As it evolves on the Columbia, please remember: This damp, historic spot is a river town, not an ocean tourist stop.
IN THE OLDEST Euro-settlement on the north Pacific Coast, you don’t get far past the appetizer stage at dinner before The Question, heavy and potent as a guttural sea-lion belch, floats out into the humidity-rich air: Can the old cannery/new hipster town of Astoria, Oregon, the spit-polished barnacle on the backside of progressively precious-to-the-point-of-self-parody Portland, refashion itself into a place where Generation Kindle wants to live — but still maintain its used-bookstore roots?
The waitress isn’t sure.
“Really, it’s whether the town can keep that sense of cragginess,” she says.
Cragginess. As in, with crag. A rugged face.
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No question Astoria, a vivid, living memorial to the promise and pathos that would spring forth after that fateful spring day in 1811 when the former fur-trading fort became the first lasting foothold in the wild Oregon Territory, has it in spades.
Nor that a satisfactory maintenance of the crag/non-crag balance — or as a former city manager famously put it, the battle between “gritty and pretty” — is as common a discussion topic on bar stools along Astoria’s waterfront as a new strain of IPA from one of the old town’s new breweries.
Some degree of crag, the waitress finally concluded, is good for Astoria — perhaps even vital. This verdict came with no apparent recognition of the irony that the manicured thumbs-up for “gritty” occurred at Bridgewater Bistro, a fine-dining establishment occupying a pier space on a riverfront that once cranked out pallets of canned Bumble Bee tuna, but today dishes up what’s called ahi, seared to rare and served with the requisite gluten-free butternut squash risotto and sherry beurre noisette — at 27 bucks a plate.
All of which is a fancy way of opening the door to a discussion about the dreaded G-word: gentrification, Potentially Cool Western U.S. Urban Escape Destination-style.
ASSUMING IT PORTENDS success, does gentrification matter? Well, yeah — critically, if you live in Clatsop County and appreciate historic Astoria’s damp-but-spirited sensibilities. And yes, perhaps more critically, if you’re in the final throes of emotional-residential breakup with some overcrowded, overpriced, under-souled vestige of former Northwest urban livability, and have a wandering eye for flouncy coastal escape hatches.
And yes, it should matter even to the rest of you who have never been through the front doors of Fort George Brewery, over the seemingly never-ending Astoria-Megler Bridge spanning the Columbia, or up any of the 164 steps to the top of the Astoria Column.
Because Astoria, to many Northwesterners, is the oldest thing in these parts bearing the watermark of their ancestry. And whether one considers that memorial status worth remembering as a springboard to progress, a sentinel of doom — or, for most, probably something in between — Astoria’s forerunner status, in pure historical terms, matters. Because the town in many ways is not only a prototype of the old, but a microcosm of the new Northwest.
At least consider: People subscribing to the notion that the Northwest has value both as a place and a lifestyle need Astoria to keep serving up some sand with each bite of steamed clam specifically because it is old and somewhat rough around its exposed pilings. The accompanying argument: A full Carhartt-to-Patagonia shift in Astoria’s sensibilities would be the last spear through the heart of the region’s modern heritage.
This might be viewed as good or bad, but either way, it’s culturally significant. Because many towns that followed Astoria’s lead, forging a resource economy that was great while the trees and salmon lasted, now find themselves clambering up from the canvas of various economic haymakers and asking the very same question on the lips of Astorians on Bingo Night down at the Merry Time bar:
FIRST OFF, PLEASE get it straight: Astoria, though literally within sight of the Pacific Ocean from its upper reaches, is a river town, not a coastal burg. (Drive from here down to Seaside, and you’ll appreciate the differences.)
This town, strung out on an east-west peninsula, clings to a hillside that looks like it might sheer off during batten-the-hatches weather, which in fact is the forecast for about nine months every year. By accident of geography, its living spaces largely filled up, long ago, with houses, often of magazine-loving, Victorian style. And its uglier necessities — the Fred Meyer, and whatnot — filled in less-visible, flatter spaces across another bridge, in Warrenton.
