The Death of Cartopia Brings the End of the Golden Age of Food Carts

The first great late-night food-cart pod is slated to become a mixed-use apartment complex.

Burn every guidebook to Portland. They don't make sense anymore. 

Because every single one of those books will tell Portland visitors to go to Cartopia, at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne, the city's most iconic food cart pod. 

And after the carts' leases expire in October, Cartopia will probably not exist. 

Specifically, developer Vic Remmers signed a contract to buy the lot, as first reported by the Oregonian, and TVA Architects plans to put up an apartment building with ground-level retail and no parking. The chaotic fun of the food-cart era is being replaced by mixed-use, new-metropolitan development planning. 

The carts received no warning until yesterday. "We suspected [last October] that something was not normal," says one of the cart workers, who spoke to WW on condition of anonymity. "The landlords denied that there was anything out of the ordinary. Then about a month ago they did a soil sample to look into contamination from the storage tanks under the parking lot, but told us it was because of the car lot next door leaking into their lot, although we all suspected that a buyer was wanting that information." 

Willamette Week reported in 2010 on the tenuousness of the food-cart economy. In part, when developers can make more money with buildings than with parking lots, food cart owners might lose their locations. This past year alone has seen the closure or impending closure of a number of cart pods, including North Station, Green Castle, the D-Street Noshery at Southeast 32nd Avenue and Division Street, and a pod on Southeast 47th Avenue and Division 

"The problem," says Greg Abbott of Whiffie's Fried Pies at the Cartopia pod, "is that our success is now our downfall. A lot of what made that neighborhood so cool is having an awesome late night place to eat at. It made it super appealing. But with that appeal came the increase in property values. Now we can't afford to stay."

The best-known food carts of Cartopia—Potato Champion, Perierra Creperie, Whiffie's Fried Pies, Pyro Pizza—count among them some of the first carts to set off the food-cart revolution in the minds of Portland and even the U.S. Since its opening six years ago, in 2008, they have been visited by national TV shows, and featured in food cart reality television. Visiting celebrities still make pilgrimages to the carts of Hawthorne, because they are told that they must.

Because really, more than just a collection of food, what Cartopia has always been is the longest standing late-night street party in Portland. For a while, it was the only thing on lower Hawthorne that was any fun at all. 

When Snowpocalypse came in late 2008, with its six solid feet of snow and ice (OK fine, nineteen inches), the carts put up a disco inside a tent, with strobe lights, and served free egg nog to anyone in the neighborhood. Random fire-breathers and jugglers would hang out by the tents at 2 am. Maybe you like jugglers and maybe you don't, but the fact remains: The jugglers showed up, because that's where the fun was. The revocation of the carts' late-night noise permit did nothing to quell the clamor of the crowds. It just meant the music couldn't blast.

Well, the music is over, and the musical chairs begins. The carts look to get just one more summer at that location.

"This will be a huge blow to us and our employees," says John Eads at Pyro Pizza. "We have been able to provide a living for our family and our employees for almost 5 years doing what we love and it will be sad to see it change or go away."

"We'll probably at least talk about seeing if there's something in the close in east side," says Abbott, who jokes he'll move to Detroit with money he made on Bitcoin. "The problem is that the jig for close-in empty properties is up—at least at a relatively inexpensive price... I'd lived in that neighborhood since 1999 and I can't afford to live there anymore. I'm farther out now—to the east."

One of the food cart owners is more sanguine about the news. "Actually, I'm excited," writes Dustin Knox of Perierra Creperie. "I've been living in this neighborhood for thirteen years, right next door to Cartopia (way before the creation of the pod), and I'm excited to see the neighborhood change. As for Perierra Creperie, I feel like we were at the forefront of a movement, but now the lot is sort of defunct, and personally I'd love to see a more professional environment come out of this change. 

"We'll see where the little Creperie lands in the mix."

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