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The Best Thing about Portland

What's in common among East Burnside Street, Lombard, Sandy, Belmont, Hawthorne, NW 21st, SE Milwaukie? The answer: neighborhood movie theaters that have survived suburbanization, television, and Netflix.

When I arrived in 1978, neighborhood theaters were the second distinctive thing I noticed about Portland (all those bridges were the first, of course). Neighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They're the spotted owls of urban lifeNeighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They're the spotted owls of urban life, an indicator species for a rich ecology of neighborhood-oriented businesses and services. Local theaters that still showed family films were already extraordinary for most cities by the 1970s, but not in Portland. Many of the theaters are still here, admittedly improved by beer and pizza and augmented by cool conversions by McMenamin's.

The neighborhood business districts are still here as well. They've changed — no surprise — starting with SE Hawthorne. Twenty-five years ago I told students that Portland would be "fixed" when Alberta Street was thriving. North Mississippi as a hip hotspot didn't occur to me. Neighborhood business strips are such a strong component of the Portland economy that we're not only recycling the streetcar era districts but creating new ones from whole cloth — North Williams? Go figure...

I've been able to watch the transformation at NE 15th and Fremont, a five minute walk from my house. This corner was up for grabs a quarter century ago — where the working class Sabin neighborhood bumped up against middle-class Irvington, where African American Albina met the white world of Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby.

The corner's retail history dates to the 1920s, when new drugstores, groceries, and barbershops served the growing streetcar neighborhoods. Forty years later, as suburbs boomed and city leaders worried, the city helped developers clear two blocks for a suburban style strip mall. This was supposed to be a Good Thing, like a micro version of the half-assed Renaissance Center in Detroit, but the main tenant was a ghetto grocery where lettuce went to die under the watchful eyes of security guards.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the ghetto grocery is now Whole Foods.Fast forward to the 21st century, and the ghetto grocery is now Whole Foods. The Albina Branch Library does a thriving business. The very basic dry cleaner and laundromat have given way to a birdseed shop, veterinarian, and computer repair. Police officers hang out at Starbucks (so much for doughnut jokes). The storefront church and the African American barber shop have been replaced by restaurants, gift stores, and a holistic counselor.

So what's happening? Gentrification? For sure. There was a tipping point about a dozen years ago when we began to see more white people than black people along Fremont east of 15th. Then there were as many white guys as black guys playing basketball at Irving Park. And a resale store aimed at 20ish people trying to furnish their apartments replaced Mrs. C's Wig Shop at Fremont and 7th. There's only one black-oriented business remaining.

But commercial gentrification is also neighborhood recycling. The 1920s storefronts have different businesses, but they have also survived, and the blocks are a walking destination for two neighborhoods — a model of sorts for the post-petroleum city.

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Carl Abbott is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He is the author of How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America as well as several books about Portland history, including his latest, Portland in Three Centuries.

Books mentioned in this post

Carl Abbott is the author of Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People

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