Damn the West End luxury malls and the cranes of Division, and let the budding skyscrapers of Burnside do their grim work. The most important neighborhood in Portland right now is probably that little strip of bars along Southeast Foster Road between about 60th and 72nd avenues.
Take a tour out there on a Saturday night if you want to see why.
In an old church that is now a dance studio, at Southeast 67th Avenue and Foster Road, legendary guitarist Henry Kaiser plays jagged splinters of noise to Portland's old guard Creative Music Guild. Around the corner at O'Malley's, Private Mike Albano grinds out power-chord metal to a packed crowd with Dinner for Wolves, on what he says is his birthday. (He said the same thing the night before.) Two doors down, string country wails lonesome from the Starday Tavern, and a block from that, a onetime Ukrainian pop star is singing full-throated at Bar Carlo, at a private party to which everyone seems invited. There's a line of kids outside the Bob White Theatre (currently in a strange state of transition) dressed up in some sort of steampunk/faerie combo. Nobody really knows what they're doing, but it's easy to be glad they're there.
Foster-Powell used to be most famous for its Russian community. A little more recently, it became a sort of compromise offered to young couples trying to buy their first homes. But you walk up the street these days, it seems like something familiar but long-gone. The mostly seamless mix of self-styled bohèmes, down-and-outers and grandmas in leather jackets looks a lot like the Portland I grew up in—the one that immigrants from California and Medford started moving to somewhere around the millennium, when the city's center was still dingy, mostly improvised and always full of music.
âItâs one of those things that somehow has gone under the radar,â says Jeff Lynott, who runs the Foster-Powell neighborhood blog, âas much as Portland loves its emerging scenes and music, and of course bars.â Across Foster from OâMalleyâs, next to Hawaiian-themed party dive Da Hui, a new low-key cocktail lounge called the Gemini hosts occasional jazz and certifies its menu for eco-friendliness. The Starday Tavernâa divy cousin to blues venue Duffâs Garage, where music is a kind of churchâhosts weekly shows where it only books bands who live in the surrounding neighborhood. âEven Torta-landia has bands sometimes,â says Lynott, referring to the Mexican sandwich shop on 60th Avenue that hosts blues and bluegrass on weekends. âJesus, thereâs really a lot.â
There are signs, of course, of a more traditional Portland gentrification. Next to a gaming shop, the little neighborhood also has its new-Portland beer bar, the hop-happy N.W.I.P.A). Roughly across the street at 62nd Avenue, Bar Maven is a makeshift hangout full of mismatched wood and craft brews that bears a lot in common with There Be Monsters and the Charlie Horse Saloon. Foster Road is due soon for a city-mandated "road diet" that will add bike lanes, and the lovely Portland Mercado just opened, with a wine market and a raft of bright-colored Latin American food carts.
But the reason that Foster Avenue is important to the city's nightlife—and to our fabric as a city, really—is what this little improvised neighborhood of pubs, carts and taquerias proves. As the old bars close one by one in the inner city, as lesbian strip clubs become no-parking apartments and the Hollywood Bowl goes hardware store, one of the largest complaints is that the money pushes old-school residents farther from the city's core, as if no community and no fun were possible east of CÃ©sar E. ChÃ¡vez Boulevard.
Foster Road—not so far out there, a mere 20-minute bus ride from downtown, anyway—shows this up as uncharitable pessimism. In the Chicago of my mid-20s, nobody I wanted to know lived downtown, but in neighborhoods at least four trains stops away, in Ukrainian Village or Logan Square, places every bit as rich with culture and urbanity and music as anything you could find in the chilling winds of the lake shore. Foster Road—and soon probably Cully—show that it's possible here, that a rich person's playground in the West End doesn't sound a death knell for the ramshackle culture that many of us treasure. It is merely a sign of a city whose center of gravity is shifting, slowly and maybe unsurely, to the east.