INSIDE FIVE-WEEK-OLD WATER AVENUE COFFEE on a recent August morning, gleaming countertops—all venerable fir reclaimed from some century-old industrial building nearby—caught the milky light from an overcast sky. Espresso machines hissed as a steady stream of walk-in customers homed in on the counter. In the street outside, two men steered a Skyjack crane above yet another new business next door: Bunk Bar, the latest venture from celebrated chef Tommy Habetz.
The low-key but enterprising scene is typical of the Central Eastside, where about 1,100 increasingly busy businesses keep more than 17,000 Portlanders employed. While the nightly news bemoans sluggish job-growth rates, stubborn unemployment, and, potentially, a long and irreversible decline, the district’s nearly 700 acres are blooming with counter-cyclical optimism.
"In general, the neighborhood’s manufacturing owners welcome change as long as it’s organic change. The real creative class in the Central Eastside includes machinists and engineers—people who can solve real, practical problems."
—David Lorati, owner of School Specialty Co, an east-side manufacturer since the ’60s
"Throughout the recession, the Central Eastside has stayed strong," says Trang Lam, a senior project manager for the Portland Development Commission (PDC), which has overseen the neighborhood’s Central Eastside Urban Renewal Area since 1986. "You have legacy businesses, which tend to be owner-occupied light-industrial spaces, and you have whole generations of new businesses in creative and professional fields. It’s not blue-collar or white-collar—it’s a mix of both." (According to the PDC’s most recent stats, as the nation plummeted into recession in 2007 and 2008, the Central Eastside added about 500 jobs.)
To be sure, the district’s practical ethos seems to be the fuel of its own regeneration. "We looked at other places that would have been a much better fit for pure retail," says Matt Milletto, co-owner of Water Avenue Coffee. "But we’re not just a retail café. We’re doing factory-style roasting and wholesale shipping, and this facility allows both sides to exist in the same space. This area has been an industrial stronghold for decades, and we’re both paying tribute to that heritage and building on it."