SPEIRS MAY AS WELL be pointing his finger at my wife and me. In January we opened a bar right at the mouth of the Lombard strip, a Southern juke joint in spirit that has—thankfully—been embraced by most of St. Johns’ competing demographics. The cool kids like our music and our cheap beer; the old guard appreciates us for not having video poker. Of course, the hardliners remain. When an early version of our menu unintentionally placed an apostrophe in St. Johns, one salty old dude playfully growled, “Outsiders.” We are admittedly biased to all the good that lies here, but neither are we blind to the unique challenges that face this neighborhood. It’s a place that, after only six months, we staunchly refer to as our neighborhood.
To get a better sense of why St. Johns remains guarded in the face of progress, you need to look back to its roots. Depending on what juicy bit of mangled history you choose to believe, James John—the neighborhood namesake who first established “St. Johns on the Willamette” in 1852—was either a) a crotchety old hermit who in his later years became a bit of a bogeyman, or b) a teetotaler who earned his honorary halo by not partaking in the ample brothels of the settlement. Either version is perfectly fitting for a neighborhood that seems to have come by the chip on its shoulder honestly.
James John’s gambit (he left Linnton shortly before it was virtually abandoned during the California Gold Rush) grew from a four-block outpost into its own incorporated city by 1903. By then a pair of mills, the Port of Portland’s dry dock, and a basket and crate maker soon to become the West’s first softwood plywood manufacturer had already began flexing the industrial power of St. Johns. A year later the St. Johns Review was founded, still the oldest continually published community newspaper in Portland. And 1904 also saw Portland Woolen Mills re-establish itself in St. Johns after its factory in Sellwood burned down. At the time, it was the largest such mill west of Cleveland.
But St. Johns’ brief run as a fledgling second city on the Willamette would last just 12 years. In 1915, in a 799 to 499 vote, the area opted for incorporation into Portland. If the decision seems a landslide, consider that only 1,298 of the reported 6,600 eligible residents at the time actually cast a ballot, a fishiness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a few St. Johns residents to this day.