Joe's Place is a dark and smoky joint where most everything dates back to 1972, when Joe Benjamin bought the tavern: the red, white and blue peace sign out front, the cracked bar stools, the dingy gray carpet spotted with petrified gum, worn smooth and flat over years of traffic and boogying to the all-black jukebox.
And while Joe's (1801 NE Alberta St.) is one of the last bars in town to sell 40-ouncers, it's also a family place. Stuffed animals populate the chaos behind the bar, and along the bottom of a beer mirror, children's snapshots and school pictures overlap in a thick lining tucked into the frame. Overhead, hundreds of suspended stars create a low ceiling. Each has something written on it by folks who have had beers at Joe's over the years. One says, "Ben Gray." Another: "Forever Shine Auntie Rhonda RIP."
Three generations of those stars gathered at Joe's New Year's Eve to celebrate the retirement of Joe Benjamin, now 73, and to mourn the loss of their favorite gathering place. The bittersweet bash marked the last night in business for what seems to be the last sequoia in a forest of new trees—Northeast Alberta Street's last black-run bar, and one that claims to be Portland's oldest.
In the 1950s, the neighborhood around Northeast Alberta Street was predominantly white and middle-class. But the late-'50s displacement of African-Americans for the construction of the Memorial Coliseum, combined with the '60s Fair Housing Act (which ended some of the segregation created by mortgage and insurance redlining practices), transformed the neighborhood into one of Portland's most heavily concentrated black areas.
After Joe bought the bar, his two-room tavern was wall-to-wall black folks most nights. In fact, Alberta Street was lined with bars like Love Train and Political Inn, all drawing good business from the neighborhood.
Joe's managed to survive the recession of the late 1970s, followed by drugs and gang violence in the area during the 1980s. Other businesses closed down, and by the early 1990s, more than half the buildings on Alberta Street stood empty.
Now, after a decade of development and skyrocketing real-estate prices that have pushed out lower-income renters, many of them black, the complexion of Alberta Street is lightening. Joe's Place sits in the Vernon neighborhood, which runs through the middle of the Alberta strip. The 1990 Census reported Vernon to be 39.3 percent African-American, while the 2000 Census (the last year data is available) shows a drop to 25.6 percent.
Joe's holdout as one of the strip's last black hangouts is about to change, too. "All good things got to come to an end," Benjamin says.
Ready for retirement, Benjamin has signed over the bar in a five-year lease to Southeast Hawthorne-area residents John and Michelle Crockett. John Crockett, a (yes, white) 43-year-old FedEx employee, plans to put in a kitchen and full bar and re-open Joe's under a new name, yet undecided, in February.
Crockett wants to "keep it open so everyone will feel comfortable," but he admits, "I will probably change most of it." The fact is, no matter what Crockett does, a cultural and historic hub will vanish.
"This place is in a lot of people's hearts," says Lydell Smith. "Their grandfathers came here, their grandmothers, dads, uncles."
Smith, 45, has been coming to Joe's since 1981 and is now the closing bartender. If he knows you, he's got your drink before you've got your barstool. As Smith wipes tables and sings to Lionel Ritchie's "Hello," he echoes what many say about Joe's closing.
"It's sad because it's the last black business on this street," he says with a wide smile. "But a man of his age—if I was in his position, I'd probably do the same."
The day bartender, Fran Clark, tends to her customers like she's hosting a family picnic. Although Clark, the grandmother of seven, has been bartending here for only a handful of years, she frequented the bar when she was younger.
"We all graduated high school 30 years ago," she says. "If you wanna find someone you went to school with, you come to Joe's. Honey," she says, "this is the Afro-American Cheers."
Most afternoons, Joe's hosts about half a dozen regulars, many of whom have known each other since childhood. One is Clark's sweetie, Clyde Lewis, a dark, stout square of a man with a joyous cackle and stories from his globe-trotting as a merchant marine. Lewis' house on Macmillan Street was torn down when the coliseum was built. Both Clark and Lewis are near 60 now.
Some nights after her shift, Clark sits on a barstool smoking a cigarette and drinking a "tomato beer"—V-8 and beer over ice with lemon. "I'm sad because it's the end of an era," she says.
When the door opens at Joe's, everyone glances up. The bartender's checking to see what drink to make. For the patrons, it's like it's their own front door—they're seeing who's come to visit. New arrivals are greeted with handshakes and hugs. They play pool or dominoes, listen to music and talk shit.
On a recent afternoon, Lorenzo Thornton enters wearing a bright purple T-shirt and a cell-phone headset. He grabs the dominoes from behind the bar while Fran, unprompted, fixes his cranberry juice over ice. At 64, Thornton, a 1948 Vanport flood survivor, is one of the longest-standing regulars. His cousin sold the place, then called Town Clown, to Joe. He lives around the corner, in a house his family has owned since 1956.
Lewis scoots off his barstool to join Thornton. Holding his dominoes like cards, Thornton says he thinks the development of Alberta is good for the neighborhood. "It's kicking the property values up," he says.
Lewis says he'll check out the new bar.
So will Benjamin, who's at the bar drinking a red wine, microwaved for a minute on high. "In all honesty," he says, "I'm gonna miss this place for a while."
But native North Portlander Regina Clardy will be going to places like the Paragon (815 N Killingsworth St.) with the rest of her crew. Clardy has been coming to Joe's since she moved to 28th and Alberta in 1991. At 34, she's one of a dozen or so black Gen-Xers who spend their weekend nights at Joe's. She plays a mean game of pool, dancing and lip-syncing in between shots.
Clardy beats Lewis and Thornton in the first game of dominoes she sits in on. Tapping the dominoes together to the beat, she says she'll miss "the music and the 40s."
But since the original regulars have become grandparents, the wall-to-wall heyday is over. And like most folks who have been around a while, they seem to accept change better than the rest. There are no tears at the New Year's Eve party.
Benjamin, in a black shirt, suit and hat, greets customers at the front door like guests. Old-timers occupy the barstools, the tables are full and the pool table has been moved to make standing room for 100-plus revelers, including a few white hipsters. In the back room, a giant spread of veggies and dip, hardboiled eggs, and meatballs awaits hungry partiers.
Lewis, in a green suit and white hat, comes in late with Clark, who's wearing an open-backed black dress.
The clamor competes with the jukebox, which cranks out Usher and Rick James. Finely dressed pairs bump and grind in the aisle. It's a scene of days gone by, one that Alberta Street is unlikely to witness again.
Benjamin is ready to move on. "I've given this place the best part of my life," he says. "I coulda retired over 20 years ago, enjoyin' life. I just decided I was havin' too much fun."
On New Year's Eve, Benjamin shakes his booty, smiling and flirting like a man of 25 whose whole life is in front of him. And it is.