Krista Arias, 34, whips up gourmet riffs on French crepes from a kitchen inside a streamlined trailer behind La Palabra, a "philosophy"...
PORTLAND — Krista Arias, 34, whips up gourmet riffs on French crepes from a kitchen inside a streamlined trailer behind La Palabra, a “philosophy” cafe where locals meet to sip mint-laced hot chocolate and read Aristotle.
At Every Day Wine, Beth Boston, 35, tells customers “the list is on the wall,” referring to her inventory of 400 bottles for sale, any of which she will pour by the glass. And because she brings her dog to work and therefore can’t serve food, she invites patrons to bring their own.
Eggs over easy? Not at the Vita Cafe, where mornings begin with Thai corn cakes or a smoky tofu scramble with mushroom gravy and veggies.
Welcome to the Alberta Arts District, a mile-long commercial stretch in Northeast Portland where local entrepreneurs have turned the ‘hood into a hip hub for food, art and new ideas.
Galleries, shops, restaurants, coffeehouses and artists’ studios fill once-vacant storefronts along Northeast Alberta Street in a tree-lined residential neighborhood about five miles from downtown.
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Seven years ago when Donna and Sal Guardino moved to the area, “there were gang shootings, a lot of drugs and a lot of boarded-up buildings,” says Donna Guardino, president of Art on Alberta, a group that sponsors the monthly Last Thursday Art Walk, when more than 30 businesses show new art and stay open late.
The Guardinos, both printmakers, had relocated from Sonoma, Calif., to rural Oregon when they decided that they wanted to live in the city.
“We came here looking for a storefront and apartment above it and wound up finding this building,” a former church at Alberta and Northeast 30th Avenue, where they opened Guardino Gallery, a frame shop, gift shop and gallery that shows the work of local artists. “There was nothing here essentially, and there was nowhere to go but up.”
Working-class German and Irish immigrants first came to Alberta in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the century, a business district developed around a streetcar line. But the line was eventually replaced by buses, and racial tensions in the 1960s took a toll on the neighborhood.
Businesses were looted or burned and many store owners moved out. Then in the early 1990s, things began to change. Community leaders, a major property owner and the city began to invest. Cheap rents drew artists looking for studio space, and “activity started to follow,” says Guardino.
“It’s a small, intimate street, not a giant thoroughfare. It had some interesting buildings and it had possibilities. It had the potential for change.”
A vibrant neighborhoodLocal draws are the monthly art walks, a handful of good restaurants and quirky nighttime entertainment such as a recent didgeridoo concert at Concordia Coffee.
A few of the restaurants — The Tin Shed, where locals line up for Sunday brunch, and the vegetarian Vita Cafe — are well-kept Portland secrets.
Outsiders are more likely to view Alberta as a work in progress compared to Nob Hill in Northwest Portland, where Victorian homes house chic boutiques, or the Pearl District, a former industrial/warehouse section near downtown filled with condos, design stores and high-priced galleries.
Cross Seattle’s formerly funky Fremont with Columbia City and you’ll get the idea. Storefront churches, Latino groceries and taquerias share the street with spruced-up buildings, some dating to the early 1900s, others with shiny new corrugated-metal facades.
Some are still vacant or in various stages of reconstruction. Stroll along Alberta on a Sunday morning and you’re as apt to find yourself being invited into the Highland Temple for services as you are to be standing in line for brunch at Helser’s across the street.
Couples pushing baby strollers have replaced the drug dealers, and bold murals have replaced graffiti. The city paid for new bus stops and sidewalks, and students from a local vocational school decorated sidewalks and yards with sculptures made from found metal objects.
“Alberta Street is not a novelty. It’s a neighborhood,” Arias says. Perhaps, but on Alberta Street, novel ideas thrive.
Sidewalk attractionsNortheast Alberta stretches from Northeast Martin Luther King Boulevard to 33rd Avenue Northeast, but if you walk a 20-block stretch along both sides of the street between 11th and 31st, you’ll hit the highlights.
Next door to Guardino Gallery at 2939 Northeast Alberta is the Hi-iH Gallery and lamp shop started in 1997 by Lam Quang as a papermaking studio.
The Vietnamese-born artist makes and sells colorful lamps inspired by sea creatures, insects and tropical flowers. Prices start at around $100 for lamps and shades he fashions from handmade paper wrapped around forms of bent wire and bamboo.
La Palabra Café-Press & Fold Crêperie, 2921 N.E. Alberta, in an old carriage house next door to Hi-iH, is actually three businesses in one, says Arias, a Mexican-Canadian-American working toward her doctorate in philosophy.
She and her partner, David McElroy, converted a trailer in the back into a kitchen for making Parisian-style buckwheat sweet and savory crepes.
