"Best-looking women in Portland!" says the man in the street. He wasn't talking about anyone nearby: He was making an offer.
Promising immediate access to "40 of Portland's hottest women," he hands me a card for Old Town's Spyce Gentlemanâs Club. âWeâre on the cover of Exotic [Link borderline NSFW] for a reason,â he says, whipping out his phone to show me proof that the local strip-club trade magazine had honored Spyce with a feature. But an entirely different—though just as familiar—Old Town scene appeared on his phone.
"Oh, wait," he says. "That's pictures of a fight."
Portland's Old Town has always been a place for the fringe, drunk and migrant: turn-of-the-century sailors' brothels, midcentury transient hotels, music clubs, strip clubs, drag clubs, treatment centers and street-corner salesmen catering to the people who need treatment centers.
But recently a spate of bar sales and closings has clinched a change in Old Town that had long been on its way. Over the past year, Valentine's bar and music venue Ash Street Saloon were sold, while indie-scene refuges Yes and No, Berbati's Pan and Central (briefly also Harlem) have shut down. Old-Portland dive Captain Ankeny's Well now has a black-suited man out front on the weekends, charging admission to a burlesque circus featuring hula hoops and silk streamers.
Once home to writer Katherine Dunn's fabled "fugitives and refugees," the neighborhood has been ceded to an entirely new set of transients. In an informal poll, the current Old Town crowds are from Washington and Beaverton, from Italy and Gresham and Croatia and the Midwest.
They should all feel right at home. Old Town's newly dedicated six-block "entertainment zone" could be found, in slightly different form, in any major city in America. But until about six years ago, it couldn't have been found in Portland.
Perhaps this means we have failed in our Euro-style downtown experiment; perhaps it means we have finally succeeded.
Even on a rainy Saturday, the line outside Old Town's Dirty nightclub is 40 deep. Within, stripper poles are used not by paid dancers but by paying patrons. Eighteen dollars, says a disgruntled patron, will net a pint-sized "Trash Can", a modified AMF (a kitchen-sink drink whose name is short for "Adios, Motherfucker!") with Red Bull added. But tonight there is no non-VIP entry after 11 pm. "We don't want your business," the bouncer yells to 20 people at once.
Outside, a 40-year-old woman with the air of a recent divorcée berates me for not having an "objective opinion" on the best dance spot in the neighborhood. The guy who bought the Trash Can at Dirty wishes heâd spent his $20 in the strip bar instead. âItâs like a 6-to-1 sausage party in there,â he tells me.
At Barrel Room, after paying a cover, a packed tent party of twentysomething women grind their heels into the mud-puddled pavement, while women with Jell-O trays and Tic Tac shots weave through. Inside the club, a middle-aged white-funk cover band plays behind stumbling 21-year-old women grinding each other onstage. As one of the women slips weak-kneed offstage, she is asked by a much older man if she wants a drink.