A trip down Portland's hip, revitalized Mississippi Avenue
My first impression of North Mississippi Avenue, the latest off-the-beaten path business district to undergo an extreme...
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — My first impression of North Mississippi Avenue, the latest off-the-beaten path business district to undergo an extreme makeover here, was that its combination of refurbished storefronts, turn-of-the-century wood homes and good-looking young hipsters slumming at streetside tables resembled a movie set.
As I would soon discover, the makers of a new film starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear thought so, too.
In early August, the two stars and filmmaker Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer") used the strip's hot-spot coffee shop, Fresh Pot (4001 N. Mississippi Ave.), as one of the main locations for a movie called "The Feast of Love."
Despite its out-of-the way location across the Willamette River and Interstate 5 in Northeast Portland, in the city's largest African-American neighborhood, Mississippi Avenue isn't likely to stay under the radar much longer.
Already, on any given day well-dressed young professionals wearing huge sunglasses mix with earthy types in thrift-store duds in the strip's cafes, restaurants, pubs and clothing boutiques, almost none of which existed 10 years ago.
The turnaround in this compact and walkable stretch has been swift, helped along by a re-opened bike/pedestrian bridge connecting it to a light rail line and downtown districts.
Matthew Vinci, co-owner of Fresh Pot, has vivid memories of four years ago when he renovated the old drug store and soda fountain that now houses his coffee shop.
"Looking out the window and seeing someone — anyone — walking down the sidewalk was weird," Vinci said.
Back then, the neighborhood was still considered a tourist no-go zone with a history of drug dealing, violence and prostitution. Even so, Vinci and other urban adventurers could see potential in its historic storefronts and homes.
Giving character to new buildings
One sign of the changing tide was the success of The Rebuilding Center (3625 N. Mississippi Ave.), a used building-materials emporium that takes up virtually a whole block between North Fremont and North Beech streets. The nonprofit recycling company collects and then sells at a discount almost anything that can be removed from old houses and commercial buildings, from windows and doors to sinks and toilets to moldings and carpet.
Many of Mississippi's new establishments were renovated using second-hand materials from the warehouse.
But the popular center has also helped pull in customers from outside the district, who then learn about other businesses on the strip, like Por Qué No? (3524 N. Mississippi), a taqueria right across the street, and The Mississippi Pizza Pub (3552 N. Mississippi Ave.), which features live music most nights.
"Within the last two years, Mississippi has become a destination," says Vinci, 35. "It kind of grew way quicker than we could have imagined. ... Just seeing that foot traffic now, it's like night and day."
Certainly, the presence of celebrities has upped the cool quotient.
"It was kind of neat looking across the street and watching Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear walking in and out of the cafe," said Vinci, whose staff operated a temporary location "for hardcore regulars" on the other side of Mississippi during the filming.
The past two years, in particular, have seen a frenzy of new business openings on the strip as storefronts get made over and the area's working-class homes change hands to more affluent owners.
Restaurants and boutiques seem to adhere to the same conscientious ideals, whether it's locally produced ingredients in food or handmade dresses on clothing racks.
The $3.50 fish tacos at Por Qué No? contain line-caught snapper, and the $2.50 carnitas boast "braised Carlton Farms pork" and Willamette Valley cheese.
At the dual boutique and handmade stationery store Duchess Clothier/Memoir, 909 N. Beech St., tailored men's suits can be made to order in styles from the 1930s to the '60s and cost from $195 to $600.
Memoir owner Brooke Krawetz, a transplant from Seattle, said she and Duchess owner Seyta Selter, also from Seattle, are on a mission to dress Portland's young men in something a bit classier than the standard ragged T-shirts and ill-fitting thrift-store slacks.
"Usually, it's their first suit," she said of guys, usually in their 20s, who come in for fittings.
Tourist target now
Portland's North Mississippi Avenue
The business district lies primarily between North Fremont Street and North Mason Street. To get there from Interstate 5, take Exit 303 and turn east onto Alberta Street. At the first light, turn right and head south on Albina Avenue, which merges into Mississippi Avenue.
McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave., is a converted schoolhouse in Northeast Portland with a pub, a pool, and rooms for $99-$109. 503-249-3983 or www.mcmenamins.com.
It's possible to dine out at any of the following restaurants for less than $40 per person, including wine or cocktail and dessert.
• Lorenzo's (3807 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-284-6200) dishes up Italian food in a casual setting while Pasta Bangs (3950 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-287-2782), offers simple Italian fare for a good cause — the staff was hired from Portland's homeless youth community to give them job experience.
• Equinox offers an eclectic menu based on fresh, seasonal ingredients, plus an extensive brunch list. 830 N. Shaver St. (at Mississippi), 503-460-3333.
• Gravy serves American comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 3957 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-287-8800.
