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.
The sale of the Towne Storage Building is emblematic of the current cultural flux going on in Portland. Seemingly every week, Portland’s alternative papers showcase another cover story highlighting the rent gap and eviction crises that artists (and makers) are facing. The comments sections of these articles typically reflect what Tyler Hurst has termed as Portland’s “war with itself over the city everyone wants it to become” (of course, this was a few weeks after he had told Portlanders to where to put their opinions of Portland’s rent crisis). Among the tropes thriving in the comments sections are…
…ironic jokes about the waves of gentrification (A lot of truth is said in jest, right?):
‘Ugh, right after we displaced the lowest economic tier of Portland out to the middle of no where and put up all the bars and shopping centers we enjoy, people richer then us came in and have started to displace our living situation. We wanted the gentrification to stop at our price point, damn it!’ (Full article here)
…honest objections to the ignorance of Portland’s history of racism and gentrification:
‘Where was this moratorium request during the gentrification of the Alberta, Mississippi or Irvington neighborhoods? People start to care about gentrification when it effects them. Sure, artists are great and all and have contributed to our city’s culture but why are they so special to get a pass on gentrification? What about Portland’s working class people, the blue collar workers and the historic Black neighborhoods?’ (Full article here)
…the “Portland has ‘jumped the shark’ and now it’s time to move on” trope:
‘Hey- no offense artists, but Portland is SO OVER. It’s time to think about the next place to make cool. Hood River is so over too, but there’s still Astoria, the Dalles, Mosier and Cascade Locks! There’s also the burbs but you will never make those places cool.’ (Full article here)
…and the “this culture is the only important culture” trope (which dovetails with the ‘jumped the shark’ trope):
‘This is the end of all culture that used to make this city great. Looks great on the outside but completely empty on the inside. R.I.P Portland! It was fun while it was still cool!’ (Full article here)
It all has raised some really interesting questions about the cultural transitions the city is going through. On the one hand, it is a familiar story that artists and creatives get priced out of spaces they had a heavy hand in reshaping. Anyone that has read Sharon Zukin, Richard Lloyd, or even The New York Times knows this story. On the other hand, the “artist as pioneer” of the “urban frontier” stories (figments more so of the press than artists) turn out to have a real race and class problems, many of which indeed play out as debates in comments sections of these articles.
But the question about what happens next for artists and makers is wide open. Do artists and makers stay and fight for the space? Is this where the Right to the City lines get drawn, where Lefebvre’s “cry and demand” for particularity merge with political will? Or do artists and makers move on, maybe taking root in bucolic small towns like Tieton, WA, taking with them the potential for new stories of “artistic colonization”?
Telling the story of Portland’s makers is becoming more-and-more intertwined with the need to tell larger stories about real estate, race, cultural production, and the future of work, among other things. We should know in the near future whether or not Portland’s maker community further congeals into some sort of social “movement” or reveals itself as just another ripple in the pond of market forces.
For our part, we are hard at work analyzing the results of almost a year’s worth of rather in-depth research of Portland’s maker movement/artisan economy. We are planning on releasing a white paper in the coming months that will collate the economic impact of Portland’s maker community on the local economy. Stay tuned…there’s a lot worth paying attention to.