A Wave of Commercial Evictions in St. Johns Has the Neighborhood on Edge

Nearly every neighborhood in Portland is anxious about change. No other place has such good reason.

For 21 years, Pattie Deitz served biscuits and gravy, "hobo omelettes" and hand-churned ice cream to the regulars filling 11 seats along the cream-colored counter of Pattie's Home Plate Cafe.

Her customers on North Lombard Street included a Monday night sewing group and 16 cribbage teams. For a decade, a group of Bigfoot trackers met once a month, joined by Deitz, who believed in the cryptid after several "personal experiences" but maintained a healthy skepticism. "If you attended five or six meetings," she says, "you could tell who was exaggerating just to get some attention."

In November, Deitz closed the cafe. She's 74 years old, but she wasn't retiring by choice. Instead, she was forced out—because her landlord sold the building on the main drag of St. Johns.

The shuttering of Pattie's Home Plate was one of a wave of closures in the past year, many of them neighborhood mainstays: Anna Bannanas coffee house, Bernstein's Bagels, and the Man's Shop, a 79-year-old tailoring store.

In all, nine businesses within a block of North Lombard closed in the past eight months. At least five closures were the result of commercial evictions or rent hikes so high the business owner couldn't stay open.

"It is not St. Johns anymore—it isn't friendly, it isn't family-friendly," Deitz tells WW. "These people who are in here now know nothing about the community. They're just here for the buck. I'm not one to halt progress, but at some point, you lose all identity."

Nearly every neighborhood in Portland is anxious about new construction and incoming yuppies warping its charm and pricing out its residents. No place has such good reason for concern as St. Johns, an outpost on the northwestern edge of the city that seems as stuck in the past as Marty McFly.

But all around Pattie's Home Plate, the neighborhood was, in fact, rapidly changing.

In recent years, figures compiled by the Portland Housing Bureau show St. Johns is becoming much whiter and experiencing rent increases far greater than the city as a whole. Between 2011 and 2016, for instance, although St. Johns remains one of the city's most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, it saw that diversity decline more than 6 percentage points, more than all but one other neighborhood. Meanwhile, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in St. Johns rose 27 percent from 2016 to 2018—while citywide, according to bureau figures, the increase was just 3 percent over that time frame.

Those pressures are now reflected in St. Johns' commercial district: the six blocks of North Lombard where longtime anchors are vanishing.

Few of the businesses share the same landlord, and few of the six property owners agreed to discuss the evictions with WW.

One exception: Kevin Cavenaugh, who owns a Lombard Street building where two restaurants, the Sudra and 87th & Meatball, recently closed. Cavenaugh says he didn't raise rents on either of those businesses, but he sees other commercial landlords gouging their tenants.

"On the residential side, there are stipulations on what a landlord is allowed to raise [rent by] every year," Cavenaugh says. "There isn't that stipulation on the commercial side. I think it will be a problem because all the quirky, fun spaces we love are going to be replaced by Chipotle Grill."

Owners of the closed businesses tell stories with different details but similar themes: They were thriving, until they received ominous notices.

On Christmas Day, Bryant Anderson closed Anna Bannanas, the coffee shop he opened in 2006 with his wife, Sarah. "When we opened up," he recalls, "we were the only place that wasn't like a dive bar."

The shop was soon packed with mismatched tables, board games and puzzles, and a raucous children's play area. "It was a great place for families to come with their kids," Anderson says. "As long as it didn't cost us money and made us a little bit of money, it was worth having."

Last year, his landlord, Sue Jung, raised the rent moderately. (She couldn't be reached for comment.) But Anderson says the last straw was when the landlords took away Anna Bannanas' car parking—to install a food cart pod.

"We would've been set up to fail if we would have stayed open," Anderson says.

Three blocks east, Chelsea Ingle owned a children's outdoor store called Bridge City Kid. She says her shop was evicted by the same landlord that "took out" Bernstein's Bagels—a shop that closed its doors on Lombard in December.

"It doesn't matter what the community wants; that's not being taken into account," Ingle says. "The way that people are being treated is unfair. I'm watching it become a ghost town."

The most recent closure along Lombard? A nonprofit family dance and fitness center called the Aspire Project. After 11 years in business serving 500 students a week, executive director Sue Darrow announced the center's closure late last month. "An inability to negotiate an acceptable lease contract," she wrote, "combined with a significant shortfall in funding, has led us to this very difficult decision."

Darrow tells WW a lack of fundraising at the nonprofit was as big a factor as the lease. But she's glum about the prospects of the neighborhood.

"We do see the gentrification they said was going to happen," she says. "In five years, I expect [the neighborhood] to be big apartment buildings. I don't know the inside scoop, but that's what it looks like to me. The nature of the neighborhood will change completely, and it's making a lot of people sad."

That doesn't leave much room for optimism. But the St. Johns Boosters Business Association is trying. It was established in 1926, and its two most recent presidents say this isn't the first cycle of closures to hit Lombard.

Newly installed president Liz Smith sees an upside to new apartment buildings coming in: more foot traffic for business owners. She says a lot of businesses are doing well and feels hopeful the neighborhood's "homegrown" feel will remain intact.

Former president Mark Johnson agrees. "We're very sorry to see those businesses leave—those are our friends," Johnson says. "But we're positive about what's coming next. We're pretty confident that we'll get some good businesses in. We're trying to keep people positive and keep things in perspective."

As for Deitz, she's staying busy with her other business: Blue Collar Wrestling, a professional wrestling showcase held Sunday nights at the North Portland Eagles Lodge. She blames the loss of businesses like Pattie's on one culprit: greed.

"It didn't matter that this was a comfortable little community, as long as the money comes in," she says. "Money talks and BS walks."

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