In defense of Salem, Oregon

Selfie of Jason Cox and Gov. Kate Brown at a rally on the Capitol steps.

Selfie of Jason Cox and Gov. Kate Brown at a rally on the Capitol steps.

By Jason Cox

Almost everyone I’ve met in Salem falls into two “never” camps: Never left their hometown, or never intended to end up here.

The latter describes me, but I’d call it more of a happy accident.

I had no idea how poor Salem’s reputation was among Oregonians until I got here. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Internet:

This bumper sticker upset enough locals that KATU did a story about it.

This bumper sticker upset enough locals that KATU did a story.

“It’s often forgotten that this patch of flat, grassy land along Mill Creek, originally valued as a suitable site for a grist mill, is also our state’s capital, despite Oregon voters twice choosing Eugene instead.” — Willamette Week

“It’s boring. Plain and simple. A ton of elderly people and others high on crystal meth.” — Some dude on the Internet

I followed my wife here so she could attend law school at Willamette University, and we landed just as the economy was entering a years-long tailspin, the effects of which I wrongly blamed on our new home.

Coming from the South, I blamed the scarcity of barbecue and soul food on a soulless community. (It turns out the Northwest just doesn’t do this kind of thing much.) And speaking of food, we’d find a new restaurant, only to watch it close. I complained about the lack of nightlife, despite the fact that we rarely partake in it. I bitched about having to drive to Portland or Eugene to watch a band I’d heard of play.

The Oregon State Capitol adds a touch of class to downtown Salem.

The Oregon State Capitol adds a touch of class to downtown Salem.

Because we had friends in Portland, we spent most of our social calls there, making it hard for us to make connections in Salem — another logical fallacy that was ultimately our fault. The last governor even refused to live here.

But enough trash talk. The meth problem is true enough, but that’s a larger issue.

Since everywhere has its upsides and downsides, let’s review what makes Salem great:

  • You can buy a nice house without selling off your first-born for a down payment.
  • No traffic unless you’re crossing the bridges at rush hour (and that’s your fault for moving to west Salem).
  • Super nice and fun people — but you have to go find them. Just like everywhere else.
  • You can take selfies with the new governor, who unlike her predecessor is not too cool to reside in the governor’s mansion.
  • Speaking of politics, if you enjoy participating you can get involved in almost any cause you can imagine at both the state and local levels. You can even make a career out of it.
  • The dining scene has grown so that there’s more good restaurants than there is time to visit them all. (Add to this a decent variety of ethnic foods as well.)
  • And you don’t have to wait an hour-plus for a table on the weekend.
  • An impressive parks system for a city our size, plus you get the grandeur of the state’s Capitol Mall.
  • Enough wineries to tour for a week and not see the same one twice.
  • Minor-league baseball! OK, so the stadium is in Keizer and I don’t like baseball, but that’s not Salem’s fault! I’m a football fanatic. And Oregon’s two Pac-12 teams are a short drive away.
  • Proximity to many other great places: Portland, Eugene, the beach, the Cascade foothills and gambling are all within a 90-minute drive tops.
  • Less rain than Portland!  
  • Yes, we have craft beer, craft whiskey, micro roast coffee and probably even artisan meth if you look hard enough. (Don’t look hard enough.)

Dont-MethI joke about how people ended up here — but speaking of anecdotes, I’ve also noticed lots of very talented Salem-area natives who may have left to attend school, learn a trade, etc., coming home to open restaurants, create art or otherwise contribute to the local culture and economy.

It’s a lesson that no place is static, and to paraphrase Tower of Power, what’s passe yesterday might become hip today.

The lack of nationally-known entertainment is still a problem. For the foreseeable future I’ll be regularly traveling to Portland, Eugene or the casinos for a show. But hey, we’ll always have the state fair. (Dear Portland: Don’t you dare touch our fair. Kisses, Jason)

Jason Cox does not engage in the “Salemite vs. Salemanders” discussion, but will discuss other inane topics on Twitter at @jasonrcox.


Editor’s note: Jason Cox is married to public servant Alana Cox, which makes him the very cool son-in-law of our friends Tom and Elsa Guiney. He’s a former journalist now working for a labor union and is one of a handful of Tennessee Titans fans in Oregon.

Tomorrow: “Cartwheels and headaches” by Nike Bentley


10 thoughts on “In defense of Salem, Oregon

  1. Thanks for highlighting the positives of Salem, Jason. My wife and I are fellow residents of Salem, transplanted, years ago, from somewhere else. For a few years, we bemoaned the fact that Salem was middle-ground, unexciting, not for the young. We got over it. We settled into work routines, developed great friendships and played and partied with our friends. When we wanted to head out of town, within a few minutes we had left the city limits and were on our way to Portland, Eugene, the coast or the mountains. And on most any day in any direction, the length of rush hour is usually about thirty minutes. On my bike, from our home in south Salem, I can easily get out of town and ride on the beautiful back roads surrounding the area.
    We still go to Portland to visit friends, attend concerts or enjoy the various restaurants or unique shops not found in Salem, but when the day is done we can head home, knowing the joys of Portland are less than an hour away.

  2. I like Salem but I’ve never lived there to see the pros and cons as only being a resident can know. Thanks for showcasing what is good about a town I’ve only visited.

  3. Salem’s not so bad! It has made me appreciate state capitols. I am so happy Jason was willing to join me here, and staying has turned out to be a happy accident. The drive from Salem to Portland isn’t that different from the drive from one end of Portland to the other in rush hour. I have learned to love living in an under-the-radar under-appreciated city. My favorite part- never having to wait for a table (except for the chain restaurants on Lancaster on a weekend night, or the tiny brunch spot Word of Mouth).

  4. I have always loved the area surrounding the town. All those little towns in the valley; Mt. Angel, Silverton, Amity and all the rest. They are all gems. Salem has a lot of great things about it. I was there when we had a full solar eclipse and it was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. Salem is plenty alive!

  5. Great piece, Jason! At least you can still proudly identify yourself as an urban-dweller. Life-long suburbanites like me (read: Beaverton) must register the lowest levels on your hip-odometer!

  6. I find my days and nights are best enjoyed in the company of friends or family, if available — in any town I’ve lived in. And capitol buildings are pretty!!! As you admit, find people who’ll eat your bbq and you’re golden. Game on.

  7. Every city has its assets – glad you’re discovering Salem’s! But, “artisan meth”? What a great description of a social scourge!

  8. To each their own, my parents met while their families lived there, my wife was born and raised there and for over 35 years we’ve been going there for family events.

    Still can’t figure out why??

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