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What's so cool about Portland? Last Thursday on Alberta Street!Report by Bonnie King Photos by Dexter Phoenix Salem-News.com
Once a month, Portlanders let their hair down and take to the street- Alberta Street
(PORTLAND, Ore.) - For years, I have heard about this ominous, near-ethereal street fair that occurs the last Thursday of every month in Portland. Rain, shine, snow, sleet or hail, the fair goes on. Musician friend Raymo Mancini shared stories about the carnival-like atmosphere which always included "never before seen" art and music, good food and most important: free-spirited individuals.
This fair, started in 1997, was said to "be" the Portland that people love the most. Well, I have seen a lot of Portland and a lot of fairs, so that was a point in fact that needed personal confirmation.
Hoping for a few rays of sunshine, photographer Dexter Phoenix and I set off to find this wonder of a street fair as most homegrown Oregonians would- without an umbrella. Dexter is an implant from England, and with plenty of rain the norm there, he too felt right at home as we made the damp trek North to Alberta Street.
Alberta Street is endearingly “old Portland”. It is an historic area; some even know it as the heart of NE Portland, which is understandable. It has a lot of heart.
Arriving there, we quickly found a parking place on a side street and followed others toward the music.
Raindrops were the last thing on the event-goers minds as it turned out. Like us, no one gave the weather much mind once they left the asphalt grid of urban Portland, and stepped into the realm of Alberta Street.
A very different animal since its humble beginnings as a low-key art walk, now Last Thursday takes up at least ten city blocks.
In early afternoon, city police had cordoned off the area to traffic, and within hours Alberta Street was transformed into a microcosm of color and expression in any and all varieties of sights, sounds, and yes, smells.
Vendors set up tables and booths at no cost whatsoever down both sides of the closed thoroughfare, replete with local multi-faceted artisans selling their wares for a range of prices- and worth. Yes, it takes all kinds.
Street performers kept us entertained without fail, with jugglers doubling as standup comedians while bubble-blowing bicyclists made the rounds, tantalizing children.
We witnessed yuppies and hippies intermingling with the homeless, the hipsters and miscellaneous wild and wonderful representatives of the counterculture.
A portrait artist showed her skills hoola-hooping to draw attention to her talented self, while dogs in silly jackets and girls with mismatched shoes shuffled along through the crowd.
Petitioners for the legalization of cannabis (OCTA 2012) found a likely group of political go-getters in the masses ready to “be the change they want to see”, and several groups of street drummers, bands and walking singers gave a lively soundtrack to our journey up and down the fairway.
It is important to note that Alberta is not a standalone neighborhood; it is situated in the Vernon, Concordia and King neighborhoods, also known as the Alberta Arts District, and has the honored distinction of being the first urban National Main Street west of the Mississippi River.
Even so, the last couple of years have been a trying time for the street fair.
The event had gained a lawless reputation, and a decline in the wholesome element of its original design. Over time, that triggered a lot of discussion and dissention regarding the overall operation of the event.
Last Thursday had arguably emerged as the most popular neighborhood street festival in the city, providing up-close and personal business exposure while introducing and enlightening visitors to a multi-cultural demographic mix of funky and fun people that really prize their individuality.
It is because of this popularity though that issues like pollution, noise, and public drunkenness had become increasingly out of control, and finally resulted in a meeting called by Mayor Sam Adams in February 2010. Last Thursday was at risk.
As is too often the case, the collective group at times was its own worst enemy but with willingness and perseverance, the division between factions found common ground and progress ensued.
Together they formed committees and gnashed out solutions to help manage the chaos while not losing the festive, creative spirit behind the Last Thursday culture.
Enter: the Alberta Main Street Friends of Last Thursday (FoLT).
FoLT was solely created to keep the monthly tradition alive and well, enlisting the help of friendly "Ambassadors" who work throughout the event on the street for a safe & sustainable experience every month.
“There were some disorderly people in the past, and we don’t want that to be what we’re known for. Last Thursday is open to everyone, and they all need to have a good time,” said Shawn Wayne Langhans, Friends of Last Thursday Ambassador.
