Nowadays, though, somebody like Telephone Man is merely a delightful slice of antiquity decorating an entirely more promising tableau. As he places his call to nowhere in the downtown square he’s surrounded by the newfound lifeblood of St. Johns. Young moms push high-end strollers under maple trees, a cupful of Stumptown from James John Cafe in one hand. Tattooed alt-kids rattle their skateboards down streets framed by neon signs on their way to the skate park in Pier Park. Bicycle tourists from Southeast in their Lycra outfits spoon dollops of Legong gelato while checking out the schedule at the St. Johns Twin Cinemas—the only place in metropolitan Portland you can watch first-run movies for six bucks while drinking a beer.
And yet, St. Johns still manages to wear the dirt around its collar with a healthy glut of dive bars, wandering drunks, and an overpowering sense of history that keep the downtown area looking like some hybrid of Mayberry and a pre-spit-shined N Mississippi Avenue. Pride is a commodity in this insular community that still points with glee to its brief run as its own bustling city in the early 1900s.
“This is a place with a lot of heart and dirt and cracks,” says author Willy Vlautin, whose writing office in downtown overlooks the monolithic St. Johns Bridge.
But change is coming to St. Johns. The city’s gentrifier-in-chief, the Portland Development Commission, is sniffing the neighborhood with potential investment dollars that would tinker with the look of downtown while also making it more a destination than a curiosity. Meanwhile, the social fabric is already being restitched. Local bar stools now sport Gen Y bohemians instead of dockworkers. Young families looking for affordable housing have filled homes once passed down generation to generation. And Latinos are growing into the area’s dominant minority. Caught between the tempting pull of greater prosperity and the fight to hold tight to an identity nearly as old as Portland itself, St. Johns is a neighborhood in transition. The question is whether it can survive the evolution with its spirit intact.
“I resent the term gentrification because there’s a negative connotation to it,” says 63-year-old Jim Speirs, a fourth-generation St. Johns’er. “But the old neighborhood had a real homogenous feel to it, and we’re losing it. The fact that St. Johns would never change is inconceivable. But still, I’m just not sure what will become of it.”