The best way to learn what the Central Eastside is all about, though, is to walk its rough-hewn blocks, dodge its semis and occasionally trip over the freight rails running through its streets. The attractions might include stacks of boxes filled with russet potatoes, sitting lonely on a loading dock; some endearingly scruffy arts kids smoking outside the Oak Street Building, a warren of cheap studios; the dense, herbal aroma arising from Tazo Tea’s manufacturing plant; or fliers for bands you’ve never heard pasted around the club Rotture.
"We first located here because it was cheap, and we liked the idea of being in a neighborhood that’s busy during the day. It would be a bummer if it got a bunch of big apartment buildings."
—Tommy Habetz, chef and co-owner of Bunk Sandwiches and the recently opened Bunk Bar
The whole scene works like a Venn diagram of distinct but overlapping cultures, eras, and ways of life. In one afternoon, I visited two businesses that offered both a disorienting study in contrast and a cohesive glimpse of what makes the Central Eastside so compellingly vibrant.
School Specialty Co, on SE Third Avenue, makes pom-poms in no fewer than 26 colors of extruded plastic, sold wholesale to schools and other pep-oriented entities. It’s a family firm: David Lorati keeps a portrait of his late father, Bud, who founded School Specialty in 1957 with Lorati’s mother, handcrafting his own machinery and assembly line, some of it run with wooden parts. When I visit, David’s mom is on the shop floor, alongside employees with decades-long tenures.
"I used to hold engineering parties here after hours," Lorati says. "I’d invite the smartest people I could find, and we’d have a barbecue and brainstorm how to solve mechanical problems. This district is home to a knowledge base that I don’t think people are fully aware of. There are things going on inside some of these rough, old, unrenovated buildings that are amazing. We have a concentration of learning and practical capacity, so close to the center of town, that is certainly unique in Portland, and would be hard to replicate elsewhere."
"We’ve always sold a little retail, but since we put out our stand [of vegetables], our sales have quadrupled. The people down here love their vegetables."
—David Rinella, owner of Rinella Produce, a 93-year-old Central Eastside fruit/vegetable wholesaler
I leave Lorati’s place and walk across the neighborhood to the Olympic Mills Commerce Center. Inside the airy renovated building, down the hall from the Olympic Provisions restaurant, I find Parliament, a small (but growing) advertising firm whose clients range from Microsoft to local wedding photographers. The company occupies a sprawling suite decorated in a style that could be described as Mad Men meets Paul Bunyan: artfully jigsawed reclaimed barn timber walls; sleek midcentury furniture; and recycled road signs. The moment I walk in, the staff of designers and copywriters is taking a break from work to enjoy some vegan cake.