The Demise of the Towne Storage Building: A Sign of the Times for Portland’s Makers, Artists, and Artisans?

We had been hearing whispers about the sale of Portland’s Towne Storage building while doing interviews in the Central Eastside over the past six months, but in September we finally got confirmation. The sale of the building, in which roughly 500 artists, makers, and artisans had been renting space, is said to have happened without the building even being for sale – this says something about the demand for space in Portland’s close-in neighborhoods. But the eviction of the building’s tenants is just the latest in an extended period of spatial uncertainty for Portland’s maker community.

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State of the Collective 2015

The second annual Portland Made “State of the Collective” survey is ready to go out to Portland Made Collective members. Last year we did a similar survey, presenting the results at ADX Portland for a large audience of collective members, political leaders, entrepreneurs, makers, and community leaders from across Portland. Some of our most important findings from last year included:

  • Over 90% of small maker enterprises do not show up on national small business databases
  • Despite their relative invisibility, small maker enterprises had a large impact on the local economy
    • Employed over 1,000 people
    • Generated over $250 million in revenue
    • Revenue growth over a three year period averaged 61%
  • Maker enterprises have a “sweet spot” threshold; this speaks to a link between revenue and job creation in which firms transition from mostly part-time to full-time jobs somewhere in the $500,000 to $1million revenue range

Check out the white paper we released for more information on last year’s findings. The important point, which cannot be overstated, is that these results point to a strong need to nourish the maker and artisan community here in Portland; the survey results generally supported a need to further develop the systems of resources that will grow the making community and make Portland an international leader in the maker movement. If you are a PMC member, and you are reading this, it is vital that you respond to this year’s survey (Update: we have added a new incentive: click here to download your complementary DIY swag bag).

We spent a great deal of time developing this year’s survey, bringing an extra member onboard (thanks Will!) to help us craft it. We expect a to have a great deal of new insights from this year’s results; we have better questions, a more fine tuned system of analysis in place, and, perhaps most importantly, we are getting good at understanding the nuances of the maker community in Portland. Stay tuned for this year’s results…

The (Contested) Origins of Urban Cultural Space

Last week I was turned on to this article in Noise and Color PDX. A remark in the comments section about the cheap urban spaces in rustbelt cities made me reflect a bit on the development of “scenes” relative to transformations in the physical space of a city. We can all think of examples of these scenes – punk rock (NYC), rave culture (Detroit/Chicago), or as the article addresses, ‘indie’ music (Portland/Austin). It strikes me that the emergence of these scenes are usually treated as authentic moments of origin, as if nothing was there before, or as if the emergent scene had no effect on the previously existing culture of a place. Maybe this perception of authenticity explains why people lament the commercialization or mainstreaming of a particular scene. This seems especially true, as captured by the aforementioned article, in light of gentrification, rising rents, and the cultural shifts that accompany it all. Yet scenes do not emerge out of nothing: Walter Benjamin has already invited us to think about origins as more than what has emerged, but also what has disappeared.

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The Uncertain Future of Brooklyn’s DIY Music Community

“You’re probably getting used to hearing news like this in Williamsburg, so we’ll cut right to the chase . . .”

So begins the obituary for Glasslands, a self-described “homegrown community art space turned psychedelic venue partyhaus” which established itself during the mid-aughts at 289 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg — and, due to a sudden lease termination, hosted its very last performance at the end of 2014. Glasslands’ closure follows the recent, forced shuttering of two other Brooklyn “DIY” music venues, Death by Audio and 285 Kent. Clustered within a single building along the Brooklyn waterfront, the site of these bygone venues will soon be home to Vice Media — parent company of the perennially cool Vice Magazine — who have begun to convert the gritty spaces into a sprawling office complex. In the words of 285 Kent founder Ric Leichtung, these venues were situated amongst “the breeding grounds of American hipster culture,” a milieu which helped launch Brooklyn into the international public imagination, and ignited local interest in harnessing Brooklyn’s bohemian art and music culture as a tool for economic revitalization. This trajectory isn’t necessarily unique to Brooklyn; in many cities, DIY venues set up shop in inexpensive corners of the urban core, often anticipating — and, in the eyes of some, instigating — waves of reinvestment and gentrification. In the case of north Brooklyn, these waves significantly transformed the urban landscape from a “forgotten backwater, scattered with old warehouses” into one of New York City’s hottest real estate markets.

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Happy New Year!

