My grandparents arrived in Eastern Oregon in the 1930s and raised their two daughters in various farming communities. One of them stayed, married, and has been farming around Vale since the 1950s. But one of them--my mom--decided to head off to the big city to seek her fortune. Thus was I born and raised (mostly) in Boise, Idaho. I made my way back to Oregon to attend college here, arriving when I was just a few years younger than my grandparents had been fifty years before me. That was 1986.
|Portrait of the blogger as a |
young man (with mother).
In the mid-eighties, Portland was a poor, rough town. Portland had 66 murders in 1987--one of the highest rates in the country (the current ten year average is 24, and the city's a good deal larger now). It felt dangerous; there were places you didn't go. It was a visibly racially divided town. A century of racist policies had concentrated black Portlanders into a section of the Northeast, a poor section neglected by the city. Crimes of all kinds routine throughout the city, and petty theft was so common I just started leaving my car unlocked so people wouldn't break the windows to get in and discover there wasn't anything worth stealing. You were lucky indeed if you managed to avoid having your car, apartment, or house broken in to. For many of us, it was a regular experience.
Unlike many larger cities elsewhere in the country, Portland was never an industrial hub, but rather the focal point for the extractive industries that dominated the state's economy until the 1970s (logging, commercial fishing, ranching, and farming). Until a few years after I arrived, you'd still see giant flotillas of Douglas fir being pulled down the river. The reason Kurt Cobain wore flannel was not because it was a proto-lumbersexual moment in music and fashion, but because he came from Aberdeen, the heart of the Washington logging industry. In Portland about half the men wore jeans and flannel, but they were work clothes, not affectations.
Portland also didn't have industrial wealth that cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh had to build symphony halls and theaters. This led to a distinctly DIY approach that has been fundamental to the city's ethos. But it also meant there wasn't a lot of money to improve the city. Small businesses were run on a shoestring in provisional spaces in buildings that hadn't been much improved in 75 years.
Of course, a lot of this affected things like breweries, which required capital startup budgets. Banks wouldn't even look at them. (Karl Ockert, founding brewer at BridgePort, famously reported that one of the banks he went to told him, "Breweries don't open, they shut down.") Fortunately, dairy equipment was cheap and plentiful, and rents were cheap. Entrepreneurs who wanted to start breweries could get off the ground with relatively small investments (usually from personal savings, family and friends). Breweries were, in this way, much like other businesses. They were started by industrious but often cash-poor entrepreneurs who strapped their breweries together with baling wire in less-desirable precincts of the city.
To get a sense of how much the city's geography has changed, let's start with the warehouse district behind the Henry Weinhard Brewery on Burnside. Immediately adjacent to downtown, it was in the mid-1980s almost vacant. Warehouses filled the blocks, but the streets were empty. It was as if a catastrophe had happened and forced all the people to leave suddenly. This was, predictably, a place of cheap rents, which ultimately led to its revival as artists moved into the warehouse and created lofts. A few galleries followed, and so did a few other businesses--like the three new breweries that opened between 1984-'86.
Throughout the 1990s, city planners planned, and around the turn of the century it was rebranded "the Pearl District" and soon the wealthy began displacing the artists. In the decade and a half since, it has become the city's wealthiest enclave, a mini-Manhattan home to people with the kind of wealth no one seemed to have in the 1980s.