In summer months, easily impressible visitors, strolling the town’s pleasant river walk; taking in its rich, deftly curated museums; engaging in its thriving brewpub culture; and taking advantage of its rich nearby coastal attractions, often get an itch to move here — much to their January, Seasonal-Affective-Disorder regret. So it goes.
The town, like many in the Northwestern U.S., is abuzz these days with the talk of unpleasant change. Pick any afternoon on the wobbly stools at the coffee bar inside Godfather’s Books, and you’ll hear it: Rents are up, for God’s sake, with one-bedrooms going for a thousand a month — “almost as bad as Portland,” a lament particularly heartfelt among those who fled the crepe-infested Rose City to revel here in Pig ’N Pancake sensibility. A homeless tent city recently emerged.
All prices of “progress,” really, and Astoria, much to the chagrin of local social commentators (pretty much everybody), has seen a fair amount. The easily walkable downtown has stripped away much of the old, bad, vertical strip siding to restore the clean, artistic lines (see: Liberty Theatre) of a city once awash in the cold cash and high civic ideals of titans of the old economy.
The town, long holding steady at about 10,000 souls, many housed in picturesque homes in various states of repair and repose, has done far better than most in celebrating a history uniquely long, by Northwest standards.
Tourism has become a somewhat-reluctant mainstay, driven by maritime buffs drawn to the excellent waterfront museum; curious weekenders from Portland, Seattle and Northern California; and other unexpected niche crowds, like cult followers of the 1985 campy Steven Spielberg adventure film “The Goonies,” which was shot in town.
Hence, gentrification it is, both to reap the tourist buck and attract a new generation of Astorians who, it is hoped, will honor the “grit” of the past. It is particularly important here, where the city’s long past as a procurer and exporter of furs, fish, logs and other hardgoods is a defining part of its longterm identity — one everyone agrees will not be its future reality.
What, then, is Astoria’s next act?
DULCYE TAYLOR has a few ideas.
A Boise native, former Microsoft artistic type and 20-year Seattle-area resident, she moved to Oregon in 2006 to be with a woman she loved, and never looked back.
After a stop in Gearhart, she wound up in Astoria, where she runs Old Town Framing Co. on Commercial Street, about five blocks down from her house (her car was totaled in December; she didn’t replace it). It didn’t take Taylor long to grasp the importance of proper pretty/gritty balance in a new hometown with which she slowly, surely, fell in love.
First blush, from a longtime Seattleite perspective: “Astoria’s really a town for a pedestrian. As you walk the streets, you find little sweet spots and areas that speak to you.”
She also became enamored with the town’s frontier-edge history, which somehow had evaded her (and our) consciousness in Northwest history classes. If Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor hadn’t conspired to make Astoria a fur-trading post — and full-fledged, U.S. flag-raising fort — the Columbia River very likely would have become the U.S./Canadian border, she notes. It gives the place an air of import that still feels real.
That was just a starting point.
“I love the whole enchilada now,” she says. “The people are so stinking nice. You always meet cranky people, especially in retail. But in 11 years, I’ve been yelled at maybe five times. I think that’s pretty good.”
The town is like anywhere else in the small-town West, she says: People move in and habitually want to shut the door behind them, decrying the threat of rising prices and hipster invasion that they, themselves, just participated in. Her answer to those struggling with their conscience over that question: OK. Do your part to honor and embrace the DNA of the place you have transplanted yourself into. Then defend it like hell.
After settling in, Taylor quickly immersed herself in the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, which she now heads. She tells those who want to preserve local character: “OK, then you’ve got to do something to work toward that goal. Whether it means sitting in on a City Council meeting and making sure they don’t let high-rises be built along the river, or whatever it is.
“Astoria is nothing if not a volunteer town,” Taylor continues. Transplants who come into her shop grousing about change get deft nudging by Taylor into activism. “What do you like to do?” she’ll ask. “What do you care about?”
Many bite, she says, and healthy local activism is one thing keeping the town decidedly real, despite a large influx of people not initially attuned to holey-Filson-vest-at-the-dinner-table sensibilities.
