Magnus Johannesson is a lanky, 51-year-old art lover, rumored anarchist and confirmed Swede with deep roots in Portland's Alberta Arts neighborhood real estate scene. He says he can see the future, that he can generate his own endorphins and that he invented Last Thursday—all of which might be disputed, either by science or by other Alberta old hands.
But one thing's certain: On June 26, frustrated with overflowing sidewalks and bureaucratic red tape, Johannesson used a pair of junker cars to block a section of Northeast Alberta Street from traffic during June's Last Thursday art walk. The brash act rattled cages at City Hall and among car-friendly Alberta business owners. Nevertheless, at July's Last Thursday, volunteers—organized by Johannesson—were allowed to direct traffic away from the street without city interference. And starting Aug. 28, cars will be officially banned from the rowdy monthly arts festival. Johannesson got slapped with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for his stunt (his case has yet to go to court) but he says it was worth it. For good or ill, he talks fast and acts decisively. WW wants to know what he'll do next.
WW: First off, let's clear the air. Do you claim to have invented Last Thursday?
Magnus Johannesson: Well…yes, I mean I did say I invented Last Thursday. It's out of the bag, so I stand by it. I had the original idea, but a lot of other people made it what it is today.
When did you first get involved in Alberta real estate biz?
I bought this building [on the corner of Northeast 24th Avenue and Alberta Street] in 1993...over the years I've had my name on about 10 projects along Alberta Street. I've always been able to see the future. It's kind of a weird trait that I have that I take for granted, but most people don't know how to do it. People call me a visionary sometimes. By 1993...I bought one house for $200, one for $4,000, two for $5,000 each, people just walking away from their houses. It was total insanity.
Tell me about your guerrilla street closure during June's Last Thursday.
It was so obvious to me we needed to close the street down, so I finally ended up in June taking matters into my own hands. I bought two junk cars, and they were painted up. We placed on [Northeast] 24th [Avenue] in the middle of [Alberta Street] and another at 28th, and it took the police 67 minutes to get them towed. After that, a meeting was called down at City Hall and all of a sudden everybody came on board. Now just a few weeks later, we're working very, very closely with the city. We're going to have a hard close with barricades in August and September as sort of a pilot program.
It costs $1,500 a month to barricade the street. Who's paying?
For the first two months the city's paying, but our plan is to buy our own barricades. They'll cost around $10,000. We're still figuring out [where the money will come from]. So the payback would take about seven months, but we'd also be able to rent the barricades out to other events and actually make a little profit out of it.
You advocate neighborhood involvement, but you acted unilaterally to block the street. At what point do you have to defer to the community?
I would say I'm deferring 100 percent to the community. What appears unilateral is really me being in this office with an open door for 15 years. I listen carefully to my constituents. So how far will I go? With the cars, I think that was a little bit drastic. But will I go to great lengths to accomplish what I want? Absolutely.
You had alumni from Alberta's notorious and now-defunct Clown House redirecting traffic at July's "soft close." What's your connection to the clowns?
I know them from the neighborhood. My 2009 goal is to form another Clown House. I'm working with Dingo, the head clown, on that. We had "Pranksters for Pedestrians" T-shirts and buttons printed out to sell on Last Thursday, and all the money will go toward the next Clown House.
What are other pitfalls for Last Thursday?
I don't know if you know what happened to First Thursday, but they neutered it. What we want to do is not change Last Thursday. We want this freewheeling event, but without the Mardi Gras or frat atmosphere. We're going to have a strong effort against open containers. We want lots of arts events, but not over-organize it.
What do you think rising housing costs mean for the event?
A lot of artists now are pretty disillusioned with Alberta Street. They feel like a more prosperous crowd has come in and said, "Thanks for all the work you did, for making this neighborhood what it is, and now we don't need you anymore." Ironically, this downturn in the economy is helping to stop that from happening.
You work, organize and find time to fight City Hall. How do you keep up this pace?
I can actually cause endorphins to come through my body. It's a real trippy thing.
Last Thursday takes place along Northeast Alberta Street 5-9:30 pm on Thursday, Aug. 28. Visit artonalberta.org for info. Visit wweek.com for a longer Q&A.