• Por Qué No? is a tiny joint that specializes in cheap tacos with meat or fish. 3524 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-467-4149.
• Lovely Hula Hands occupies a big pink house just off the main drag along Mississippi. The tender, juicy pork chop smothered in smoky chipotle barbecue sauce with succotash on the side is rich and sublime. The restaurant is planning to move closer to the thick of things at 4057 N. Mississippi Ave. by Nov. 7, but it's currently at 938 N. Cook St., just off Mississippi, 503-445-9910.
Cafes, bars and music
• Fresh Pot serves the popular Stumptown brand of coffee and is a great spot for people watching. 4001 N. Mississippi Ave, www.thefreshpot.com
• Amnesia Brewing features house-made ales on tap, grilled sausages and a bustling beer garden. 832 N. Beech St. at Mississippi, 503-281-7708.
• Moloko Plus, formerly The Mississippi Avenue Social Club, has happy-hour specials, art exhibits, DJ nights and a garden patio in back. 3967 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-358-8177.
• Crow Bar is a popular neighborhood hangout. 3954 N. Mississippi Ave.
• The Mississippi Pizza Pub and lounge features live music nightly. 3552 N. Mississippi Ave., www.mississippipizza.com.
• Nightly live music can also be found at Mississippi Studios, which also holds outdoor silent-movie screenings after dark at the adjacent Mississippi Station restaurant. 3939 N. Mississippi Ave., www.mississippistudios.com.
Go to www.mapclicks.com and click on "Mississippi Avenue" to learn more about the neighborhood and view an interactive map.
Like Vinci, Krawetz, 29, is surprised that Mississippi has landed on the tourist map.
"I get people from New York all the time, and Los Angeles and San Francisco — It's so random," she said.
Still, Mississippi remains low-key, the kind of place you'd expect to learn about from a friend of a friend, or purely by accident.
And there's still room for older businesses like Sunlan Lighting, 3901 N. Mississippi Ave., whose clever light-bulb-art window displays are the work of chatty proprietor Kay Newell, known as "The Light Bulb Lady."
Newell, who started the lighting store 16 years ago when hookers and dealers represented the main street traffic, tells it like it is. Mississippi, she says bluntly, used to be "complete ghettoville."
"When I came here 16 years ago, every building on this street was boarded up and operating behind barred windows," she said. "It just wasn't safe."
She remembers taking the wood boards off of her storefront to showcase the establishment's original 100-year-old window panes. Someone smashed them less than a day later.
Newell boarded up the windows again, but only for as long as it took for residents, business owners and the city to rid Mississippi of the bad elements holding it back.
Gentrification and the risk it poses to the area's lower-income and African American residents continues to be a hot topic at neighborhood meetings. The area surrounding Mississippi Avenue became a refuge for African Americans in 1948, when thousands of black industrial workers who were flooded out of a public housing project along the Columbia River were forced to resettle here. Racially discriminatory real-estate practices at the time effectively banned blacks from other parts of town.
I didn't find much evidence of black culture on Mississippi itself, but an afternoon stroll along the shady streets surrounding the main drag revealed old-timers playing board games in their front yards, and elderly men sitting ponderously on their stoops, thinking of bygone days perhaps.
"It's unfortunate that some people have been priced out of the market, but on the other hand, some have been able to leave the neighborhood who've wanted to" now that their homes have higher sale values, Newell told me.
She likes the offbeat flavor of the revived district, which in her eyes is still inclusive.
"This is an eclectic mix of businesses that are fascinating, common, unique and interesting," she said. "We kind of support each other and feed off each other."
The defiantly retro mom-and-pop sensibility contributes to the village atmosphere.
"For a lot of people on this street, this is their first business, like my friend Lorenzo down the street," said Christian Fitzpatrick, 29, owner of the monochromatic lounge Moloko Plus (3967 N. Mississippi Ave.), formerly known as both Xosa and The Mississippi Avenue Social Club.
Fitzpatrick was referring to Lorenzo Daliana, who opened an Italian restaurant and deli, named Lorenzo's (3807 N. Mississippi Ave.), about a year and a half ago.
Moloko Plus, a reference to a milky cocktail featured in the film "A Clockwork Orange," opened its doors just this summer. There wasn't a nameplate on the door, or even a permanent name, when I visited, but that only added to the underground feel.
Fitzpatrick, also a transplant from Seattle, accents the groovy, all-white, Wallpaper magazine décor with quality West Coast ales, cheeky cocktails, an intimate garden in back, rotating art exhibits and an eclectic music playlist, from '60s soul records to East Indian hip-hop.
He acknowledges that Mississippi's hipster vibe can be intimidating to more casual visitors, "but you're not hit over the head with it." He believes the district has struck a livable balance through all the changes.
"It's at a good point now," Fitzpatrick said. "You can get your little-town fix here."
Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company
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