“We do remind people to pick up after themselves, basic things like that, but I expect to be here till midnight, cleaning up,” he said with a smile.
The residences interspersed with businesses on Alberta Street are direct from an issue of Better Homes and Gardens. From average to idyllic as can be, they are enjoyed for the beauty and splendor of their aged character, many authentically restored, graced with wildflowers and English gardens. Others are spic and span, newly built shiny examples of today's architectural offerings, some delivering a great view of the city from spatial balconies.
Throughout the year, nearly every business in this area of Alberta Street functions as an art gallery. That is how Last Thursday began back in the 90's, as an opportunity for the stores, bars and restaurants to have a cooperative “opening night” reception for all the artists. They stayed open late, and invited the public to join them. They were happy to oblige. Some remember prior to the early 1990’s that Alberta Street was a problem neighborhood riddled with crime, as were many others in the area. That was the decade when things changed for the better. A newcomer to Alberta would not recognize it as its former self, now an “epicenter for youth and culture”.
Friends of Last Thursday’s success is the culmination of negotiation efforts in partnership with the City of Portland, to enrich the community while fostering neighborhood respect.
They call Last Thursday “community grown” by “people-power”. What a great model for others to emulate.
It is free to all vendors and participants, which makes it quite unique and inviting, but there is a cost to the city and that is why it is so important that everyone be mindful of the mess they make, and of course, to remember to be polite to the locals.
“People are pretty cool with each other, and where there are special needs we just make sure things are taken care of. For example, we have to be considerate with the music. It can’t be too loud in one area, maybe drowning out the acoustics. We just want everyone to have a good time,” Langhans said.
“We haven’t had any problems, they are glad to be here, even in the rain.”
The clouds grew ever darker and our clothing ever wetter as the evening approached, but still the crowds flowed onto Alberta Street.
About 10,000 people show up each Last Thursday through the summer, though last night it probably didn’t clear even half that many. Still, the singers, bands and drum circles kept the street lively until bit past the 10 p.m. bell.
Then the Portland Police did a walk through, and the late night crowds quickly disbursed into the buildings and into the night.
Last Thursday has arrived in the positive place it belongs, with a reputation it has well earned. It is a place every Portlander would like to be, and one that will no doubt be a destination exponentially for more out of town visitors. With or without umbrellas.
They won’t be able to resist the life force of positive energy traveling on its own plane, up and down those ten blocks of Alberta Street. Not once they’ve had the experience- young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, cool or square; they’ll all want to see it for themselves.
It may be a bit weird, but since when did that bother Portlanders? In fact, isn’t that what we love about it the most?
Portland, we accept you for who you are. Keep up the weird, please. The world needs you.
Publisher Bonnie King has been with Salem-News.com since August '04. Bonnie has a wide ranging media background and in her career she has served in a number of positions in the broadcast industry; TV Production Manager at KVWB (Las Vegas WB) and Producer/Director for the TV series "Hot Wheels in Las Vegas", TV Promotion Director for KYMA (NBC), and KFBT (Ind.), Asst. Marketing Director (SUPERSHOPPER MAGAZINE), Director/Co-Host (Coast Entertainment Show), Radio Promotion Director (KBCH/KCRF), and NIE/Circulation Sales Manager (STATESMAN JOURNAL NEWSPAPER). Bonnie has a depth of understanding that reaches further than just behind the scenes, and that thoroughness is demonstrated in the perseverance to correctly present each story with the wit and wisdom necessary to compel and captivate viewers. View articles written by Bonnie King
Dexter Phoenix has worked as a staff and freelance photographer since the mid-1990's and has a wealth of professional experiences on his resume.
This native of Great Britian moved to Los Angeles in 2007, where he photographed general news, general Interests, sports, freelance model photo work, and also stock images. Dexter Phoenix has had photos published world wide, in many magazines and newspapers and online. Throughout the course of his career he has experience with technology of all imaginable types. As a photographer Dexter has covered stories in Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, France, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Somalia, Tunisia, Algeria. Angola, Iran, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Colombia, and the United States. Email inquiries about photo purchase to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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