Art on Alberta
Portland’s Alberta Arts District is on the east side of the Willamette River in Northeast Portland (see map). Drive, or take the Route 9 or 10 Tri-Met bus from downtown in about 20 to 30 minutes. More than 60 businesses are spread out along a 20-block stretch of Northeast Alberta Street and a short section of Northeast 33rd Avenue. To explore the district, walk, drive or take the Route 72 bus, which runs the length of Alberta.
Best times to go
Visit on weekends or the last Thursday of each month when street vendors and performers turn out for the Last Thursday Art Walk from 6 to 9 p.m. Many places are closed on Mondays.
Best times to go
Six blocks away at 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave. is McMenamins Kennedy School, a hotel, restaurant, bar and theater complex inside a converted 1915 elementary school. Rates for double rooms with private bathrooms are $84 Sunday-Thursday and $94 on Friday and Saturday. 888-249-3983 or www.mcmenamins.com.
More than a dozen options, from doughnuts to sushi. You’ll need reservations for the two fanciest restaurants, Bernie’s Southern Bistro (503-282-9864) and Ciao Vito (503-282-5522). More casual local favorites include the Tin Shed, La Palabra, Helser’s on Alberta and Vita Cafe.
To learn more about Art on Alberta’s Last Thursday Art Walk, the Art Hop spring festival set for May 14, and the Alberta Street Fair in September, contact Donna Guardino at Guardino Gallery, 503-281-9048, or Allan Oliver at Onda, 503-493-1909, or see www.artonalberta.org.
Pick up a free, color Alberta Street Walking Map at any of the shops or galleries or see the Web at www.urbanlivingmaps.com/map-alberta.html .
Advocates of the “slow food movement,” they don’t have an espresso machine and don’t sell lattes. Instead they offer percolator espresso and have plans to open a cocoa and tea bar.
Bon Appétit magazine recently profiled La Palabra (Spanish for “The Word”) as one of the five best places to eat in Portland, but food’s not the only draw. The cafe is also a gallery displaying the work of local artists and a salon, where Arias and McElroy host read-alouds and invite visitors to type out poems on a bank of manual typewriters and hang them from a “tree” made of coat hangers.
Across the street, east of Victory Outreach Church, Vita Cafe, 3024 N.E. Alberta, dishes up creative vegetarian fare served in plywood booths decorated with red lights hung from the ceiling.
Frock, at 2940 N.E. Alberta, sells the work of 50 local artists — everything from rings made from bottle caps to beer cozies for the head (hand-knitted caps made out of Chinese beer cans).
Further west, opposite a motorcycle club’s former headquarters (replaced by a new building housing Shangri-La shoes), is another hub of galleries and shops including Tribe of the Winds, 2217 N.E. Alberta, which shows the work of immigrant artists, and Onda, 2215 N.E. Alberta, which stocks pottery from Peru and Nicaragua, textiles from Brazil and handmade rugs from Chile.
In the blocks between 14th and 15th Avenues are two popular restaurants — Helser’s at 1536 N.E. Alberta, a good choice for Sunday brunch (try the pepper bacon or pear-and-Havarti pie) and the Tin Shed with a garden and outdoor fireplace. Every Day Wine, a cozy wine bar and shop at 1520 N.E. Alberta, keeps menus from local restaurants behind the counter in case customers want to order take-out while sipping a baby Brunello.
Murals, mosaics and metal sculptures decorate the sides of buildings, doorways and sidewalks on both sides of the street. Many of the murals were painted by Hampton Rodriguez, 36, a native of the Dominican Republic who owns the Bohio studio and gallery at 1451 N.E. Alberta, and who often involves students and disadvantaged neighborhood youths in the projects.Gardens, not galleries?
Not everyone is thrilled with the changes on Alberta. Rents and home prices have risen and shops that once catered to Latino and African-American residents are disappearing.
One day Donna Guardino awoke to find “Gardens, not galleries,” scrawled across her window. “Go home yuppies” is another phrase that shows up on vacant buildings.
The biggest problem for the casual visitor, however, will be deciding where to eat after spending a morning or afternoon exploring one of Portland’s last Starbucks-free neighborhoods.
“It’s like a little arts village right smack in the middle of a big city,” says Sharan Barnett, a writer who moved to Alberta Street recently with her husband, Frank, a photographer.
The Barnetts, who left the Pearl District after it became too expensive, recently opened the Frank Barnett Photography gallery and studio at 1607 N.E. Alberta, below their loft apartment.
“We want to keep the artists who are working here here,” says Sharan Barnett. “Our dream for Alberta Street is to try and keep it humble.”
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com