Far from vegan cafes and feminist bookstores, a longtime resident wanders down the seven-mile stretch of used car lots, cheap motels, and assorted dives that separates the mythical Portland from the real one.
Portland ends at 82nd Avenue, I’ve heard it said, where the real world begins. Exit the organic, gluten-free, locally-grown bubble of food carts, microbreweries, bike shops, bearded hipsters and condos towering over Craftsman bungalows in walkable neighborhoods. On the other side of the avenue, East Portland houses a population that’s poorer, less educated, and more diverse than the rest of the city. Most people with Section 8 housing vouchers, new immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe and African-Americans, pushed out of close-in neighborhoods by gentrification, settle here. In the City of Roses, the other side of the tracks means the other side of 82nd Avenue.
For Portlanders, 82nd conjures an endless strip of used-car dealerships, auto-repair services, gas stations, fast-food joints, Asian restaurants, strip malls, dive bars and prostitutes. In ten years of living here — I am originally from Slovakia — I’ve only experienced it while driving to big-box stores in Clackamas, a suburb. Which is to say, I don’t know 82nd at all. I decided to launch my career as a flâneur by walking its seven miles.
I set out at noon on the Saturday after Halloween. Odd stillness punctuates the absence of rain. For the first time this year I sense winter approaching. My breath and car fumes dissolve quickly in the remnants of a thin morning fog. Low clouds scurry beneath the gray uniform mass that forms the sky. I follow in the wake of a crescent of geese squeaking southward.
Single-family homes and apartment buildings line the northern end of the avenue, vestiges of the strip’s character before commerce invaded some sixty years ago. Despite the midterm election being only days away, no signs dot the lawns or windows. Residents of East Portland vote less often; in the three decades since its annexation, only one person who lives on this side of town has been elected as an at-large city commissioner.
Teenagers fill a skatepark tucked into the corner of otherwise deserted Glenhaven Park. Outside the brand-new Madison High School football field, a couple dressed for a weekend outing watches boys’ and girls’ soccer practice. The woman turns to me, looking a little lost and cold. “Do you live around here?” she asks.
To avoid standing out, I wear a week-old beard, a faded ball cap, a pair of tattered sneakers and a friend’s old camping jacket. Yet I am as out of place here as they are. “In Portland, yeah.”
“Is there a coffee shop around here?”
I sigh and scan the avenue. They know the answer. “A lot of fast-food joints but…I have no clue.”
They’re long gone by the time I recall seeing a drive-thru coffee booth a few blocks back.
A quartet of homeless men with backpacks and a shared shopping cart take turns in the porta-potties at the edge of Montavilla Park. Across the road, the mythical Portland encroaches on the real one at Milepost 5, a pair of redeveloped buildings housing artist studios and loft apartments. An elderly couple admire a community garden out back. A resident, rushing somewhere, says there’s a showing tonight at the gallery. When I return to check it out on my way back up 82nd, I find a large Día de los Muertos altar, a collaborative installation assembled from photographs, dolls, skulls, fruit, banners and other objects honoring artists who inspired the participants’ own work. Looking at it all makes me sad — I am a long way from home. Quick conversations with some of the artists brim with stories of crazy girlfriends and semi-legal ways to make extra cash.
For long stretches I am alone on blocks of crumbling pavement squeezed between five lanes of traffic and commercial lots. The city has found that up to nine out of ten people patronizing businesses along 82nd live outside a one-mile radius and drive here. As a pedestrian I am more likely to die or be seriously injured from a collision on this arterial thoroughfare than anywhere else in town. No one walks here just to walk; most pedestrians cross the road or wait for the bus.
I must look like I know where I’m going because a large woman in a leather cap, short wool jacket and golden lipstick, pacing and smoking a few feet away from a bus shelter, turns to me. “There used to be a phone booth around here…?”
“I have no idea. Do those even exist anymore?”
“I just need to call the place I left my cell phone at, and I can’t find the pay phone.” She sweeps across the intersection with her cigarette. “So I’m just runnin’ around.”
The 72 bus arrives. This is the city’s most crime-ridden bus line, with almost one-fifth of all reported incidents, according to TriMet, Portland’s transportation agency.
“Good luck,” I tell the woman as she boards.
The Hong Phat Food Center has replaced the Safeway supermarket in a 1960s building with a glass front and a wave-form roof. City statistics show that the percentage of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans living in the neighborhoods around 82nd (fourteen percent) is more than double the city’s overall. The store teleports me to Southeast Asia, sans backpackers. Shoppers pick through piles of produce whose names I can’t pronounce. Soup steams in the corner deli. A little boy dashes toward his mom at the end of an aisle, stops in his tracks and stares at me, mouth agape.
