Rents soar. Creatives edged out. Who will keep Portland weird?
Some small businesses that give the city its distinctive flavor are becoming victims of their own neighborhoods' success
Friday, March 16, 2007
Microcosm Publishing's eclectic offerings seem perfect for Portland's alternative culture: guides to anarchy, the politics of biodiesel, even "Adventures in Menstruating #2."
Yet the North Portland company closed its doors Thursday and is headed to Bloomington, Ind. -- driven out of town, the owner says, by the increasing cost of real estate.
"One of the principal incentives for coming here was that this was one of the places on the West Coast that was cheap and affordable," said Joe Biel, Microcosm's owner, who moved his then one-person company from Cleveland in 1999. "That's no longer true."
Biel's departure -- combined with the growing struggles of low-budget, edgy businesses to find affordable locations -- suggests that Portland's attractiveness is pushing back on the very people who helped create the city's progressive self-image.
"I saw the same pattern in New York," said Justin Hocking, the executive director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center on Southwest Oak Street. "This could be foreshadowing of what's to come in Portland."
Certainly, Portland remains a magnet for creative entrepreneurs and a bargain for those fleeing even higher-priced California cities. Their presence has produced hip, sometimes socially conscious, businesses such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Voodoo Doughnuts and worker-owned City Bikes. And rising real estate prices are signs of good health for the city and its business districts.
Yet some low-budget, cutting-edge companies are having trouble coping with gentrification that they unintentionally helped launch. The Back-to-Back Cafe, a worker-owned cafe once on East Burnside, closed for good after its building was redeveloped last spring. Rising rents have sent three bookstores --Laughing Horse, Looking Glass and In Other Words -- to cheaper locations.
"The portion of Portland that was radical is being gentrified," said Sue Burns, an owner of In Other Words. She moved the store off Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard last year when, she said, monthly rent hit $2,500 -- a tenfold increase over 10 years.
Abby Sewell, one of six former owners of Back-to-Back, said places such as her coffee shop help create the kind of place that Portland's business and political leaders brag about. "It takes away from the quality of life in the city to have places like us going out of business," she said.
Some view the rising commercial property values as positive for the city. They are proof that people want to live in an area, said Joseph Cortright, an economist with Impressa Consulting of Portland who his written extensively about the city's youth culture.
"I'd rather be us than Bloomington," Cortright said. "If people are moving there because they have cheap rent, that's not the side of the economic equation I'd like to be on."
Angry about gentrification
Biel, though, in an angry e-mail announcing his plans to move, expressed an opposite view.
"The development in North Portland around Mississippi Avenue is sickening," wrote Biel, whose publication, "A Zinester's Guide to Portland," was Powell's top-selling book early this year. "Owning property in North Portland is now reserved for the wealthy elite."
Biel faces a problem because his company is expanding. Microcosm's seven employees are already crammed in a warrenlike basement of Liberty Hall, a private community center near the Fremont Bridge. In his rented space, books and zines -- specialized magazines -- are stuffed in wall-cubbies and crawl spaces.
The company, which publishes 49 of its own zines and books and distributes hundreds of other publications, sells mostly by mail order and Internet to customers worldwide. Biel also keeps his business open to anyone who wants to stop, browse the publications and buy them without paying for postage.
"We outgrew where we are now within the first year of moving here," said Biel, a quiet man who thrives on hard work. "It's truly a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling operation. It's pretty intense."
Biel said he spent much of last year looking for a larger place for his company. The criteria: It had to be affordable, and it had to be in close-in Portland, accessible to those who prefer to bike than drive. No luck. "I was very frustrated that we weren't finding a place," he said.
Last December, he concluded that smaller communities offered property values that would allow him to keep prices down. "We want to sell things at a price that we would purchase them at," he said.
Biel chose Bloomington because on a trip there he was impressed by the city's creative scene. Also, he'll save shipping costs because Bloomington is close to the Illinois company that prints Microcosm's publications.
That's not to say he won't miss the city where he's spent most of his 20s. It was here, he said, that his company found success. Microcosm grew to a company with seven employees and 2006 annual revenues of $299,000.
"I didn't know how great it was here until I arrived," he said. "One of Portland's strong points is you constantly run into people who are huge in your world."
Finding a balance
Biel left Thursday for San Francisco, where he will be giving a presentation at the city's annual book fair before reopening his business in Indiana next week. Microcosm -- and Biel -- will be missed, said Burns of In Other Words, which relocated to Northeast Killingsworth Street, near rapidly gentrifying North Williams Avenue.
"There's a big hole that will be left by having Microcosm not here and not so accessible," she said. "He's a pioneer and a beacon of light."
A social community of activists and progresses revolved around Microcosm's headquarters, said Rebecca Gilbert, co-owner of Stumptown Printers and a founder of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. She said, though, that his departure won't detract significantly from Portland's creative vitality.
"We all move around and we all stay connected," she said. "Maybe that means that his influence isn't leaving Portland community."
Philip Stanton, owner of The Mississippi Pizza Pub on North Mississippi Avenue, has seen the good side of change. When he opened his now-popular nightspot five blocks west of Microcosm Publishing in 2001, the street was mostly "hookers and drug dealers." Now it's a thriving neighborhood, full of restaurants, coffee shops, a garden store and a brewpub.
"It's a balance," he said. "You want an area to change enough to make it safe, but you can't stop it when you want it to. You lose affordability, but the advantage is that you create a village."
Jonathan Brinckman: 503-221-8190; firstname.lastname@example.org