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This week, we're looking at cities in transition, as demographics shifts in American cities and suburbs. And here's a trend: Every year, thousands of 20-somethings move to Portland, Oregon. Many of these new residents don't have kids or a mortgage, which is a good thing, because many of them also don't have jobs. And there are not a lot of jobs in Portland.

Amelia Templeton reports on why people keep coming.

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Hundreds of food carts have taken over empty parking lots downtown. You can get everything from Pad Thai to a fried pie.

In one cart, Jonathon Balderi is handing a customer a cheeseburger.

Mr. JONATHON BALDERI (Food Cart Operator): There you are. Thank you. (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

TEMPLETON: Balderi is 28, and like a lot of young people here, he came to Portland to get away from somewhere else.

Mr. BALDERI: My ex-girlfriend decided to go to art school here, and I wanted to leave Pennsylvania.

TEMPLETON: Behind Balderi in the cart, Quentin Gardiner is huddled over the grill. Gardiner says he had to get out of Binghamton, New York. All he knew about Portland was it had a great heavy metal rock scene. And he says he's found a lot of people like himself here.

Mr. QUENTIN GARDINER (Food Cart Operator): This seems to be a Mecca for the misplaced, half-cast rock-and-rollers. A lot of half-rican, halfie, half-black, half-white rockers out here and metal heads and punk rockers. I like that a lot. It seems to be that I chose the correct place to come, if this is where we're all flocking to.

TEMPLETON: Portland has scooped up 20-somethings from shrinking cities in the Northeast and the Midwest. It gets the kids who dream of being in a rock band. But the city has also drawn well-educated, young professionals. In fact, the entire population is growing: African-Americans, whites and Hispanics. Standing in the rain at this food cart is economist Joe Cortright.

Mr. JOE CORTRIGHT (Economist): Talent is becoming more concentrated in some cities, and moving away from other cities.

TEMPLETON: Twenty years ago, the percentage of people with college degrees here was lower than the national average. Now, it's more than 10 points higher, about 40 percent. Cortright says the grads aren't just coming for high-tech jobs.

Mr. CORTRIGHT: People in the Portland metropolitan area are much more likely to be engaged in almost any form of outdoor recreation. We have more microbreweries than any other city in the United States.

TEMPLETON: Yup. Beer and the great outdoors. Turns out the stereotypes about Portland are largely true. In fact, right next to us at a Korean food cart, a young attorney in a fleece is picking up lunch. His name is John Sterm, and he moved to Portland from Oklahoma.

Mr. JOHN STERM (Attorney): I do a lot of home brewing, and I've got an amazing number of folks who are into that scene. Biking to work and knowing that so many of my friends and peers are in that community and that culture is great.

Mr. CHRISTIAN KAYLOR (Oregon State Economist): I can't think of another explanation besides quality of life.

TEMPLETON: That's state economist Christian Kaylor. He says wages here are sometimes 20 percent lower than in Seattle or San Francisco, but people keep coming. In fact, Portland's appeal is part of why the city's unemployment rate tends to be about a point higher than the national average.

Mr. KAYLOR: In recessions, Portland tends to see population growth, even as we lose jobs. So one of the reasons we have that higher unemployment rate is because people do continue to move here, even as jobs disappear.

TEMPLETON: Kaylor says the city's strong brand as a livable place makes it more attractive to companies, too.

Mr. KAYLOR: I'll tell a story.

TEMPLETON: It's about Sun Microsystems asking some of its employees if they would relocate. The company was trying to decide whether to shutter a plant in Portland or in Silicon Valley.

Mr. KAYLOR: And the responses were night and day. The skilled California workers they wanted to keep were enthusiastic about relocating their family to the Portland area. The Portland employees who were skilled indicated that they would quit rather than relocate in the Bay Area.

TEMPLETON: While Portland companies have a great pool of talent to draw on, it's not a diverse pool. Portland is still about 80 percent white. And there are historical reasons for that. Oregon voted to outlaw slavery, but for 75 years, voters also banned blacks from moving here. During World War II, thousands of African-Americans came to Portland to work in the booming shipyards. But in 1948, the Columbia River flooded and permanently destroyed the neighborhood where the shipbuilders lived.

Today, it's not ships, but rather chips and sneakers - Intel and Nike - that offer a livable wage. Enrique Washington helps these large firms recruit minority candidates. He says his clients want a diverse staff to help them innovate and connect to consumers.

Mr. ENRIQUE WASHINGTON (Job Recruiter): The more diverse culture you have, the better your stock prices do.

TEMPLETON: In fact, Portlanders often mention the engineers at Intel as an example of diversity here. Washington says Portland is slowly growing more diverse. There's a lot of international migration, and about 10 percent of the city is Hispanic. But, he says, minority recruits worry there's not a strong community to raise their children in.

Mr. WASHINGTON: People have not made a decision to move here, because a lack of people of their particular color, be it Hispanic, be it African-American, be it Asian-American.

TEMPLETON: So cities like Portland that don't have much diversity to start with struggle to attract it.

Back at the food carts, I ask Gardiner - the half-black rocker - if Portland's whiteness bothers him. He says it all depends on your frame of reference. Portland may only be six percent African-American, but he's lived in whiter places.

Mr. GARDINER: So, to me, it's actually got a pretty reasonable-size black community. I see blacks - I can look down this street, and I can spot a black person somewhere. See?

TEMPLETON: If you are considering moving here, Gardiner's heavy metal band is looking for a drummer.

For NPR News in Portland, Oregon, I'm Amelia Templeton.

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INSKEEP: We're looking at cities in transition all week, and you can find more stories from this series at npr.org. Next, we travel to Phoenix to find out why foreign-born workers are faring better in this economy than people who were native-born.

Unidentified Woman: I think it's flexibility and a certain desperation.

INSKEEP: That's coming tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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