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June 15th, 2005 Meg Daly | News Stories
 

SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE

End of an era on Alberta Street.

     
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Joe's Place
IMAGE: AMY OULETTE
The last vestige of an era when African-American-owned taverns dominated Northeast Alberta Street may disappear this summer when 73-year-old Joseph Benjamin sells Joe's Place.

Benjamin, ailing with arthritis and gout, says he's too tired to keep going, having run the landmark bar with the peace symbol outside it for 34 years. He does not yet know who the buyer will be but expects the building at 1801 NE Alberta St. will remain a bar.

The obvious question in a neighborhood that has gotten lighter (from 41 percent black in the 1990 U.S. Census to 34 percent in 2000) is what kind of bar. And that's as much a question of economics as of race.

Working-class establishments like Joe's, where the mostly black clientele pay $3.75 for a beer and hot dog, now share the street with upscale restaurants like Ciao Vito four blocks up, where entrees cost four times that.

"We've always been a neighborhood bar," says Benjamin, who played on darts and pool teams with fellow tavern owners from Love Train, Political Inn, and other black nightspots on Alberta in the 1970s and 1980s.

Benjamin, who lives several blocks away from his bar, says business has fallen off since last year when a spate of violent incidents happened outside and neighbors complained about drug dealing on Joe's corner.

John Laws, an investigator with the Portland Police Bureau's drug and vice department, says most of the complaints come from a couple of nearby new homeowners but have little factual support. Laws says the phone booth outside historically made drug trafficking easy but that Joe's doesn't have any more illegal activity than other city bars.

"The biggest issue we have [on Alberta Street] is a cultural clash," says Laws, a 25-year police veteran.

In August 1999, a member of the Bloods gang was mortally wounded with gunshots under Joe's peace sign. In 2004, police logged three assaults involving patrons at Joe's. The year before, there were no assaults at the bar. And this year, so far, there have been none.

Benjamin is frustrated by the complaints, saying: "Violence happens in white communities, only you don't hear about it until it gets really bad."

Inside Joe's, a handwritten notice behind the bar warns patrons: "Arguments result in a night of being barred out," and the "Eighty-sixed" list names 20-odd people not welcome at Joe's.

Joe's employee Fran Clark sighs at the prospect of losing her job and favorite hangout when the bar is sold.

"All eras have to end,'' she says. "Maybe the new owners won't be plagued by these problems."

 
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