Williams Avenue—Culture Found and Culture Lost
Things change. I knew that. But when did this young man start towering over me? And when did this neighborhood we were strolling through become an urban hot spot?
It was one of those Portland winter days when I was happy the overcast sky didn’t threaten rain, or at least that’s what I told myself. Seventeen consecutive days of rain had grown tiresome, and my son and I needed to get out of the house, so we pretended the clouds were white and fluffy and headed to Williams Avenue. My son had come home for the holidays after his first term away at college. Despite his first foray into living independently, he seemed happy to slip back into our tradition of exploring a Portland neighborhood and having lunch together.
Our neighborhood romping tradition started five years before when I cancelled classes on my birthday. Since we homeschooled, I had always cancelled classes on my children’s birthdays, but never before on mine. So instead of a history lesson, my youngest son and I spent the day walking our dog along Alberta Street. We poked our noses into shops we’d never explored before and commented on how the street had changed since we’d moved into the neighborhood. It didn’t take long before he decided he needed to eat. (Of course he did; he was a competitive swimmer.) We found a place to eat outside where our dog could enjoy barking at passing buses. Little did I know that this activity would become an important part of our homeschool adventure and relationship.
My son decided that having lunch out with mom was more fun than class, so he insisted we do it once a week. My heart danced over that prospect, but that wasn’t why I agreed. He saw it as a break from the school day; I saw it as an opportunity to take school to the streets. Our weekly lunch became a time to explore different cultures through food and learn how our city was changing.
As we strolled down Williams Avenue enjoying our reprieve from the rain, we talked about the area’s metamorphosis. When we first moved to Northeast Portland, Williams Avenue had more empty lots than buildings. It had been a sad place, especially considering its cultural history.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the section of the Albina neighborhood between Fremont Street and what is now called the Rose Quarter, was known as Jumptown due to the scores of jazz clubs along Williams Avenue. The neighborhood was home to most of the African American community in Portland, many of whom arrived during World War II to work in the shipbuilding industry. The Portland Realty Board had proclaimed in 1919 that it was “unethical for an agent to sell property to either Negro or Chinese people in a White neighborhood.” Thus, realtors put in place practices that limited housing options for African Americans. As a result, the Albina neighborhood became the center of the African American community in Portland. The jazz clubs on Williams thrived, and African Americans as well as whites frequented them to watch performances by T-Bone Walker, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz legends.
Then the wrecking ball of suburban flight hit American cities in the 1950s. Government agencies in US cities labeled low-density neighborhoods “blighted” areas and had them razed to make room for infrastructure, public facilities, and private development despite the impact it had on the ethnic communities living there. Sections of Albina and South Portland, a neighborhood of Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants, were plowed under to build the Memorial Coliseum, I-5 and I-405. In the 1970s, the Portland Development Commission cleared more land in the Albina neighborhood for the expansion of Emanuel Hospital, destroying 188 homes and the Williams/Russell business center. However, the federal funds to enable the hospital expansion never materialized, so the land remained vacant for the remainder of the century.
I remember when the first restaurants on Williams Avenue opened in The Hub Building. It seemed so strange at the time, like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert. Jon Kellogg and Thad Fisco of Adaptive Development Co. had transformed a former Oregon Food Bank storehouse into The Hub in 2008 as part of their efforts to rehab dilapidated buildings in Portland. In an interview for The Oregonian, Kellogg said, “We try to buy buildings in neighborhoods we can still afford so we can deliver the spaces at a fair rent.” The Hub filled with shops and restaurants, including my son and my destination on our less than soggy outing—Tasty and Sons.
When I first moved to Portland, no one considered it a food destination. There were no write-ups in The New York Times or The Washington Post. No one talked about our food cart pods or our laid back yet adventurous farm-to-table cuisine. All people said about Portland was, “Doesn’t it rain a lot there?” But the foundation laid by Genoa, Pazzo, Paley’s Place, Wildwood, and a few others in the 1990’s spawned a burgeoning food scene that exploded in the 2000’s with a host of young chefs who embraced food traditions from all over the world but gave them a uniquely Portland vibe.
In 2007, one of these young chefs, John Gorham, opened Toro Bravo in the Albina neighborhood, offering Spanish inspired tapas. My family fell in love with Toro Bravo, but it became so popular that the wait time for a table hit the two-hour mark. So, when John Gorham and his partners opened Tasty and Sons in The Hub, we rejoiced. But Tasty and Sons wasn’t just another Toro Bravo. Tasty and Sons’ menu, featuring Shakshuka, Burmese Red Pork Stew, Moroccan Chicken Hash, Sheboygan Bratwurst, and Chocolate Potato Doughnuts, is a testament to Portland’s multi-cultural approach to food. My favorite dish, Shakshuka, eggs baked in a stew of vegetables, originated in Tunisia and is hugely popular in Israel—a highlight from Claudia Roden’s 2006 The Book of Jewish Food. At Tasty and Sons, they serve it Israeli style with onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
My son and I emerged from Tasty and Sons on that gray December afternoon stuffed to the gills but happy to be together in a town where chefs embrace other food cultures. Yet while we marveled at the long line at Tasty and Sons, and all the new buildings on Williams with their thriving businesses and much needed apartments, we also lamented what this neighborhood had lost long before it became a destination. Change is inevitable, and it can be exciting, but it comes with a cost when people get displaced and their cultural influence is lost.
Shortly after our day together, my son finished registering for his next term at college and signed up for a class on Intercultural Communications. After years of my exposing him to other cultures through history, art, and food, he has chosen to take a class that will teach him how to listen and value the perspectives, as well as talk to, people who are different from him. Perhaps I’ve done my job.
Gail Pasternack is a writer, blogger, educator, foodie, and tango dancer. She writes literary fiction with quirky characters and fantasy fiction inspired by Jewish Folklore. After attaining her masters at Columbia University, she taught at a private high school and for Cornell University Cooperative Extension in New York City and homeschooled her children through high school. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and is a board member of Willamette Writers. Her short story “Asmodai in Portland” was published by Reclaiming Judaism Press in the anthology New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family in the fall of 2014.
You can visit Gail's website and blog at the following address, http://gailpasternack.com/.