st johns slims
Image: Jake Stangel

KATHERINE MURPHY & HAMAD ALNAJRAN, bartender & owner, Slim’s Bar

OUG SMITH has lived in St. Johns for only four years, but that may as well be several decades in the life of this neighborhood. Serving drinks at some of St. Johns’ most notorious venues has given him a bar-level view of the changes. Marie’s, formerly Shagnasty’s strip club, is now a Ping-Pong hotbed. Slim’s now has games like bingo.

“I used to live in the St. Johns Apartments, and I had a room next to the back alley,” Smith explains. “I could look out my window and see prostitutes turning tricks while their pimps waited for them, sometimes eating a burrito while it was happening. They’d take a shit back there sometimes. One night one of the girls knocked on my window and asked for toilet paper.”

That St. Johns no one seems eager to preserve. Yet, as a Saturday farmers market began peddling fresh food in St. Johns’ central plaza last year, some old timers grumbled that the town center was being overbooked with family-friendly fare. This summer will see the debut of a food cart pod with room for more than a dozen weekend craft stalls crammed into the parking lot of the Crystal Temple, a move that simultaneously answers the call for more dining options in St. Johns while also mimicking hip hangouts like Mississippi and Killingsworth, the very ambience that old-line St. Johnsians most fear. Even N Central Street—one of the neighborhood’s main routes—will become a bike boulevard next year, complete with curb extensions and speed bumps—this despite the fact that only five years ago the Port of Portland (and other freight interests) successfully fought off a bike lane on the St. Johns Bridge.

But over the new signs that now blanket the fronts of the old buildings—and the not so distant memories of sordid moments that took place behind them—leaps the longer historical arc of something like the St. Johns Parade. Started in 1962 ostensibly to pick up the large amounts of garbage in the community, this year it lured, by Adamski’s estimate, some 20,000 people to line Lombard and clog the downtown plaza. Like some glimpse into St. Johns’ future, every hue of the changing demographic turned out for a sunburn, from the new babies in their bonnets and the mustachioed pseudo-slackers on their handmade bikes to the Hispanics who now make up 14.7 percent of North Portland’s population.