despite closed windows, and for their knocking down those old street-sound-muffling brick walls next door at the Jefferson West into what looks like a war zone, minus the bodies. (No, I haven't forgotten the collateral damage to the pigeons.) But this temporarily bright light is the silver lining in all this mess and something to be grateful for, though my windows are now so clouded with dust I can barely see through them in the afternoon glare.

window view (September 18th, 2014)

And good thing I have curtains now because who knew just how many people congregate at the convenience store across the street, seemingly with nothing better to do, plus all the pedestrians who stop and gawk on the south side of Jefferson Avenue. And then there are all the people living in the taller, newer, shinier apartment buildings on the streets south of me, some of whom may own telescopes.

This post is tardy because a) I've been feeling unsettled over seasonal changes and b) I can barely think on Saturdays anymore because of the incessant earth-mover noise, the persistent beeping, honking, grinding, and crashing—nonstop till around 4 PM. This last Saturday, finally, I began wearing earplugs, but the constant whine still eats into my brain like a head full of bees.

Jefferson West view from kitchen window (September 15th, 2014)

half-torn brick wall, Jefferson West (September 21st, 2014)

rubble in basement, Jefferson West (September 21st, 2014)

brick & rubble piles, Jefferson West demolition site (September 27th, 2014)

I stopped photographing demolition-progress scenes from my windows when I could no longer see clearly out of them, but the novelty of the experience has also worn off—and most of the grief. It's done. The Jefferson West is gone. They're chewing up the east-side basement and sorting the last of the brick, metal, concrete, and wood rubble into piles and hauling it away. Now it's become just another noisy city hassle to be endured, rather than a symbol of larger cultural problems. I spoke with one of the demolition workers at the site last week, asking if the upcoming construction stage would be louder or about the same as the demolition phase, and he said, "Well, when they start pile driving, it'll get really loud." Pile driving, huh? Good to know.

Jefferson West street face (September 18th, 2014)

What's ironic about all this is that my rich landlord, whoever that is, masked by the big property management company, has decided to raise my rent by $165 a month—or by a lesser amount if I sign a new lease and commit to construction hell for the next year—because in this tight housing market he or she can. Everyone make way for the young professionals with lucrative jobs who can afford to spend nearly $2,000 a month on a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in a luxury new-construction building, driving up everyone else's rent. Landowners hold all the power; so when they want more money—and they always want more $$$—renters must fork it over or bow out. But sometimes it's good to have our lives shaken up by external forces (and my walls sometimes do literally shake these days). Sometimes we need to wake up.

workers jackhammering at Jefferson West (September 27th, 2014)

machine chomp, falling bricks, Jefferson West (September 27th, 2014)

One of my life goals is to own my own home outright, with no 15- or 30-year mortgage, no rent, no leases, no payments: owned. That's the closest to security we can ever get (other than the nonattachment of owning nothing at all). Of necessity, that home will need to be nontraditional, handmade, and very small, the only way such a feat is possible for anyone other than those lucky few who inherit property or large amounts of money. I've long dreamed of outfitting a shipping container on a small plot of land with a striking view. Maybe it's time to start thinking about building a tiny house from scratch, using mostly repurposed secondhand materials to cut costs even further. And what if a few single friends bought a plot of city land together and lived in a little modified cohousing community, separate and private but close and able to be more to each other than the usual kind of neighborly? The point is that significant savings can be found by thinking outside the typical boxes.

Regardless, it is foolish to be paying over half my income on housing expenses (rent and utilities) just to live alone. I followed that dangling carrot for the last year, but it's gotten me no closer to my goals than before. And though I love living downtown for its compact conveniences and easy public transportation routes, and while I enjoy my curated secondhand stuff, I dislike paying landlords who live off my labor more than I like high-cost privacy and all these furnishings. What if could instead keep half my hefty rent check each month by downsizing and living with a friend in a cheaper, less convenient part of the metro area? Do I need to own this much stuff? No. Would I need a full-time job? No. Would I want one? Not unless I were self-employed or working to save money to fund my own small paid-off home and thereby gain greater financial freedom. As the slightly modified saying goes, Few ever get rich working for somebody else. The same can be said for paying rent to someone else for the privilege of a few humble rooms in which to cook, bathe, and sleep.

Jefferson West demolition scene (September 15, 2014)

Distinguished French economist Thomas Piketty ends his recently published tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century with the following admonition (p. 577):

[A]ll citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.

My entire life I've detested thinking about practical math related to money, the grubby "root of all evil." It's impossible to return to my late teens and ask some wise adult to sit me down with a compound interest table. My working-class parents, doing the best they knew how, reared me to be a good worker, to expect no wealth or even a real career but instead seek marriage and a modest mortgage, to prepare for life as an unpaid, hardworking homemaker focused on child rearing with a straight view to the afterlife, where all the rewards of good behavior lay. Yet, though I rejected that religious upbringing, look where those residual ideologies combined with my own willful financial ignorance and poor choices have gotten me: a divorced woman in her early 40s with no debt and a pretty, thriftily-furnished apartment but no real savings, having like the proverbial ostrich avoided basic fiscal realities.

three Portland buildings (September 18th, 2014)

Americans are living amid the greatest income disparity between rich and poor since 1928, with global warming the looming elephant in the room about to, as Naomi Klein argues, "change everything"—climate run amok. Is the modern status quo of two-earner, 30-year mortgages working well for most U.S. families or primarily for the rentier 1% who feed off others' labor and debt? How many Americans are actually content with their lives and not popping antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds or else overeating, overdrinking, or overspending to relieve stress? How many people have zero debt, plenty of savings, and enough time to give back to their communities, let alone for building strong family relationships and social support networks crucial to health? While nothing short of mass revolution (or implosion) will topple entrenched structural systems to make life fairer and more sustainable, I can at least make better personal finance decisions within the existing flawed framework, bypassing the mortgage-debt-worker trap by diving deeper into simple living principles, essentially experimenting on myself. What's left to lose? So after the little external shakeup this week and much subsequent reflection, I will be returning to shared housing—but this time by choice and with a clear goal and thus increased motivation to perpetuate a widening cycle of downsizing and saving. And that gives me the most hope I've felt in a long time.

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