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Goodbye Old Taylor

In late May of 2013, early on a Sunday morning, I slung a duffle full of clothes and my Lowepro bag—this filled with my Canon DSLR, a couple of lenses (primes), memory cards, and some extra batteries—over both shoulders and headed into the brisk foggy air of the South Waterfront neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Together with a new model, Drew, we walked and talked our way down SW Moody, past Riverplace (many of its shops still closed), and over the Hawthorne Bridge toward SE Portland. The trip was a quick one, maybe a 30-minute jaunt. The day was prickly, overcast, and it looked halfway poised between rain and sun. By the time our shooting session was over, after about five hours solid work, Drew and I had seen both.

I was still new to Portland, having left San Francisco for cheaper fare the previous fall. So I knew nothing of our shooting location, which Drew had teased was “awesome,” “urban,” and “unique,” in our pre-shoot conversations; he had heard about it from another photographer friend. He wasn’t even sure of the exact location, only that it was someplace near the streetcar termination stop at OMSI amid the stark and rusted mess of Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District. It seemed fitting that it looked like rain.

Photo Credit: Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian

I did not know that The Oregonian had done a piece on the Old Taylor Electric Supply Co Building, our destination, which journalist Devin Kelly had called a “burned-out” “eyesore” “artistic gem” the year before. Nor did I know that the property’s owner, Taylor, had acquired the building from Ingersoll Rand in the 1990’s; had been met with loads of trouble selling it, due to environmental concerns regarding “potential and ongoing” storm water waste; nor that Taylor had come to agreements with Portland’s Central Police Precinct that any trespassing artists or taggers should be arrested on sight. I also did not know that—at the time we were shooting—Old Taylor Electric Supply had already been pawned off to developers, Killian Pacific, who are now turning the lot into office space.

Instead, when Drew and I first spied the chain-link fenced-in beauty (while walking up SE Clay), we simply looked at each other in that co-conspiratorial agreement common to both artists and delinquents that says, “this is the place.”

Old Taylor Electric Supply had once been a handsome warehouse of brick and wood frame. Its large expansive walls played home to electrical equipment, flammable materials, and chemicals that sat on mortar-red and ash-grey asphalt floors. A ramp, made of cement, ran out the middle of its south side. And huge glass pane windows, reinforced with steel—like the high windows of a high school gymnasium—faced west toward the Willamette River. The building has a beautiful panoramic view of downtown Portland.

Photo Credit: Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian

Nearly nine years ago now, a PGE transformer had exploded atop an electrical pole, starting an industrial fire that would rip through Old Taylor Electric Supply Co’s wooden frame, leaving it an ashy hulk by the time the fire was extinguished the next day. Contaminants from the building’s chemicals would combine with ash from the fire to make that selling problem Taylor would experience—a lovely mix of PCB waste that can pose a health risk to humans and was conveniently finding its way into the river. The fire, I guess, was spectacular and spectacularly destructive.

But there is loss and there is loss. And I would feel the loss of this space much differently. Yes, as an afterthought to the human loss in displacement and community as—according to The Oregonian this month—Portland leads the nation’s major cities in the rate of gentrification since 2000; the turning of Old Taylor Electric Supply into office space figures low in that loss, but it is still very personal. I feel it in the presence of signage, increasingly posted and forbidding; each return to SE Clay & SE 2nd Ave saw more and bigger “No Trespassing” signs, then a few cameras, then a gargantuan sign from the developers depicting the new building, so that every return trip for shooting in the space was more heightened and shorter than the previous one until I stopped going altogether. And of course I feel it as a sort-of death of dreams—for the shoots I might have done there, at some point in the future; even the warning from police officers (which never came) to vacate the premises seems sweet to me, but that will never happen now.

But that day in May of 2013 was perfect. That day, Drew and I found ourselves ducking the rain—that Portland staple, the fine mist of little droplets that coat every surface—just as we arrived, hiding our camera gear and shed costumes under boxed shelters made of drywall, loose sheets, probably belonging to absent vagrants; or seeking protection near spray-painted mechanical equipment, all rusted out.

Photo Credit: Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian

But then, after the rain subsided, we had hours and the Old Taylor Electric Supply Co was silent as a cathedral. Its free-standing walls cut cleanly into the overcast sky, making right-angles and rectangles, their omitted doorframes casting perfect dynamic windows to make depth or vanishing points both. The graffiti itself was a beautiful mess of colors and patterns, recurring characters, which left us free to play endlessly. Refuse—empty beer bottles, stolen traffic cones, piles of industrial garbage, even several rubber tires—made odd and handsome props. Drew made mistakes: he was new, yet he too seemed filled with the place. And I felt like an amateur, constantly trading out my lenses because I couldn’t decide how to capture it all.

What I’ll miss most was the asphalt floor, sometimes mortar-red, sometimes ash-grey, glazed with rainwater. (Thank you, WCW!) Drew in sneakers, jumping into puddles sheened over the hard surface. Or the way he threaded between the tires, on their sides, set in a triangle, interrupting what would have been a flawlessly blank mirror.As I said, there is loss and there is loss. Now I feel it in the way that imagined loss always precedes the tangible act of losing: your memory begins to form up the picture of just how you will feel about something when it is well and truly gone. Will you be relieved? Sad? Deadened and numb yourself? Will you be summoning up some bracing inner strength? And then there is the loss itself, actual and whole, and what memory does after—aging these impressions like a photograph.

Goodbye, Old Taylor.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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