How Portland Became Beervana

Cheerful Tortoise, 1964 (and still going strong)  |  Source

As a part of the Widmer biography I'm working on, I wanted to dig down and figure out what role the city of Portland played in the narrative. There were several cities that led the new-brewery renaissance in the 1980s--Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver-- but they all had a different flavor. One of the key features of Portland's quick adoption of good beer happened in the pubs. I don't think any city in America is more firmly rooted in the brewpub tradition than Portland. Nearly every new brewery starts as a brewpub, and beer drinkers here expect a new brewery to have a pub. The production-facility model is rare here.

It turns out this isn't entirely a consequence of unknowable cultural development. I sat down with Carl Abbott, who for decades has used Portland as his laboratory to study urban planning and growth. He has written more about Portland and investigated it more deeply than anyone I know, and I figured if anyone was going to be able to explain this, it would be Carl. He painted an unexpected picture, one that actually traces its roots back to planning decisions made decades before Rob and Kurt planted their brewery in what was then a gritty industrial zone just north of downtown.

Portland is now known for it's "creatives" (a terrible fragment of jargon), but in an earlier generation, it attracted a different group of immigrants.

They were coming in because Portland was earning a reputation as this wonky, neighborhood-oriented place doing good planning. I would call it a policy-wonk generation rather than a techie generation.

They were attracted to an experiment Portland was about to conduct focused on keeping the core intact.

“Starting at the end of the 1960s and going into the 70s there was a strong neighborhood conservation movement. It leads to the development of neighborhood associations and SE Uplift and that kind of consciousness. A lot of that was around land use planning, conserving the old housing stock. But there was a sense at city hall at the same time that you could have an alliance between the downtown and the older neighborhoods connected by transit. If you kept the older neighborhoods strong, they’d be employees and customers for downtown businesses. And if downtown stayed strong, those neighborhoods would be attractive. And then you built a transit mall to link them together.”

This was the time when the rest of the United States was going through mass suburbanization, as the white middle class fled the established urban neighborhoods for newly-built suburbs. That, too, involved active planning by state and city governments, making it easy for people to live car-oriented lifestyles where they worked downtown and lived in the suburbs. The consequences were that those older urban neighborhoods began to wither.

“It’s not that Portland didn’t suburbanize—you go to Washington County and you know that Portland has continued to suburbanize—but without hollowing out the center. Basically, virtually all of the public institutions and facilities are in the core. Whether it’s sports venues or museums or the University. In the main it’s all in the middle; and that middle has expanded to include the central Eastside.”

The suburban trend has reversed course and now all those middle and upper-middle class whites are flooding back into city cores. Coffee shops, bistros, and pubs have all returned. But in Portland, they never left. We had gotten onto this thread of history because I pointed out how many old dive bars Portland still has. Carl pointed to another institution that had been wiped out in most cities:

I was particularly impressed back in 1980 or so of all the neighborhood movie theaters that were still functioning. In most cities there were no neighborhood theaters left. There was downtown stuff for the artsy people, then there were the cineplexes.

Again, many of those old theaters still thrive in Portland--the Moreland and CineMagic and the St Johns and the Roseway (regular haunts of mine, in fact). In those same neighborhoods you also had, beyond pubs and theaters, grocery stores, cafes, hardware stores--all the infrastructure that required local residents to support. That made Portland an ideal breeding ground for local brewpubs. Neighborhoods remained intact, infrastructure was still robust, and because Portland was an incredibly cheap town in the 80s and early 90s, finding the right kind of buildings at a good price was a snap.

Contrast that to other cities, where the core was hollowed out. Breweries didn't have built-in populations of residents to come to a pub. The cheapest spaces were in industrial parks or strip malls, which didn't lend themselves to great pub environments (I find it disorienting to go to breweries in San Diego to this day because so many are stranded in some grim suburban expanse of asphalt and strip malls). People drank at home, and reaching the market meant bottling anyway, so production facilities, with maybe a tasting room, made a lot more sense than a brewpub.

Now, of course, people have moved back into cities, and the breweries have followed. It's no surprise that the re-urbanization of America's cities correspond closely to the post-crash rise in brewery numbers. The rest of the country is catching up to Portland. That, of course, presents its own challenges. First we had to worry about suburbanization, but now the phenomenon of San Francisco-fication of cities beckons dangerously. As we continued to talk, Carl warned worryingly about where Portland is headed.

“Every city needs cheap business space for start-ups, and that contradicts the real estate imperative to get as much rent as you can, develop more intensely. And that’s the tension on the central Eastside now. It’s doomed this old form of warehousing or light industrial space.”

He continued:

“There’s racial tensions there, but there’s also tension between two different sets of 30-year-old white people. The people with one or two good salaries from tech industries or advertising or something like that can afford expensive new apartments, and the freelance artist who’s still trying to make a go of it. They may have gone to the same college, but one was the business/engineering major or the computer science major, and the other was the English major or history major.”

When I arrived in Portland in the mid-1980s, it was very favorable to the English and art major. You didn't have to earn much to support a bohemian lifestyle. That earlier, scruffier generation of creatives--some of whom founded breweries--used the cheap resources of the city to turn it into artsy, livable Portlandia. That in turn has attracted a tier of people with incomes you just didn't see in 1986. That will inevitably change things again. The Beervana of 1990 or 2010 will not be the Beervana of 2040 or 2050. Cities are growing, breathing, changing things. What Carl impressed upon me was how planning decisions made decades earlier will continue to reverberate and color the way the city evolves in the future.

Ultimately, Carl remained bullish on Portland, though. "At the same time, I think it’s become more interesting. It’s obviously become more diverse. If you’re a Californian you laugh if somebody talks about how diverse Portland is, but if you look at Portland in 1980, it way more diverse." If city planners act wisely now, the next generation and the one after that will enjoy the various layers of vibrancy this wonderful city offers. And I think there's a good chance it'll still be known as Beervana.

Jeff Alworth1 Comment