Downtown Portland: The Central Hub of the City’s Many Strange Spokes

by Nick Hilden  |  Published November 21, 2014

Since the turn of the millennium, Portland has become renowned as a haven for the offbeat and bizarre. While this popularity has led to the inevitable influx of gentrification to its downtown and other neighborhoods, it still retains a healthy dose of its unique lifestyle and atmosphere.

Southwest Broadway, Downtown Portland (Photo:  A. Davey via Flickr)

Southwest Broadway, Downtown Portland (Photo: A. Davey via Flickr)

When I first moved to Portland in 2007, Lefty and Jerry were still alive. Everyone loved Lefty but no one except me liked Jerry, and I only got along with him because I had met him in Paris a number of years earlier, where he sold roses. Apparently he sold enough to move to the United States, to Portland, where he continued to support himself by hawking roses from bar to bar, and where he was eventually murdered.

I bring up Lefty and Jerry because they were typical downtown Portland characters. Lefty was a one-armed guitar player who used to perform on the street and make a pretty decent living. He had a gravel-heavy voice that would have made Tom Waits envious, and he strummed his guitar using a pick that was attached to the hook where his arm had once been. With their passing, a little bit of Portland’s now-famous weirdness slipped away, and regardless of what people thought of them, each represented a dying breed of strangeness that the city is struggling to retain.

When Little Cities Grow Up

Downtown Portland is changing. Boxed in by the bridges of the Willamette River to the east and the hills of Beaverton to the west, the downtown area doesn’t have much breathing room, and with the city’s growing popularity, the old is slowly being rubbed out in favor of the new. It’s similar to what Seattle experienced during the 1990’s, but Seattle’s downtown region was less corralled, so there was space to grow outward.

But while the inescapable current of gentrification is flowing through the streets, there are still some of the crude, ugly, yet delightful bottom-feeders of the bizarre that stubbornly refuse to be condoed out of existence.

The Central Nerve

Opinions differ as to where the most important elements of Portland can be found – with major arterials such as Alberta, Mississippi, Hawthorne, and NW 23rd posing as heavy contenders – but it’s difficult to deny that Burnside Street is anything less than the spine that supports many of the city’s most renowned locations.

Running directly through the middle of the city, Burnside’s epicenter is planted firmly at Powell’s City of Books, which – filling a solid square city block – is purported as the largest independent used bookstore in the world. This massive cathedral of the written word is every bibliophile’s paradise. Miles of bookshelves run through its many rooms, and it’s easy to spend several hours at a time wandering its wares.

Powell's City of Books. (Photo: Rick Chung via Flickr)

Powell’s City of Books. (Photo: Rick Chung via Flickr)

A Song for Every Mood

Burnside is also flocked by some of Portland’s most renowned music venues. From the big theaters like McMenamins Crystal Ballroom and the Roseland to smaller rooms like Dante’s and the Ash Street Saloon (my #1 recommendation if you’re looking for live music), there is a show to fit pretty much any taste available every night of the week.

North of Burnside you find the Pearl District (an upscale neighborhood which will take up another article entirely) and the Old Town/Chinatown region, which is home to the Portland dance club scene. This is also where you’ll find some of the most glaring evidence of money moving to town as condos take over the riverside.

Head south, and downtown takes on a distinctly retail vibe. From Oak Street to Salmon, this is where you find all of the big box stores, the mall, the clothing boutiques, and homeless street kids begging – or bucket drumming – for change.

If there is one gem that I can point out in this region, it’s the Yamhill Pub. Buried among the fashion and flair of the area around the mall, the Yamhill doesn’t fit in with its surroundings. It’s as dive bar as a dive bar can be – the walls completely covered with marker drawings, surly bartenders slinging cheap drinks. I highly recommend it for a healthy dose of local color. Just don’t order wine. It’s not that kind of place.

Portland Goes Collegiate

Continuing south you come upon the city’s university district, with Portland State at the center.

This is one of my favorite sections of downtown. Few schools blend into their city surroundings as well as PSU. During days of good weather, the Park Blocks (a block-wide park that runs a twelve block length from the university to the Art Museum) are filled with reading and guitar-strumming students. When winter comes they scurry through the rain to grab a slice from Pizza Shmizza or at one of the other many restaurants and bars that are scattered about the area.

I’ve seen a lot of university campuses, and due to its proximity to quality yet affordable food, live music venues, and the easy access to the lower rent neighborhoods thanks to Portland’s unrivaled MAX light rail system, I’d say that PSU offers one of the best life/school balances that you’ll find anywhere in the U.S.

A Foodie, Boozy Town

Let’s touch back on the many downtown restaurants I mentioned. Portland is known for its abundant, quality food choices.

Probably most famous are its countless food cart options. While they’re scattered throughout the region, there is a heavy concentration centered around the corner of Alder and 10th. Thai, Mexican, Japanese, BBQ, vegan, breakfast, Romanian, gyros, Paleo, popcorn, popsicles—if it can be eaten, they’re cooking it somewhere within this one-block radius.

As far as indoor eating options, downtown Portland offers an array of delicious, comfortable options. Among my favorite are Higgins (upscale pub and dining room, 1239 SW Broadway), Mummy’s (not for the food, but for the amazing Egypt-but-in-a-basement vibe,622 SW Columbia), and Jake’s Famous Crawfish (amazing happy hour, 401 SW 12th).

Down by the River

Tom McCall Waterfront Park Portland Oregon. (Photo: Roger via Flickr)

Tom McCall Waterfront Park Portland Oregon. (Photo: Roger via Flickr)

Head east from just about any point in downtown, and you’ll end up in Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which runs along the river. The site of many a beer, blues, and music festival, the park is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of a Portland summer. It’s a great place to go on a nice day and watch some of the Portland weird come out.

Musicians, street performers, homeless people, families, punk rockers, people in business suits biking home from work, cops, kayakers, hacky-sackers, aged bird-feeders, trouble makers, school children, and (perhaps the most dubious in the bunch) high school teenagers all mingle and coexist, living and letting live, with rarely a complaint heard from anyone.

Downtown Portland is changing, that much is undeniable. The people driving the change say that it will be for the better. A lot of people say it’s for the worst.

I think that it’s somewhere in the middle. Yes, downtown is increasingly catered to the condo-crowd. And yes, that pushes more and more of the young, artistic population out of the city center and into the fringes as rent and cost-of-living go up. But until recently, Portland only existed in the fringes of the American consciousness – until the early 2000’s, who ever gave a second thought to Portland? And that’s what gave it a chance to cultivate its more bizarre features – because no one was paying attention.

Downtown might be in a state of flux, but for pure walkability, good eats, and an easy-going atmosphere, you’ll be hard pressed to find any other city that competes.