My feet hurt. I pick up a Coke at 82 Food Mart. A young Asian twenty-something with bleached hair asks for one Powerball. I hold the door open for him while he fumbles with his wallet.
“Good luck,” I tell him, nodding at the lottery ticket.
“Thank you, man,” he says. “Last week I dream I win one hundred—” he looks for the right word “—thousand. One hundred thousand. This week I buy tickets. You never know, right?”
From a retaining wall by the shelterless bus stop I watch swelling traffic send gusts of draft about. An unhooked receiver dangles from its cord in the nearby telephone booth. In the mid-aughts, the strip’s business association launched a makeover of 82nd, rebranding it “Avenue of Roses,” with corresponding sign caps installed on all the street signs. A renaming city ordinance followed, and in 2007 the annual Portland Rose Festival spun off a dedicated annual parade here. Listening to a crow cawing from a power line at a refugee seagull squawking atop a utility pole, I picture floats, marchers and bands passing instead of cars.
At a car lot up the road, a grandfather type in a white Stetson, plaid shirt and jeans photographs a small white Jeep. Used-car dealerships define the landscape of 82nd Avenue; I end up counting forty-six of them plus three used-RV dealerships, forty auto-related businesses like parts, tires, and repair, and nine gas stations. When I pass the lot on the return trip, the little 4×4 is gone.
The red arrow on a giant vintage marquee of Slavic Church Emmanuel points toward a tan-colored building that formerly housed the Eastgate Theater. Most of Portland’s 100,000 or so Russian speakers live in Outer Southeast. The majority of arrivals in the last two decades have been evangelical refugees from Ukraine, Lewis & Clark College professor Tatiana Osipovich tells me. When I return the next day for the All Souls’ Day mass, I sit in the back of the auditorium, watching suit-clad men in the pews and women in nice dresses and sheer scarves covering their hair in the center ones. The teenage usher with tufts of chin hair picks me out easily. Today’s mass is a special one, he says leaning over me, dedicated to the death of Christ, and he’ll gladly translate for me. “Ya ponimayu nemnozhko, spasibo,” I tell him — I understand a bit, thank you. But my elementary-school Russian mostly fails me during the sermon, which the preacher in a white open-collar shirt delivers in rapid, insistent Ukrainian-infused Russian. What I do get is that I should liberate myself from sin and live every day like it was my last.
The spiffy new buildings crowding the parking lots of Portland Community College’s Southeast Campus stand just as empty as the Hung Far Low restaurant across the street. The joint is famous for delighting juvenile minds with an iconic neon sign at its original location in the city’s nominal Chinatown. Inside, a televised college football game competes against classic rock on the stereo and two elderly women chatting in one of the purple, faux-leather booths. The meat in my potstickers has the consistency of sausage.
At Pho Hung I sit among chattering Vietnamese regulars, Russian-speaking construction workers, and soup-slurping Anglos. This is the heart of the “Jade District,” another element in the drive to revitalize the strip and overcome its persistent image – despite a significant decline in crime in recent years – as a cesspool of illicit activity. I count fifteen Vietnamese and seventeen Chinese and “Asian” restaurants, thirteen Asian groceries and markets, including the largest one in the state, Fubonn, two blocks down. A friend who frequents Southeast Asia loves 82nd for its food. The rebranding may eventually succeed but I doubt the moniker will stick.
Men with mixed drinks occupy every video poker machine at the 24-hour Tik Tok Restaurant & Bar. The bartender, who looks like she’s done the job all her adult life, sets my beer on the counter with a small thud and takes the cash without a word. From a window booth, I watch the traffic motor by and people go in and out of a pawn shop across the road. The server complains that she hasn’t eaten all day. Two men at the next table, who I guess could be foremen at a house remodel site or hardware shop salesmen, ask her for a check. Standing, they flank her, one arm each around her shoulders, and bow their heads in vocal prayer for her welfare.
The default greeting at Good Neighbor Market: “Zdravstvuyte!” Basket in hand I browse the shelves of the Russian food market in search of products I know from my native Slovakia. In the bulk sweets section I find Korovky, soft caramels named for the cow depicted on the wrapper. With surprise I note that in addition to the Polish ones I devoured as a boy there are Russian and Ukrainian-made ones as well. For sale at the counter hangs a sticker that reads, “Pray for Ukraine!” across that country’s flag. Here I’m able to conduct the entire transaction in Russian, even helping the cashier, who is wearing a purple polyester smock over her dress, decipher the prices for the candy.
