Portland, Ore. — North Mississippi Avenue in Portland’s Mississippi District delivers a hipster experience as reliably as the rain. The street’s commercial district, which runs five blocks from North Fremont Street up to North Skidmore Street, has coffee-roasting equipment, saltwater aquariums, chandeliers made with recycled wine bottles, jewelry cast from animal sex organs and possibly the best corned beef hash ever fried.
My trek covered a bit more than half of that stretch, from North Failing Street to the far side of Skidmore. This allowed me to visit the landmarked John Palmer House, a wondrous Victorian heap-slash-events space, but barred me from entering the Meadow, a shop largely devoted to salt.
Mississippi District Photogenic
North Mississippi Avenue is so pure a distillation of Portland that it has become tourist bait; so photogenic that it supplied locations for the Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild”; and so close to parody that Paxton Gate, a natural-history-museumlike emporium selling all creatures stuffed and mounted, has appeared in not one but two seasons of “Portlandia.” (The shop also made a cameo in last week’s episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Jerry Seinfeld tells Fred Armisen, “I want to go to the heartbeat of Portland: the source, the core, the epicenter.” Then they pull up to Paxton Gate, where he buys a butterfly specimen.)
But while signposts identify the stretch as “Historic Mississippi,” you will have to scratch to find that history.
Settled mostly by Scandinavians and Germans in the late 1800s, the district — and the Boise-Eliot neighborhood to which it belongs — became heavily African-American by World War II. In 1919, the Portland Realty Board forbade its members to sell property to blacks and Asians, except in a few places. And though that policy was formally rescinded in 1952, banks continued to redline those areas, hampering development and depriving property owners of loans for improvement. In the 1950s through the ’70s, highway construction and urban renewal displaced many residents of northeast Portland, reconfiguring its neighborhoods and contributing to their decline.
Kay L. Newell, who moved her light bulb store, Sunlan Lighting, to the corner of Failing and Mississippi in 1991, recalled that 43 businesses, including a metal shop and a headstone carver, operated on Mississippi at the time. But they did it behind barred doors and shuttered windows, she said, as a protection against theft and gang violence. Today, Ms. Newell, who wore a black beret over long graying braids, works behind big plate-glass windows filled with vintage bulbs and geegaws. She dates the beginning of the turnaround to 1995, when the city of Portland began a program for improvement with input from the community.
From Worst to Hottest
“We’ve gone from the worst neighborhood in the city to one of the hottest and coolest,”
Not everyone agrees. Angel Barrera, who has lived in the area for 30 years, interrupted a walk with his dog to complain about density. We were standing near a pair of small houses between North Shaver Street and North Mason Street that he said would soon be demolished to make way for new apartments. As in many revitalized neighborhoods, this one is being planted with expensive condos and rental buildings.
The displacement of longtime residents is a concern, and so is parking. Mr. Barrera, who sported a tattoo on the side of his neck that read “Trust No Man” in Chinese, said he has to drive blocks to find a space. He also fretted about rising property taxes.
Memories of neighborhood blight may be fresh enough to soften anti-gentrification feelings. At the same time, those memories are becoming remote enough to contribute to local mythology.
“Every building claims it was a brothel,” said Dan Hart, who owns two bars on the street, Prost! (1894; at one time a drugstore) and Interurban (1927; for many years a florist). Asked about an incident last month in which obscenity-laced fliers were distributed to more than a dozen businesses in a transitional neighborhood to the east, he said it was “rather bizarre and not taken overly seriously.” (The fliers, which demanded that the recipients vacate, were signed by the Juggalos, or fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. The Juggalos denied having anything to do with them.)
And all along Mississippi, people behind counters decorated with knotholes or succulents championed the concentration of their eccentric independent businesses. You may still fear for your life here, but only if you’re Starbucks.
“We’re Portland quirky, Portland weird,” said Ms. Newell, as she sold red and green compact fluorescent light bulbs to a man who owned a nearby print shop. She was talking about her inventory, but her arm stretched downstream.
North Mississippi Avenue, North Failing to North Shaver
Sunlan Kay L. Newell, the doyenne of North Mississippi Avenue businesses, started Sunlan in 1989 in her home and moved it two years later to boarded-up building at the corner of North Failing. She sells every kind of light bulb you can dream of (including some that are no longer made), and introduced her much-admired window displays, she said, “because the community had nothing positive to talk about.” She also designed her logo: a sun peeking from behind the Earth, smiling at an incandescent bulb. “It’s a takeoff on an old Mazda logo,” she said, adding, “If you look at the light bulb, there’s a smirk on its face.” 3901 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-281-0453, sunlanlighting.com.
Mr. Green Beans This five-year-old shop sells everything you need to make a seriously customized cup of coffee: roasting apparatus, pour-over brewing systems and, of course, the beans themselves. But you don’t have to get fancy. Dirk Orthmeyer, the store manager, advised roasting the beans in a 1980s popcorn popper (current ones don’t get hot enough), or even a saucepan. Pressed on the matter, he conceded, “The stove is an option.” 3932 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-288-8698, diycoffeeroasting.com.