Here’s something else Taylor, 61, appreciates about her new home: Astorians don’t just talk a good game about preserving character; they actually do it. She points to the example of old-growth timber beams damaged in a 2008 fire at Bank of America being remilled and reused in taproom woodwork at the popular downtown Fort George Brewery.
The town doesn’t just leave token facades on historic buildings, a la Seattle (here’s looking at you, South Lake Union), but actually recycles the old bones into the new infrastructure. It’s a way to keep the local business blood flowing through veins that qualify as unique.
Visitors might not even realize why, but the place oozes its own old-town survivor vibe.
“That’s how you keep your grit,” Taylor says. “You honor your history.”
CAN THIS WORK? It seems to be.
As is the case with other Northwest towns on the short lists of relocators, both real and imagined, actually pointing a U-Haul toward Astoria can be a tough prospect — much to the admitted delight of many of the locals. And Astoria, for all its charm and its relative proximity to Portland, is still what it has always been: a somewhat-remote outpost. Not the place for kings and queens of convenience. You can’t fly out of Warrenton-Astoria Regional Airport (motto: “Plenty of room for growth!”) and get very far, at least directly.
Family-wage jobs are scarce, although the town’s thriving microbrew and other new-age enterprises have launched a helpful cycle of increased influx, more tourist dollars, more regional notice and more visitors.
Part of this, local leaders admit, has been pure providence. Cruise ships transitioning from north to south destinations began making port calls in the spring and fall about a decade ago. And tens of thousands of annual visitors come to town purely to see “The Goonies” locations, particularly the old Clatsop County Jail, the site of a jailbreak in the film’s opening scenes. Local historical society officials, watching an increasing flood of visitors at the jail, across the street from the museum then occupying the fascinating, Victorian-style manse of the family of Capt. George Flavel (an early beneficiary of the still-thriving Columbia River bar pilot business) had the bright idea of turning the jail into a museum celebrating “The Goonies” and other Oregon film projects. Seven years later, it has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, drawing some 30,000 annual visitors.
The town’s maritime museum is top-notch. Its arts scene, highlighted by events such as a Fisher Poets Gathering, the last weekend in February, keeps growing. The microbrewery business has thrived, creating a culture to match its business footprint along the city’s formerly cannery-dominated riverfront.
Local entrepreneurs keep conjuring ways to play on the town’s history to pave the way to its future. Taylor is active in a group working to restore the Astoria-built Tourist No. 2, one of the old wooden ferries that moved traffic across the 4-mile span of the mouth of the Columbia before the bridge opened in 1966. The group hopes to turn the old boat — which long plied the waters of Lake Washington as the Kirkland, under the Argosy Cruises banner, until a fire put it out of commission — into a year-round venue and summertime cruise boat.
“It’s another way to keep our gritty — and be pretty,” Taylor says with a laugh.
THE MOST ENCOURAGING sign for the future: The children of old-time Astorians are increasingly planting roots back home, Taylor says, citing the local brewery industry as a landing place for their enthusiasm — and venture capital. Many of them are sticking.
In a town sharply politically divided — between those who love the bellowing herds of hundreds of California sea lions hauled out on local docks, and those who do not — the streets and wharves of modern Astoria have some of the same appeal as they did for the town’s older generations, summed up almost two decades ago in a bumper sticker creation by local artist Tom Hannen: “We Ain’t Quaint in Astoria.”
Astorians ever since have argued about what that meant. But it’s really not complicated: Like many, they wonder whether their historic town can retain its blue-collar, working waterfront roots — keeping those little touchstones, like two functioning butcher shops — all the while attracting new tourists who, in a modern world starving for authenticity, are happy to drink up that vibe across the river from the camp that waterlogged explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805 morosely dubbed “Dismal Nitch.”
Don’t pass this on, but at least for now, it’s working for Astoria. After 206 years, the place lives on, clinging to the edge of the continent. Gritty remains its calling card, pretty occurring only in acceptable doses. Here in the first calm waters past the Graveyard of the Pacific, that might well be the everlasting point.