In his 90 years of life, Paul Knauls never even considered running for public office. That didn't stop him from getting elected anyway.
He didn't have much say in the matter. About 20 years ago, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce came into his barbershop in the King neighborhood and declared him "the Mayor of Northeast Portland." Knauls resisted, but the name stuck.
"Pretty soon the news media had it and the television people had it," he says with a hearty laugh. "I just tell them all, 'I guess I am your mayor, because you didn't vote me in, so you can't vote me out!'"
It's a title he first earned in the 1960s. Back then, Knauls, who came to Portland via Arkansas, owned several businesses on and around North Williams Avenue, then the heart of Black nightlife in the city. His most famous enterprise was the Cotton Club, a jazz bar named after the famous nightspot in New York. It earned national recognition in its own right, hosting the likes of Etta James, Big Mama Thornton and Sammy Davis Jr.
By the 1970s, the construction of the I-5 freeway shuttered just about every business in the area and displaced the neighborhood. But Knauls maintained his statesman status: In 1991, he and his wife, Geneva, opened Geneva's Shear Perfection, a beauty salon that itself became a hub for the African American community. On the wall hung framed photos of Knauls posing with a litany of 20th century figures, from Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali.
Geneva's closed last year, in part because of the pandemic, but also because Knauls felt it was simply time. (Geneva died in 2014.) But his constituents haven't forgotten him: When he turned 90 last month, the nonprofit World Arts Foundation streamed a live storytelling event, featuring friends, employees and admirers. Knauls watched at home with his son, Paul Jr.
These days, Knauls adheres to health guidelines and mostly stays inside. It's tough: Up until a year ago, he still went out three nights a week to see live music.
But he still manages to get out some: He puts on two masks and walks around Lloyd Center an hour each day. Sometimes, he'll get in the car and go to a big box store, mostly just to get out of the house. And he still gets recognized.
"This one guy, I said, 'Can you help me put my groceries in my car please?' He said, 'Mr. Knauls, I haven't seen you for years! You're still driving?'" Knauls lets out another big laugh: "I told him, 'Well, not after 4:30, because it gets dark!'"
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