I step back into the street armed with a white plastic bag, and I finally feel like I belong. As I expected, the Polish caramel tastes like childhood. A smile on my face, I pump my fist and keep walking.
Two women, barely out of their teenage years, push lightweight strollers with sleeping babies onto the crosswalk toward Walmart, looming at the back of the Eastport Plaza shopping center. Inner Portlanders have repeatedly squashed the retailer’s attempts to move into their neighborhoods — they mind it less this far out, though the city recently divested from the company.
Swallowing the last caramel I enter the Multnomah Park Cemetery. Gravestones with Anglo-Saxon names from the early twentieth century lie buried beneath fallen leaves. Dead people stare from shiny black-granite headstones where their eerie white portraits are etched above the Cyrillic script. A man in a hoodie is too busy washing his feet under a faucet to notice me.
Young, perhaps in her twenties, wearing a pink down vest, pajama pants and a yellow purse, she goads me with a drug-addled, pudgy gaze. I realize that what from afar looked like a seductive hip roll is really an attempt to walk in a straight line. Many Portlanders associate 82nd with street prostitution, which surged here after the city’s prostitution-free zone, an ordinance that allowed police officers to “exclude” people suspected of committing the crime from the area for up to a year, expired in late 2007. Stepped-up police monitoring, aided by foot patrols from members of area neighborhood associations, and the city-sponsored expansion of drug-recovery services, have lead to a drop in the illicit activity. But a public defender told me that cheap motels along 82nd remain dens of prostitution, trafficking and drug use. Perhaps it’s a kiss I hear behind me in the smack of her lips, or an afterthought.
An elderly woman in a sweatsuit sweeps the porch of her trailer at the edge of a mobile home park whose residences stand herringboned into an alley off the main road. When she spots me, she pretends to take a break and stretch her back, but out of the corner of my eye I see her watching me.
The Del Rancho Motel reminds me of my first job in America, demolishing mobile homes in Eugene. In almost every park, around a quiet, seemingly unoccupied trailer with shades drawn, I’d see men like the ones now standing in doorways or pulling into the parking lot in big-rimmed American coupes trying to look inconspicuous. I speed up, looking the other way.
SE Crystal Springs Boulevard
At the crossing of the Springwater Corridor Trail, a paved multi-use path from Downtown Portland to the town of Boring, two wrinkled bicyclists in neon-yellow jackets and helmets with tiny rearview mirrors punch the crosswalk button to part the traffic. They glide across the road on gleaming Specializeds, back into the bubble. There are no bike lanes on 82nd itself. The only cyclist here is a lone hard-edged white male wearing a ball cap, a work jacket, ill-fitting jeans and a backpack as he cruises down the sidewalk on an off-brand mountain bike.
A few feet away, Cartlandia portends a possible future. Opened in 2011 on a former used-car lot, the food-cart pod hosts twenty-nine carts and Oregon’s first food-cart pod beer garden. Though the offseason is evident — open spaces yawn where cars and bikes scramble for parking in summertime — it’s obvious Roger Goldingay, the pod’s owner, has succeeded in creating a destination for Portlanders and suburbanites alike seeking an authentic, safe experience on the edge of the neighborhood known as Felony Flats. I beeline for the $1 taco special at Brother Express. The snack warms me up as I watch a middle-aged man, whose face resembles a bulldog’s, arguing with the thick-accented server about the order.
Half-a-dozen people crowd the Voodoo Donut cart by the time the shift change ends. Ahead of me a skinny brunette wearing heavy makeup takes her time picking out a t-shirt. Her friend, a young Latina, says, “My tourist friend is from Cali, sorry.” She adds, “Are they as special as they say? Two years in town and I haven’t had one.”
“I’m only having one here because I’m here,” I say with a shrug.
I offer to snap a photo for them, and they grin beneath a drawing of donuts parachuting down the cart’s pink wall. At the exit, the man taking down the Halloween party announcement from Cartlandia’s marquee tells me not to worry — there’s another free live show at the adjacent Blue Room Bar tonight.
Fugitive rays of sunshine expire over Johnson Creek, whose brown torrent roils beneath the road. Clouds continue to break up as I reach the “Entering Clackamas County” sign. This is the end of Portland. I cross the road to head back, feeling like I’ve made it. On a fenced asphalted lot, vacant save for a few leftover sedans, an abandoned-looking building stands guard at the city’s beginning. I take a deep breath, fix my gaze north, and mutter, “Good luck.”