We have been quite busy over the past few months, and I am sorry to say that the blog has been cold for a while. But we will hopefully change that with the New Year. We had a very good year in 2014 and we’d like to take a moment to look ahead to 2015. Here are some of the things we are currently working on:

  • An in-depth look at the artisanal fashion/apparel sector in metro Portland: Like the study we did of Portland Made Collective members last year, we are beginning with a survey that should be sent in the next few weeks. Following those results, we will be conducting interviews and site visits in the hope of constructing a snapshot of what one slice of Portland’s artisan economy looks like.
  • Curating an artisanal database: Last summer we began the process of building a simple but rather large database of Portland-area artisans in an attempt to get an idea of exactly how much artisanal economic activity is occurring in Portland right now. This is obviously very difficult, as many of these small businesses are flitting in and out of existence. We have so far covered a diversity of sectors from beer to apparel to furniture to apothecary-type goods, and have recently expanded our queries into the realm of music with plans to move on to literature, digital artisanship, and food in the near future.
  • Two writing projects: one based on the data we have collected through surveys and interviews on the concept of ‘localism’ as related to our studies on the artisan economy in Portland. The second is something of a methodology paper focusing on community-embedded research.
  • Later this year, we are working with colleagues around North America to study maker-related entrepreneurialism and the related ‘maker-enabling’ ecosystems in Portland, Chicago, and New York City. It will be a behemoth undertaking, but we are very excited about our roles in the project.

We are constantly forging new relationships with those that are steering the maker movement/artisan economy ship. That said, we might come out of 2015 with 10 more research agendas; I would not be surprised if we do! We love meeting new people and starting new conversations, so anyone with questions please feel free to contact us.

Portland Made Survey Results

This past Friday, Dr. Heying and I presented the results of our survey of Portland Made Collective members at the “State of the Collective” event held at the ADX Portland makerspace in East Portland.  Notably, the event took place on National Manufacturing Day (October 3rd), and celebrated the making and artisan manufacturing community here in Portland. Presentations at the event were also made by Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, and free beer (!) was provided by Burnside Brewing.

The research we presented was from a survey that AEI sent out to Portland Made Collective members back in May.  We had great participation from the collective’s members, and so we were excited to present our results.  The slides from our presentation can be accessed here, and the full report accessed here.  Those interested may also look at the Portland Mercury’s article on our presentation.  Please contact us with any questions or for further information.

The Stories of Objects

The Museum of Contemporary Craft (MCC) in Portland currently has an exhibit called Fashioning Cascadia: The Social Life of the Garment.  This exhibit, according to the website, aims to understand “all aspects of the design and production [of apparel], as well as those forging new production models based on locally-sourced and produced supply chains.” This is more or less what we have been calling an ecology, although we are interested in the artisan lineage through and between industries. But it’s the exhibit’s second objective that serves as the basis for this post: the exhibit hopes to explore the “social meaning that becomes embedded in garments.” Well, so do we.

Garments are, of course, the material object of the artisan’s craftwork – the actual tangible work that fashion artisans produce. In general, theorizing about artisanal work must include a space for these objects. Based on our research to this point, we would be shallow to claim that artisans and makers produce objects solely in order to exchange them for money or wealth. We believe that during the creative process, the density of meaning transferred from artisans to their product is rather high.

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Omaha, Indie Rock, and Urban Redevelopment


Music scenes are more than just a collection of bands. I’ve spent the last few years observing that they function much like Silicon Valley-esque economic clusters with the power to transform parts of a city. Recently, The Washington Post decided to follow-up on research I conducted in Omaha wherein I examined how the city’s indie music scene became a catalyst for urban redevelopment. What they found is a scene continuing to grow and a music-based urban redevelopment project, Slowdown, that has met everyone’s expectations. You can read their story here. The newspaper then asked me a few questions about how music scenes – and art in general – can be harnessed for the benefit of participants and the cities in which they live. That interview is here.

Some thoughts on making, ecology, and coopertition

Lately we have been thinking about how the artisans within the maker movement become (and stay) connected. The movement manages to encompass everyone from tech-oriented hackers and engineers to crafty jewelry makers and clothing designers to artisan food cart chefs to creative branding agencies to socially entrepreneurial placemaking nonprofits. Jeremiah Owyang, a Silicon Valley and San Francisco-based maker movement researcher, has called the maker/artisan connective tissue the “collaborative economy.” We prefer to think in terms of an ecology (an assemblage, if you will).

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AEI News: A Building for Makers and an Interview

Given the fact that there are a thousand apartment buildings being built in this area, I assumed that the new building nearing completion in my neighborhood was an apartment building. But as it turns out, the building – called The New York – is not apartments, but instead a multistory industrial building targeting “small-time manufacturers or tinkerers, and the creative office users who don’t mind working next door to them” as its tenants.

The goal, for The New York’s developers, is to confront the changing nature of manufacturing in artisan-rich places like Portland: heavy industry and large-scale mass production is no longer the dominant model of manufacturing. In other cities that have concentrated artisan activity, we see the same approach – places like the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit or 630 Flushing in Brooklyn. In Portland, there are numerous examples of old buildings that have been rehabbed to fit new uses (Jane Jacobs would be proud).

What makes this building different is that it is new from the ground up: this is the first example, that I am aware of, of a building built specifically for the artisan economy.

In other news (sorry for the cliché), Dr. Heying was recently interviewed by Ali Velshi on Al-Jazeera America. The interview is in Al-Jazeera’s archives, although the archives only catalogue the show (and therefore the interview) in one-minute segments. But the whole segment is viewable, even if you do have to click through 8 or 9 segments to watch the whole thing. Watch the interview here or watch the whole segment on the Artisan Economy from the beginning here.