Sitting at the bar in Portland’s Ace Hotel last summer, sipping a tart Negroni cocktail – barrel-aged for added flavor and novelty – while nibbling a circular sliver of pork head roulade presented as a bite-size bar snack, I pondered how it could have taken me so long to make my first visit here.
I was at the tail end of five days of gorging, imbibing and highly caffeinating my way through Oregon’s trendy riverfront city, the wonderland of craft cocktails, pour-over coffees and competitive burlesque that has practically become synonymous with the word “hipster.”
Portland’s over-the-top organic-obsessed aesthetic is lovingly skewered on the hit IFC comedy “Portlandia,” in a depiction that I found not so far from what the city’s like in real life. And as a craft-cocktail-and-coffee-loving East Coaster myself, I was happy to embrace it.
But I also found myself wondering something else while daydreaming at the Ace that afternoon: Where was the old Portland? This is, after all, a frontier logging town and shipbuilding port city with half a million residents. Surely there must be something to see here that predates Portlandia?
On the advice of several locals, I took my search for pre-hipster Portland north of downtown, riding the light rail to the North Denver Avenue stop, where I was immediately greeted by a 31-foot-tall concrete-and-metal statue of logging legend Paul Bunyan. The bearded, plaid-clad likeness was erected not, as I’d first suspected, by modern irony-loving Portlanders but with absolute earnestness for the 1959 Portland Centennial Exposition.
From there I walked over to the St. Johns neighborhood, which, like several other far-north parts of Portland, is centered on its own distinctive “downtown” strip, one of the remnants of the small towns that were annexed by this growing city in the early 20th century.
St. Johns became part of Portland in 1915 and today perhaps best epitomizes the city’s mix of old and new. Many of the very vintage establishments here might be mistaken for imitation retro outposts in another part of town, but most of them are in fact family-owned spots that are actually many decades old.
At Pattie’s Home Plate Cafe, an eccentric mix of diner/costume shop/toy store, you can dig into a hefty slice of coconut cream pie while shopping for vintage Barbie dolls, then browse for outfits to wear to the upcoming Saturday sock hop. The neighboring 73-year-old Lion’s Den Man’s Shop is a classic haberdashery that used that word long before it became cool.
Down the road, Tulip Pastry Shop is a pint-size storefront covered in classic-car memorabilia.
A little less than a year later, I returned to Portland this summer with my new girlfriend, who was receiving an award from her alma mater, the University of Portland, which is just a neighborhood over from St. Johns.
A few blocks away, the 1904 Central Hotel is also in the middle of a facelift, with a trio of locals reviving the dilapidated building, once a hub of St. Johns’s booming downtown but in more recent years known as the neighborhood’s seediest tavern.
The partners plan to reopen the Central in 2014 as a boutique hotel, one they hope will retain the neighborhood’s existing character. Of course, some old-timers are resistant to the new businesses coming in.
Yet Risa Boyd Davis, one of the project’s partners, isn’t worried that the neighborhood will lose its charm.
“All the young people moving in also have that independent streak,” she says. “Even though they’re starting to build synergy around it being a hip new place to hang out, it’s still unique. I think it will keep the independence.”