Dave Allen

The return of the displaced to the Pearl District

posted by , 9 Comments

The Pearl Portland NORTH
The original warehouse district, pre-Pearl, 1988 in center right of picture

From Wikipedia: According to the Pearl District Business Association, Thomas Augustine, a local gallery owner, coined the name Pearl District more than 10 years ago to suggest that its industrial buildings were like crusty oysters, and that the galleries and artists’ lofts within were like pearls. As local business people were looking to label the growing area—the “warehouse district” or the “brewery district” were two suggestions—a writer for Alaska Airlines borrowed and popularized Augustine’s phrase.

I had no idea the area’s name was only a decade old. It demeans it, scrubs the history from it.

As with any gentrification project Portland’s Pearl District is no exception. Developers arrived, threw out or co-opted the artists who lived cheaply and worked in the grimy lofts, displaced anyone who couldn’t stand up to them, renamed the area along the lines of something that entices people to settle in suburbia – Rolling Hills for e.g., or in this case oysters and pearls – bought low with incentives and tax breaks, then sold high.

The Pearl developers’ earnest requirements, presented in pitches to attract a new breed – quasi-urbanites – who they hoped would buy the freshly-minted condos, required a faux grittiness just this side of wholesome – red brick, worn and buckled unused railroad tracks, new buildings with garage door frontispieces, old industrial shops and warehouses turned, as if on a lathe, into new “creative spaces” as if they weren’t that before.

Gleaming, towering, high-rise condominiums now lord over this vista of the resuscitated. Street Cars ply their way through the towers of this faux bohemia; old cobblestones were actually removed recently from NW Marshall St to smooth the way for cyclists. At least the brewery still leaches its sour mash stink every day.

And once it was a community; unsavory yes – of artists, hookers, drug dealers, transients, muggers et al, but a community that Jean Genet could once have immortalized had he lived here, by the sound of it.

Yet cities always have a way of slyly returning to balance. A few blocks to the west, the disenfranchised and the homeless find parity making camps under the I-405 overpass, with their bikes, shopping carts and trailers and pitbulls waiting silently in the shadows. The Safeway supermarket on Lovejoy and 14th attracts these vagrants to its recycling center in the early hours, where they redeem their cans, bottles and plastics; chips being cashed in, a small part of the areas shadow economy.

And in the early light the tiny fragments of shattered safety glass in the gutter mark the site of another missing handbag, backpack or laptop.

Ironically, as the real estate slump and the ongoing recession sink their teeth into, and puncture, the soft cozy padding of faux urban living that the Pearl’s residents have come to expect, those very residents will now have to make nice with their new, yet original neighbors.

The ones who were pushed aside just over a decade or so ago.

More thoughts on cities.


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  • Dave Allen


    That’s a great, if rather sad, story. Thanks for sharing and setting the record straight…

  • Cameron Mace

    By the way, this is not the real history of the name. I was a walking tour guide and the owner of Portland Walking Tours, David Schargel, learned the true story directly from Thomas Augustine.

    From David Schargel:

    In 1985, Thomas Augustine, then manager of the Lawrence Gallery (and now manager of the Janice Griffin Gallery) told a freelance reporter of Alaska Airline’s magazine that the buildings in the warehouse district were like crusty oysters, and that the galleries and artists’ lofts within were like pearls. It was printed in Alaska Airline’s magazine. He had a better quote in the article where he said that people would not bring their date to the “Northwest (Industrial) Triangle” (the area’s former name).

    Pearl Marie Amhara. (It’s always about a woman, isn’t it ;-) Quite a short Ethiopian woman born in 1936. Thomas Augustine met her in 1965, when he was 19. According to Thomas, she knew 21 Languages including some obscure North African Tribal Languages. She got her Ph.D. at 19 yrs old in Human Cultures and travelled the world under the sponsorship of a patroness, based in France. She was a very religious Social worker who never married (even though he asked her twice). Thomas and her had close friendship for 31 years until she died.

    She was a social working who assisted abused and battered women and led similar workshops here in Portland (and all over the world, apparently).

    Thomas Augustine moved to Portland in 1983 and she visited here many times. She liked the neighborhood and told Thomas Augustine that it would be filled with creative people one day.
    When a friend of Pearl’s visited Portland and asked where the artist, composers, and writers lived, Thomas Augustine said that there was no such location except “Pearl’s Place.”

    She died in 1996 and was buried in Ethiopia. Thomas, a usual jovial fellow, takes on quite a tone of sadness when you talk about her death. Not only was she a “lost love” of his, but he couldn’t go to her funeral since conditions there did not allow him.

    If you ask some of the early developers in the area, they will remember it being called “Pearl’s Place” and “Pearl’s District” before the Alaska Airlines magazine article. Since her clientele would not want to read her name in a newspaper or magazine, Thomas “made up the story” about the ‘pearls amongst the crusty oysters’ since he never wanted to draw attention to her social work.

    BTW, in 1997 he hold the whole story to Margie Boule of the Oregonian, who wrote up all of this in her column.”

    Quoted from http://tiny.cc/f1e7o

  • Dave Allen


    Yes that’s true..I used to enjoy going in the Henry Weinhard’s small tasting room/bar on the W Burnside side..gone now I presume, replaced by the should-be-in-the-suburbs Henry’s fake pub.

  • Brian Smith

    For the sake of nostalgia I will remind that “the” brewery mentioned would have been venerable Henry Winehards on Burnside, not the johnny-come-lately Bridgeport. The pungent smell of Portland’s lost macro hung like a cloud over downtown Portland. Today you can only rarely catch a whiff in the breeze when comparatively miniscule Bridgeport is active.

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  • http://magnobeam.com chris

    Wow, is the name really only 10 years? I could swear I recall being warned in the 80′s to avoid the pearl because “it’s dangerous.” The area makes my skin crawl now, it’s like walking into a young couple’s disneyland of strollers and manicured parks.