The '80s were to Portland what the '60s were to San Francisco, says Howie Bierbaum, the 51-year-old tour manager for Pink Martini, who moved to Portland from New Jersey in 1981. "It was when Portland was cheap, affordable, fun and off the radar."
And nothing embodied that era better than the block of downtown real estate where the Fox Tower high-rise now stands.
For recent transplants, it may be hard to believe this staid Southwest block, with its posh retail and chain pizzeria, was once a thriving, eclectic hub for Portland's young artists and creative types. But before the generic office building and sterile, $10.50-per-ticket cinema rose from the cement, the block bound by Broadway to the east, Park Avenue to the west and Yamhill and Taylor streets north and south was the downtown equivalent of today's Alberta Arts District. Back then, it was a destination for more than sale chinos at Banana Republic.
"It was a really important block," says Jeffrey Bale, a 50-year-old mosaic artist.
In one corner, queer-leaning Hamburger Mary's served as a gathering place for a cross section of Portlanders, gay and straight alike. And though the funky decor earned more raves than the food, the prices and atmosphere kept people coming back. In keeping with the early-'80s experiments in health food, burgers were served on whole-wheat toast with alfalfa sprouts.
Nearby Alligator Records sold everything from New Wave groups like Suburban Lawns to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book. Fox Theatre, precursor to the Regal Fox Tower 10 megaplex we have now, screened Blazers games.
OUTFOXED: The block today, new and shiny and boring. IMAGE: Darryl James
The boutique Rock-N-Roll Fashions specialized in the trends of the day—bowling shirts and Stray Cats-style greaser garb. But not everyone who browsed could shop there. "I could never afford to buy any of that stuff," says Bale, who earned a living then by making and selling clear plastic ties filled with plastic toys. (His most popular one had a bit of sand, a palm tree and a miniature beer can inside. "They were really dumb. But I sold 10,000 of them.")
The favorite haunt of Ellen Evans, who lived in Portland during the block's heyday, was Vat Tonsure, a European-style wine bar with a small lunch and dinner menu and a big following. Typical entrees included prawns, a signature Guinness stew, Cornish game hen and plenty of brie (it was the '80s). A glass of wine cost $1.50, she recalls.
"There was no sign out front," Evans says. "It looked so European, and I had never even been to Europe at that point. It had a mystique, like you needed to know someone to go in."
Rose-Marie Barbeau Quinn, the Canadian-born owner, would later become embroiled in an immigration snafu that eventually forced her to return to Canada. But for almost two decades, the Vat Tonsure was a Portland institution.
In 1997, the entire block was razed to make way for the 27-story Fox Tower, which was completed in 2000.
Portlanders lost a funky hangout, but the development poured oodles of money into the coffers of local government. In 1995, Multnomah County collected $25,844.13 in property taxes from the block. By 2008, Fox Tower was contributing almost 62 times that—$1,595,578.48.
That much cash fixes a lot of potholes, but the boon doesn't have everyone enamored of the transformation.
"It's a disappointment," Evans says about the disappearance of the shops. "But it's the way it's happened for a lot of communities. I don't think you can lament progress."