Among the young and single, Portland’s dating scene has gotten an unfortunate reputation.
“I’ve been told many times since I moved here that it’s hard to be single here,” said Devin Green, an unattached 31-year-old woman who has been living in the city for about a year.
Long winters, reserved demeanors and inescapable exes are reasons why people say Portland can be a difficult place to date. But a look at the data shows it shouldn’t be.
With more than 15,000 residents ages 20 to 34 and unmarried – about a quarter of the city’s adult population – the concentration of young, single people is about the same in Portland as it is in New York City, and is twice as high as in Maine as a whole.
The percentage of those people with profiles on Match.com makes most of the rest of New England look like an online-dating desert. And as for the number of bars per capita – a figure that’s often used to rate the best cities for singles – even nightlife hot spots like Las Vegas and New Orleans can’t hold a cocktail to Portland, where there’s a drinking establishment for every 1,000 residents.
As the Old Port’s outdoor patios opened up and singles flooded from their apartments looking for summer love, we aimed to figure out how Portland got its bad rap and whether a good mate is really that hard to find here.
Caitlin Cleary and Kelly Robinson, both 23 and in relationships, said they wouldn’t expect to meet someone they want to date at a bar, like Amigo’s, where they shared nachos at happy hour on a recent Thursday.
But for Robinson, meeting her boyfriend through mutual friends posed its own problems. His friends were also friends with her ex, she said, and once they started dating, there wasn’t room for everyone.
Cleary said it’s a common problem in Portland, where it seems there’s never more than two degrees of separation between you and a suitor.
“Everyone knows each other,” she said. “If I were single and met someone new, there’s going to be 10 people I know that are going to have something to say about that person.”
Although Cleary sees that as a downside to dating here, Abbie McGilvery likes the fact that getting insight into a potential new partner is only a phone call away – often to someone who has already dated that person.
“It’s easy to figure out who are the good ones and who are the bad ones real quick,” said McGilvery, 32, a mom and entrepreneur who doesn’t like to waste her time.
Tim Durbin, 33, called the interconnectedness of the community “a double-edged sword.” Although the singles pool can feel small, he said, when you want to get introduced to someone new, you’re likely to know someone who can help.
And that’s important in Portland, where striking up a conversation with a stranger is harder than it is in other parts of the country, said Durbin, who’s originally from Maryland and now lives single on Munjoy Hill.
“People are a little more austere in Maine. It’s a little harder to break the ice,” he said.
ALTERNATIVES TO ONLINE DATING
Joe Gallant, who’s 27 and single, said he finds it easiest to chat people up at places like music shows or Portland Sea Dogs games – venues that come with conversation topics.
That’s the idea behind Local Flames, a new Portland-based dating service that organizes events for singles, from paddling trips to mixology classes. At a tasting and tour of the Urban Farm Fermentory this month, singles stood around sampling hard cider while chatting with friends, making small talk with strangers and surveying the crowd.
“There’s tons of great people in Portland and tons of great events going on,” said Erin Oldham, the founder of Local Flames. Her concept was to take the guessing out of the dating game and get people together who are single and looking.
Stefan Apse, 33, who attended the event, said he appreciates the honest approach. “There are lots of people who are trying to meet people,” he said.
Apse, who has lived in several smaller towns, said he moved to Portland because he thought he’d have a better chance of finding a partner in the city. He tried online dating with some success, but exhausted that option without finding the perfect match. Still, he’s optimistic.
“I think people get disheartened really easily,” Apse said. “There’s lots of awesome people in Portland, beautiful women and people who are engaged and excited about life.”
FOR ONE SINGLE, MOVING NO HELP
Emily Straubel, 30, had to learn that the hard way. Sick of seeing exes and their new love interests around town, she escaped across the country when she was in her early 20s. But the dating scene in Los Angeles, while active, wasn’t the answer.
“The number of people that I actually clicked with was so low. I’d have to go on 20 dates to find one person that I really connected with,” said Straubel, who has since moved back to Portland, where she said she has something in common with every guy she dates. “They’re active, they’re artistic, they’re well read, they’re interesting,” she said.
Straubel – a sex blogger for her own website, The Red Lipstick Project, and for the Portland Press Herald’s sister site, MaineToday.com – has some advice about dating in Portland that she wishes she could have given to her younger self:
“Get over yourself. Get out of your own way,” she said. “We get so caught up in the mindset of our dating life that we forget to actually date.”
HIGH PORTLAND USE OF MATCH.COM
About 5 percent of Portland’s single residents ages 20 to 34 are putting themselves out there with photos on Match.com. That’s more than in most New England cities, including Burlington, Vermont, where 3.5 percent of young singles have profiles with pictures, and Providence, Rhode Island, where less than 2 percent are active on Match.com.
The exception is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where nearly 7 percent of young singles use the site. But the concentration of eligible mates there is relatively low, with 20 percent of Portsmouth’s adult population under 35 and unmarried, compared with 26.5 percent in Portland, according to U.S. Census data.
In a random selection of cities known as cultural centers, Portland falls smack in the middle for singles per capita – lower than Boston and Austin, Texas, but higher than Seattle and San Francisco.
SMALL CITY HELPS – AND HINDERS
Arthur Malov, an instructor for the International Dating Coach Association in New York City, said there’s a better predictor of whether a city is a good place to date. “We find that a lot of it is really about density,” Malov said.
He said dating in New York, where people congregate in skyscrapers and on the subway, is easier than in Los Angeles, which is more spread out, because of the number of opportunities for people to interact.
There’s no question that Portland is ripe for unplanned run-ins. Just ask Katie Wasowski, 28, and Marc McDonald, 34.
The two were supposed to meet for the first time on a blind date, but as they were making plans over the phone to get drinks at LFK, they realized they were driving past each other in the parking lot of Planet Fitness. So they got out of their cars and finished their conversation in person. They have been together ever since.
That’s the fairy tale scenario. Constantly seeing people from one’s past is the more common – and uncomfortable – kind of chance encounter in Portland, Straubel said.
Back when she cared, “I felt like I was under a microscope at the time, I couldn’t do anything,” she said.
As Straubel does now, Green, the Portland woman who was cautioned about being single here, believes that dating is all about attitude – and her approach in Portland has been not to take that warning to heart. “I think the dating scene depends on the person,” she said.
Perhaps all Portland needs is more willing participants.
“It’s a dating city,” Straubel said. “I feel like everyone’s convinced that it’s not.”