Walk around the neighborhood, and the impressions of both Lam and Milletto resonate. Just down the street from Water Avenue Coffee and Bunk Bar, the new Hair of the Dog Brewery sports a fresh coat of chocolate-Labrador brown paint. A few blocks away, the refurbished Olympic Mills Commerce Center teems with high-minded nonprofits like the Coalition for a Livable Future and a clutch of design and tech businesses including AboutUs.org, where wiki pioneer Ward Cunningham now works as "chief inventor." At Olympic Provisions—recently named one of America’s best new restaurants by Forbes magazine—a studious kitchen staff peddles excellent sandwiches stuffed with house-made charcuterie. It can all make for an odd, if strangely entertaining mix: new agey acupuncturists squeeze up against Empire Labs, a maker of (reportedly) popular sex toys.
Meanwhile, rock-ribbed industries served by working docks and railyards carry on, lending the area an "authenticity" its newest residents obviously admire. Pratt & Larson manufactures and sells tile. Old-school grocery and restaurant wholesalers like Graziano and Rinella recall why a corridor of the neighborhood was called Produce Row. Eastside Plating’s Plant #5 produces high-quality metal finishes. Throw in small furniture manufacturers, auto body shops, and City Liquidators’ block-size mausoleums of home and office furnishings, and you have a neighborhood that’s the antithesis of our neatly layered, office-over-retail downtown across the river.
"I want to get the entrepreneur off the kitchen table and out of the garage. People down here are gentrifying the neighborhood—but from the poor man’s perspective, from the ground up."
—Walt Pelett, owner of City Liquidators and landlord to "about 100 tenants" in the Central Eastside
"The story I hear all the time is that the new professional and creative businesses like being close to those legacy industries," Lam says. "In the Central Eastside, you can really operate in that Portland-centric way, getting most of what you need to run your business from local sources."
Of course, two traditional catalysts of neighborhood revitalization—public money and development moxie—play a starring role. Beam Development, a one-time upstart, reengineered the area’s core by rehabbing about 334,000 square feet of dusty old industrial monoliths into shiny “commerce centers” that collectively now enjoy a vacancy rate of about 2 percent (compared to 12.7 percent downtown in the second quarter of 2010). This summer, Beam signed on to redevelop the moribund Convention Center Plaza building, an old Sears warehouse, signaling that the long-stalled redevelopment of the Burnside Bridgehead—four city blocks, more than 176,000 square feet of disused asphalt on the east end of the bridge—is finally inching forward.
"I think the entrepreneurs and companies that are interested in the Central Eastside right now are looking for authenticity," says Jonathan Malsin, Beam’s director of operations. "It feels like a place where grown-ups come to work, where the purpose is productivity."
"It’s great for the whole city to have a neighborhood where you can find a great bar or café next door to a small factory, next to an advertising production studio."
—Juliana Lukasik, owner of @Large Films and vice president of the Central Eastside Industrial Council
Since declaring the district an urban renewal area in 1986 (allowing money to be borrowed against future increased tax revenues), the city has leveraged a range of new buildings, renovations, and big infrastructure projects. First the $30 million Eastbank Esplanade, which opened in 2001, reestablished a long-severed link to the Willamette. The $17.8 million East Burnside-Couch Couplet is already stoking small-scale retail interest in the district’s northern zone. In 2012, the streetcar’s $148 million eastern extension is poised to open the district to thousands of downtown and Lloyd District workers. In the semi-distant future, the proposed Portland-Milwaukie MAX line, slated to cross the river near OMSI, could transform the district’s sprawling southern end. Add in the hundreds of small, enterprising old-line businesses, artists in search of cheap rent, entrepreneurs, and even the skateboarders who guerrilla-built and now run Burnside Skatepark, America’s finest anarchist sports venue, and you have the type of place almost unheard of in 21st-century America: a central-city neighborhood that simultaneously feels like a stronghold of a bygone, pre-disposable era and a potential harbinger of Portland’s industrious, self-made future.