Fearing for a neighborhood on the brink

Seattle's Broadway demise foretells the possible fate of Portland's Hawthorne Boulevard.
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Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland. (Kyle Burris via Wikipedia)

Seattle's Broadway demise foretells the possible fate of Portland's Hawthorne Boulevard.

Broadway on Seattle's Capitol Hill is an aging drag queen of a street: years past its hottest run, still alluring to a certain crowd with long memories, plenty to teach the young fry about style and survival if they'd just listen.

Broadway was my turf of choice in the late 1980s and '90s, a neighborhood where life-sustaining groceries, independent bookstores, movies, and high-end chocolate were available within a few blessedly flat blocks.

When I opined in print back then about a city neighborhood teetering on a cliff's edge, I focused on the already ailing University District. Who imagined that the wattage of vibrant Broadway would dim so dramatically?

Broadway still has a lot of recovery ahead, but the sad decline that started in the late 1990s is correcting itself slowly, as stores creep back and new rental/condo housing comes online. Much of the new construction is architecturally jarring stuff (the amazing Mr. Anhalt is surely spinning in his grave) but overall a plus in terms of adding traffic for local restaurants, entertainment, and shopping. (An aside: Bailey/Coy Books and Siam on Broadway should have parades in their honor like those given to war heroes.)

Once you've watched a street of favorite haunts grow threadbare, you get a little jumpy at certain warning signs in your present city, such as the news trickling out lately that some small businesses are losing leases on Portland's Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard – an area frequently compared to Broadway by those who know both.

When things in such neighborhoods go bad, the next stage always seems to be marked by the arrival of everything the place has avoided thus far: critical mass of sandwich chains and/or big-box stores, storefront real estate offices, income-tax prep outlets, copy shops, professional office suites. These newcomers, while all services we metrospenders need, measure a big, fat zero on the lively street index. Panhandlers, apparently excellent early-warning systems of a coming decline, begin to multiply and are invariably blamed for reduced sidewalk traffic, vacant real estate, and worse.

Local business associations see this coming and outline plans for enhanced merchant participation in special events, better parking options, and the current million-dollar buzzword: branding. (Often that involves a new name for the area – "cultural district," say.) Not to belittle those who toil on such committees. In fact, more often than not they are the only consistent life support for such urban pockets in Seattle or Portland. But it's a rare business group that can keep things dry once these storm clouds begin to gather.

It needs to be said that business-district growth can be a good thing, too, revitalizing and enriching stagnant corners and whole neighborhoods. In times of leaseholder changes, a sturdy local business might get a chance to move to more attractive space. Recently, Hawthorne Coffee Merchant, a popular seller of life-supporting substances and related accessories, lost its lease (with 11 days' warning) and then found new digs that are even better than the old space. With entrepreneurial verve wonderful to behold, the company quickly moved into the new location – a basement – and began billing itself as the neighborhood's "first underground store."

A sobering overview of Hawthorne ran in the Portland Tribune last month. Reporter Shanna Germain succinctly captured Hawthorne as a winning mix of funky, reliable, and hip–posh bistros, determinedly shabby taverns, with boutique goodies alongside the requisite incense and India-print textiles. (This admittedly mawkish YouTube take on the area grows on you if you watch it a couple of times.)

Germain sent chills down this writer's spine with this description:

While upscale businesses ... are joining the boulevard, several longtime businesses have either closed or are in the process of closing their doors. Some business owners are retiring. Others are moving elsewhere, citing rent increases, lack of business and an increase in crime and panhandling.

She quotes Paul Niedergang, president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association:

Over the next few years, it's time for us to refocus. ... We're looking at how to rebrand Hawthorne. The idea is to create a sense of coherency in terms of the brand name Hawthorne, which is tough because it's such an eclectic community.

Germain has it right, as well, when she sums up the area's complex challenge:

The front-runner for street revitalization, Hawthorne is now trying to hold onto its crown. And it's not just an identity crisis that it's struggling with: Combine the tough economy, an increase in crime and panhandling, and competition from up-and-coming streets like Northeast Alberta and nearby Southeast Division streets, and it's easy to see what Hawthorne's contending with.

Anyone who watched the Broadway drama knows that Hawthorne's thrivability hinges on many things, including these: The city must hold up its end in that street revitalization work, as well as keep up police patrols; the street needs continued (if not expanded) free street parking; frequent bus service. When I asked urban-design straight-talker Peter Steinbrueck if I'd forgotten anything, he reminded me that clean (not just safe) streets are vital, and in some cases, those admittedly difficult-to-maintain bans on big-box chains, as in the Pike Place Market, are needed. As Steinbrueck also reminded me, balancing nearby residential density is a big piece of any successful business district. You need a fair number of warm bodies sleeping nearby to support those stores that sell real stuff like cat food, not just lava lamps.

Most important, I believe, is creative thinking about ways to motivate landlords to lure and keep a diverse mix of local tenants. Landlords can't be blamed for wanting reliable tenants and market rents. But a city that sees its way clear to provide tax incentives or other financial perks to property owners renting to local and startup businesses will get excellent returns over the long haul. (Note to the guy who e-mails me regularly, railing about too much government involvement in our lives. Yes, you're absolutely right, this is a lot like those public-private business-incubation programs or government policies that give minority/women-owned businesses an edge. All good ideas.)

If there ever was a city with the right mindset and energy to brainstorm ways to keep the character of a street from being swept away, it should be this one, where so many people have the consensus gene, allowing them to meet, meet, and meet some more to hammer out neighborhood proposals. (And then drive away in their cars with "Keep Portland Weird" bumperstickers.) I'll be doing my part: shopping and dining up and down Hawthorne; watching and worrying in case it moves any closer to a Broadway run.


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