The Unspoken Conversation

Every last Thursday of the month artists and crafters gather on N.E. Alberta Street to show and sell their stuff. Card tables and easels are usually unfolded around 5 p.m. to reserve sidewalk space. By 7 p.m. the sidewalk is so dense with spectators and vendors that at times people spill into the street and block traffic. "Last Thursday" has become a new Portland tradition. Last Thursday unites diverse communities and solidifies our multicultural identity. However, it’s not just fluffy, peaceful, shiny, happy people holding hands; there is a jagged edge and a raspy, whispering voice behind everyone’s ears. The voice says what no one else is willing to mumble. The voice speaks of how this new "arts community" identity has aided the flow of money and yuppies into the area, resulting in a push for rapid gentrification.

Although Last Thursday is a perfect opportunity for lower-income artists to make some quick rent or food money, the event has also become the driving force behind every business that has opened up on Alberta Street recently. The target consumer market is from outside the Alberta arts district, so the gimmick or sales pitch is typical of American Manifest Destiny. Designer clothing boutiques, expensive restaurants, a coffee shop on every block and an Irish pub all do their best to entice any crowd other than the African American community that has been the soul of the Alberta neighborhood since the 1920s. It is hard to believe that today’s Alberta Street is the same one of five years ago. Houses are being bought up so fast and at such crazy prices that housing for lower-income renters is scarce.

Of course, the changes have come for a variety of reasons, but Last Thursday is a definite smoking gun. Jen Bies (self-proclaimed supporter of the arts) attends Last Thursday because she loves how "un-hoity-toity" the whole scene is; she also sees art as an essential part of the local economy. As folks like Jen stole down Alberta Street with their eyes and ears watering from all the vivid stimulation, a question arose: Whose show is this? I heard an African American teenager call Last Thursday "white wall" because it builds a wall of white people down the center of her neighborhood. I’ve also seen young gutter-punks selling homemade applesauce and stickers advertising "yuppie go home."

At times, the businesses complain of art and craft vendors blocking their windows and interfering with business. I’ve also heard of a man named "Reggie" collecting money from first-time vendors who don’t know they can set up for free. The show, from what I’ve seen over the years, is of a diverse community of artists, who uncomfortably come together to accidentally celebrate one another’s company. At the same time they are also inadvertently celebrating the gentrification of a neighborhood in the name of the local art economy.

Recently there has been talk among the Art on Alberta non-profit organization (funny thing is, its members are pro-profit Alberta Street businesses) to create a registry or guild of artists and crafters who set up on the sidewalk. Lam and Kestrel Gates, who operate the Hi-iH gallery, see the relationship between the sidewalk "regulars" and the Alberta Street businesses as symbiotic; both groups benefit from each other. The registry would be a way to connect the street vendors and businesses by linking talent, labor and money. For example, Kestrel was approached by a local school that wanted art donations for a silent auction. The registry would have helped gather art donations.

For street vendors like Brett and Whitney Superstar, "the relationship is already there. We know where to find them and they know where to find us."

The Rev. Benny Bob, who drives from Lincoln City every Last Thursday to reconnect with friends and sell salty barnacle-covered folk art, sees the registry as unnecessary. "If Burnside [skate park] can operate for all these years without the boy scouts coming in and organizing everything, why can’t we?"

The conversation is rare, but the thoughts are frequent. What will happen to Alberta Street? Will the arts community connect and combine forces to help sustain its already disappearing soul, or will our beloved city become just another earth-toned stucco strip mall? It’s hard to say, but at least there isn’t a fucking Starbucks yet.