There’s this smell—
Okay. So you’ve just eaten a bowl of Wheaties. And you’re in a hurry, you’ve got to get out the door and catch a bus to go to work. So you dump the bowl in the sink and make some half-assed promise to yourself to wash it when you get home. But you go out after work and there’s some beer or maybe you go to that place just up the street which has the Tom Waits which is basically a Manhattan made with Knob Creek and it’s blasphemous on a number of levels and pricey to boot, but who cares while you’re sipping it and admiring the shrine to the Unknown Gentleman Caller up there above the restrooms, but the point is there’s drinking and conviviality and you roll in late and wake up bleary and dash down some coffee because, you know, you have to catch the bus to go to work, and you’ve just barely got time to maybe catch a bagel on the way in, and then that night, let’s say it’s Friday night, you’re going out with some friends, maybe a video festival at somebody else’s place, and whether there’s booze or not doesn’t really matter but there is more conviviality, and you end up rolling in late again, so it’s Saturday morning after a cup of coffee before you’re ready to deal with the sink where you find that bowl you ate the Wheaties out of a couple of days before, and did I mention it’s summer and you don’t have air conditioning?
So you blow off the bowl and the rest of the dishes and head back into town, maybe go to Powell’s, there at the edge of Portland’s Pearl District, and this is back in 1998, by the way, or early 1999, when Anodyne was still hitting the streets and the Blitz-Weinhard brewery was cooking up a batch of Henry’s every couple of days—late nights or even some early afternoons you could wander through the streets of the Pearl accompanied by the musical clink of empty bottles shuttling at a mad pace along the conveyor belt that stretched over 11th (I think it was 11th) from one building to the next, and when the batch being brewed had hit just the right point in its zymurgic maturation, well, that whole little pocket of refabbed light-industrial and warehouses-becoming-lofts and hole-in-the-wall diners and nautical supply shops and the biggest used bookstore in the world would all pretty much smell like that dried-out faintly fermenting bowl you’d eaten the Wheaties from a couple of days before. (Cf. a half-eaten bag of Fritos; also, gym socks under certain difficult-to-reproduce conditions.)
Blitz-Weinhard is gone now. Henry’s is brewed in California somewhere, by Miller, and the old brewery buildings they didn’t tear down are being refitted as lofts and offices and upscale retail. They’re doing a better job of it than not—certainly, it’s a better world there than the one where Paul Allen replaces Memorial Coliseum with a fucking big-box retail park Jantzen Beach clone. There’s a grocery store downtown, now—pricey, and with a nasty labor-relations history, but they stock Bert Grant’s IPA and green wine, so color me conflicted—and if some of the new builds are ugly as sin, some of the refits are temptingly neo-urban hipster cozy—railroad lofts with reading lights shining cheerfully through hazy glass-brick walls opening onto loading docks, that sort of thing.
And the smell is gone. But.
Yes, it’s a story as old as real estate: as a city grows and its infrastructure improves, the transportation hubs and industrial nuclei can be shunted from points downtown to outlying campuses (in this case, various industrial parks heading up the Willamette River from Swan Island to Rivergate, at the confluence with the Columbia); the old warehouses and factories left behind close and decay, rent out dirt-cheap to artists and other disreputable bohemian types, and funky restaurants spring up and shut down and spring up again, galleries open, people start taking to its funky recycled industrial charm, the exposed brick and rusting I-beams and roads laid with railroad tracks so boxcars full of grain and bone meal can trundle through the streets at midnight making deliveries to the factories still manufacturing and the massive amounts of open square footage at low low monthly rates; somebody organizes a regular open gallery night, First Thursday of every month, the galleries get giddy, there’s cheap red wine and Ritz crackers a go-go, buskers start showing up, and there’s upscale galleries showing aggressively minimalist stuff in white white rooms cheek-by-jowl with scrappy low-rent award-winning photo studios and the just plain weird shit, like the art cars and that old warehouse that had the row of ratty theater seats sitting on the loading dock and the perpetual indie-rock band practicing in a loft somewhere upstairs (drums and bass echoing in the duct work, unseen guitars crunching to life and stuttering to a stop as the song stumbles and falls over and gets back up again) and the stuff, the stuff on the floors and the walls, light bulb sculptures and weird Da Vinci wing-things and giant canvasses like what Cy Twombly might have painted if Cy Twombly had been that stoner at the back of your junior high homeroom with the spiral-bound notebooks and that pen that clicks through four or five colors of ink. —You don’t want to know how much it costs to buy a condo in that warehouse now. Success raises rents, artists are replaced by boutiques, development money comes pouring in and if there’s a dot com boom that leads Wieden + Kennedy to relocate their offices smack in the middle of the whole shebang, it just exacerbates the process. And not to draw too deeply from the well of stereotype and cliché, but now there’s cell phones and sunglasses and lattés and valet parking for your SUV outside bars which still open on loading docks, and some of those old freight rail lines have been paved over because they were wrecking the suspensions of those SUVs. First Thursday is still a great walk, yes, and there’s loads of stuff yet to see and laugh at and be surprised by, and they still get the buskers and the sidewalk hustlers and the art cars. Heck, there’s even still a smell: William Pope.L has a branch of eRacism up at PICA, which involves paintings with peanut butter and mayonnaise, onions and pop tarts, a map made out of hotdogs, and a room full of liquor and stuffed animals. It’s been pretty rank walking past the ground floor of W+K these past few early summer weeks.
But it isn’t the same smell. —And there’s more missing: most of the local artists, for instance, who’ve chased cheap rents across the river to Northeast Alberta Street, where Last Thursday has something of the anarchic anything-goes vitality of First Thursdays gone by. Though not without doing some displacing themselves. —As old as real estate, then, and as cyclical as the seasons: though the first wave of boutiques in the Pearl District is starting to close now that the tide of dot com money has receded into memory, the second wave (more with the Thai restaurants and bank branches and less with the avant garde lighting solutions) is rolling in. And so (he said) it goes.
I was moved to sling these streams of consciousness about by the report in today’s Portland Tribune that the last freight rail car made its last delivery to pretty much the last working factory in the Pearl in the wee hours of Sunday morning: a cargo of pig, cow, and chicken carcasses for a bone and blood meal pet food factory. Cities change, and that’s good and that’s bad, and I’ve been living here for almost eight years—longer that I’ve ever lived in any one place before; perhaps that makes it all the more keen. There was something special about a downtown with an active industrial core intermixed with shops and offices and lofts. But that particular temp is now perdu; doff your hat as the rail car trundles by.
Just don’t wrinkle your nose too much. And watch out for the puddle of pig’s blood—that’ll be hosed down by tomorrow, never fear.
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