Alberta: Journey to the center of the arts district

If someone were to ask me what neighborhood epitomizes Portland culture, I’d adjust my ironically thick-framed glasses and answer, “the Alberta Arts District.” Running for about 20 blocks in Northeast Portland, this art-centric community has everything from hip boutiques, peculiar galleries and phenomenal restaurants.

Alberta also hosts a monthly festival called Last Thursday, where artists, vendors and performers alike can gather to sell their art and entertain ambling revelers. The unique atmosphere of this year-round event makes for some memorable evenings. I’ve seen everything from people dressed as garden gnomes running around to performers juggling fire while hula hooping.

However, the Alberta District wasn’t always the vibrant art hub that it is now.


According to the website of Alberta Main Street—an organization whose goal is to preserve the district—in the late 1800s, Alberta Street was formed by Russian and German immigrants who migrated from California after being let go from the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

By the early 1900s, Alberta Street flourished and was growing at a fairly rapid pace as various businesses found a home in the district. Many African-Americans started moving into Northeast Portland during this time.

After the flood of Vanport—public housing for about 40,000 people—many of the residents moved to Northeast Portland, which was one of the only places in Portland where real estate agents would sell housing to African-Americans.

However, the commercial side of the Alberta District began to crumble, which lasted up until the ‘70s. Realtors were told that they could no longer work there, and drugs and gang violence started to become a big problem. Business dwindled, leaving very few on Alberta Street open.

The mid-‘90s seems to mark when things started to turn around. According to an article called “Becoming the Alberta Arts District” by gallery owner Donna Guardino, in 1997 a Portland-area developer rallied some businesses to show art on Alberta Street, much like an art event on the west side called First Thursday. Instead of holding it on the first Thursday of the month, however, they decided to hold it on the last Thursday, so as not to compete with the other art event (hence the name Last Thursday).

While it wasn’t popular right away, the event started to draw quite a crowd over the next few years, and the event grew from just an art walk to a place of music, street vendors and community.

As Last Thursday gained attention, business owners started flocking to the area. Old buildings were converted to art galleries, and hip new restaurants and bars cropped up on the street.

Where to go

For those who have never been to the Alberta Arts District before, all the options can be a bit intimidating. However, for a night out in this diverse neighborhood, there’s a place for everyone.

To start out your night, I’d recommend going to Dar Salam off of 29th and Alberta, which serves authentic Iraqi cuisine. If you’re just going for appetizers, the hummus is the perfect amount of garlic-y and the grape leaf dolma is bomb dot com. If you’re feeling like something a little heavier, the kabobs over basmati rice are pleasing to the taste buds.

After your belly is full of shawarma, it’s time for drinks. Conveniently located just a few steps away is the Branch Whiskey Bar.

As someone who is a self-proclaimed whiskey enthusiast, Branch does not disappoint, with over 100 kinds of whiskey. Branch’s mixture of a pub-like environment and high-end food (which is a little pricier, but totally worth it) makes it a great place for a night out with friends or a hot date.

So now it’s 11 p.m. and you’re craving something sweet—nothing says mature adult like donuts and ice cream. Located off of 28th and Alberta, Tonallis Doughnuts & Cream has some of the best cake donuts in town. The secret is to go a little bit before closing (which is midnight), and you will be blown away by some of the freshest and most flavorful donuts you will ever sink your teeth into.

If you’re the kind of person who likes some good ol’ Southern food late in the evening, Pine State Biscuits is the perfect place to end your night. The Alberta location is off of 22nd and Alberta, and has arguably the best biscuit sandwiches in town. I recommend the Reggie deluxe, a biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, bacon, egg and cheese, topped with gravy. Sometimes when I’m feeling crazy, I’ll get a side of gravy to go with my gravy, because it’s that good. The best part about this place? They’re open until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can skip Denny’s and satisfy your drunk cravings the right way.