Land Gallery Amber and Pat Castaldo founded Land in 2008 after moving to Portland from Olympia, Wash. The business, which expanded the offerings of their website buyolympia.com, sells printed works and other products designed by independent artists. (One stalwart is Nikki McClure, an Olympian who specializes in paper cuts.) Last week, Land’s upstairs gallery displayed a group print show called “Off the Wall,” where visitors were encouraged to unpin admired pieces and take them downstairs to the register. 3925 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-451-0689, landpdx.com.
Flutter This pileup of decorative objects (with a plant store called Emerald Petals at the back) has the immersive charm of a pile of autumn leaves. Vintage mixes with modern, cosmetics with housewares, and now that it’s holiday time, ornaments are running wild. Cristin Hinesley and Sara Kolp were employees of Flutter when it opened in 2006 and bought the shop last year. “The neighborhood has developed an identity as a destination that has allowed small businesses to thrive,” Ms. Hinesley said. 3948 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-288-1649, flutterclutter.com.
Gravy The restaurant sign, with its tawny and gold ellipses, puts one in mind of the 1950s and eggs. Inside, a procession of gravy boats lines a shelf high on the wall. When my breakfast companion and I ordered a side of hashed browns to go with our corned beef hash, the waiter gently suggested that we were getting a little potato-intensive, but we indulged anyway without regret. Be advised, though, that the portions are Paul Bunyan-size (presuming that Bunyan was a hash man). Open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. 3957 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-287-8800, eatatgravy.com.
North Shaver to North Mason
4035 North Mississippi Avenue Much of the street’s charm comes from examples of vintage architecture, like this 1901 house between Shaver and Mason Streets with its shingled roof and gable ornament.
Forage The building once housed a printing press, and lately an anarchist bookstore. Now it’s fitted out with furnishings, art and cosmetics. “I try to stick to what is handmade and local,” said Susan Collins, a former graphic and web designer for Nike, who opened the shop in September with her fiancé, Mark Falls. By this she means remaking estate-sale chandeliers with old wine bottles, upholstering reclaimed wood furniture and concocting her own bath salts and soaps. 4038 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-753-0633.
North Mason to North Skidmore
Paxton Gate Andy and Susan Brown opened their natural-history emporium four years ago as a sibling to a store founded by Sean Quigley in San Francisco. Among its many treasures, what I liked best — even more than a pair of stuffed lions sourced from the estate of a trophy hunter in Utah, or the ostrich toes with supple joints, or a Burmese python pelt, or the butterfly-wing jewelry that looked like stained glass — were the silver earrings cast from mink penis bones. So pretty! 4204 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-719-4508, paxtongatepdx.com.
Mississippi Avenue Lofts Opened in 2010, this rental building markets itself as green and luxurious, with apartments priced to reflect both qualities. Materials are sustainable, appliances are energy-efficient and the price of the only unit listed as available (a 726-square-foot third-floor studio) is $1,575. (The average rent for an apartment of any size in the Boise neighborhood is $1,453.) 4216 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-281-4674, mississippiavenuelofts.com.
Silver Moon Crêperie Theresa and Chris Therrien fled the winters of Dover, N.H., bringing their crêperie with them. They opened Silver Moon six months ago, with the same popsicle color scheme and artwork it had in New England. They are “happy colors,” Ms. Therrien said. “If it’s gloomy outside, it can’t be gloomy in here.” 4220 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-889-0195, silvermooncreperie.com.
The Big Egg This is one of a herd of food trucks parked on the west side of Mississippi, between Mason and Skidmore. My breakfast companion returned at lunchtime to introduce me to one of its celebrated Arbor Lodge sandwiches, with grilled portobello mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, arugula and fried eggs. He was disappointed to find that they had run out (they tend to do that by noon). But it was just as well, because we were still digesting our hash. The truck takes a winter break on Dec. 14 and will open again in early February. 4233 North Mississippi Avenue, thebigegg.com.
Prost! Dan Hart’s German beer bar, in a super-cute Victorian building just north of the food trucks, offers brews like Mönchshof Schwarzbier (“notes of coffee and cocoa”) and Spaten Optimator (“big malty aroma”). Foodstuffs include pretzel sandwiches and cheese soup. 4237 North Mississippi Avenue, 503-954-2674, prostportland.com.
Above North Skidmore
The John Palmer House Perched like a haughty dowager on a hummock above Skidmore, this house was constructed in 1890 by John Palmer, a builder. It was used as a music conservatory and a bed-and-breakfast before Maggie Kolkena and Susan Dunn bought it in 2008. These brave women — who discovered, among other imperfections, that the house was sagging in the middle and required bolstering — did much work inside and out, and now hold nonprofit and private events here, including weddings. Among its many charms are densely patterned Bradbury & Bradbury wallpapers (a portrait of Queen Victoria hangs on a wall teeming with white flowers and olive foliage) and Povey Brothers stained glass. 4314 North Mississippi Avenue, johnpalmerhouse.com.
Source: NY Times