"The founder of this company started out all by himself," Parliament’s business manager, Paul Snowden, tells me, echoing Lorati’s incubation tale. "When we moved in here, it was just a few people in one little part of the current space. We grew. We knocked down a wall. We were working in here while the carpenter was still doing the build-out—we’d get sawdust all over our keyboards."
"The Central Eastside is like Paris’s Left Bank in the early 20th century or the East Village in the ’80s. It was very lonely when we opened three years ago."
—Modou Dieng, senegal-born artist and owner of WorkSound Studio, a gallery/performance space
This creative interplay between old and new, concrete and abstract, is exactly the quality that has defied most efforts to come up with a formula for the Central Eastside’s future. Major local developers are undoubtedly eyeing the area with interest, but outsiders tend not to grasp the neighborhood’s DIY dynamic, as evidenced by local mega-developer Gerding Edlen’s poorly received, and ultimately doomed, proposal to plant a Home Depot in the area. Some (urban planners, various city administrators) have seen the district as a potential annex to corporate downtown. The area’s longtime property owners have militantly defended the Central Eastside’s official status as an “industrial sanctuary” and demanded improved freight access and other such nitty-gritty amenities. Would-be “visions” have ranged from a late-’80s scheme to move I-5 (and pave the way for a Pearl-style condo explosion) to perforating the area with a major new freeway on-ramp, the better to move loaded semitrucks out. And even the successfully complete schemes like the esplanade and the East Burnside-Couch Couplet project earn eye-rolls from old-timers who see such amenities as City Hall raids on the district’s urban renewal dollars.
In reality, neither side called it quite right, and the neighborhood became something no master plan could have created: a kind of permanent ’60s SoHo, with enough new businesses, artists, bars, and restaurants to be socially vibrant but plenty of operational forklifts to stave off banal yuppification.
"City Hall hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the Central Eastside over the years. Downtown—or I should say, the other downtown—is the golden one. But the new East Burnside-Couch Couplet is really bringing streets alive with activity."
—Bob Wentworth, co-owner of Wentworth Chevrolet Subaru and six blocks in the Central Eastside
On a hot afternoon, I meet Peter Finley Fry at Rontoms, a cavernous, hipster-approved bar in the shadow of the industrial-chic Bside6 tower. Fry, a career urban planner whose disarmingly scattered manner belies his capacity for pulling strings, has been involved in the Central Eastside for decades, mostly helping the district’s business owners navigate the political labyrinth of Portland’s planning and development processes. Fry whips out a 1998 bird’s-eye map based on designs he says he made in the ’80s, which color-codes the area into five distinct zones by transportation and building type. The chart still describes the district well today, even though many of the zones are now filled with specific businesses that no one imagined back in the ’80s.