Welcome to the FOURTH edition of A Walk On the Weird Side – An Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Fabric of Portland. – By Anna Alexander
If I were ever to write a gritty crime novel, I would set it in the Montavilla Neighborhood. Not because it’s scary, but because it’s very eccentric and very Portland. There are old classic houses proudly flying pride flags next to dilapidated crumbling homes with sheets for curtains. There are old apartment buildings that could easily be the setting for an intriguing crime novel where drug dealers, sex workers, flat broke college students (and an alcoholic P.I.) cohabitate together. Like a dirtier, sexier Tales of The City. At one point during our tour of the neighborhood, my husband and I passed by some very stern, Eastern Bloc-looking apartment complexes that my husband quipped were probably owned by Joseph Stalin at one point. Gritty apartment complexes aside, I highly recommend taking a walking tour of Montavilla to gather plot points and locations for your next novel.
The Montavilla Neighborhood is only 2.18 square miles but there is so much to see and do here, this post is going to be a little lengthy. I won’t apologize for my enthusiasm for such a great neighborhood.
Let’s hop into the time machine and get some fuel for our adventure and head into Stark Street Pizza Company. For those of you who came of age in the 1980s, this 54-year old Portland institution will take you back to the same pizza shops and family restaurants you ate at in the 80s. I brought my husband here and he commented the olives and ham at the salad bar tasted the same as ones at the deli he ate at when he worked in a mall back in the late 80’s. The Thousand Island dressing tasted the same as the dressing in the steakhouses and family buffets my dad took me and my sister to. The pizza is flat and greasy and will take you back to your childhood in the best way possible.
You might need a little exercise after all that food so we’re headed to the Twin Pines Country Club for a rousing game of mini golf. This free, six-hole mini golf course was built on the unused side yard of a home by the family living there between, you guessed it, two ponderosa pines. I learned from a friend that someone crashed their car into the golf course and the owners rebuilt it. It’s cute and fun and I highly recommend taking in a round or two here.
Next up, we’re getting get back in the car because we’re headed to Milepost 5. This affordable housing community for creative types is located on a two-acre campus and is home to over 100 renters who work in a variety of artistic fields. This creative space hosts monthly art openings, plays, music, readings and more. It’s the type of place I would have loved to live in when I was a young, fledgling writer.
The remaining tour of this neighborhood will take place along SE Stark and we’ll be walking the rest of the way, so put on your good walking shoes.
We’ll start near the neighborhood boundary at the Montavilla Farmers Market. This small, thriving farmer’s market packs a big punch with an amazing selection of fruit and veggies from local farmers, food stands and artists. Montavilla Farmers Market feels like a small, local neighborhood market where people get together to talk or gossip. We bought a $15 bottle of honey and didn’t care because it is the best honey I’ve ever had. It’s only open on Sundays from 10-2 until October, so you’ll have to wait until it opens for the season.
Outside of the market to the right is a stone milepost marker called the P5 Marker. It is a leftover from the 1854 Base Line Road that extended from the Sandy River to the Willamette River. It also marks a distance of five miles to the downtown courthouse and the Willamette baseline.
Walk across the street from the market to another Portland institution, Mr. Plywood. This hardware and plywood store has served the community for over 50 years with lumber, fasteners, paint and more for your next home project. This store made me incredibly homesick (my dad was contractor) and incredibly happy. The smell alone of cedar and other wood is intoxicating and you could spend hours in there smelling the wood. Which we did. But discreetly. The great part of Mr. Plywood is the people know their mission and they know it well. There are no tanning beds, espresso or live chickens for sale; it’s wood and wood related products all showcased in a clean, orderly manner. The friendly staff answered our dumb questions and were very helpful. I will definitely go back for my next house project.
Our last stop for this part of the tour is the Bipartisan Café. This funky coffee shop full of old campaign and political posters serves up tasty food and fresh coffee for students, writers and free thinkers alike. It’s been around since 2005 and very much feels like a Portland institution. I learned from the coffee shop’s blog that much of the land in the Montavilla neighborhood was owned by a prominent Japanese family before World War II until the government shipped the patriarch of this family and many more Japanese people to internment camps. Bipartisan Café is a great place to meet friends and argue about social justice issues or just hang out and write the next Democratic Socialist Manifesto.
Next on our tour is Invoke. This cute little metaphysical shop sells everything you need for your esoteric practice including books, candles, divination tools, to-die-for jewelry, sage, incense and more. You can also take a class or attend an event and there’s usually a reader at the shop who will happily read your fortune or help you answer life’s important questions. The owner is very friendly and knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions you might have. As you leave Invoke, check out the free bike pump to the left of the store offered by Oregon Bike Shop.
Our next stop, La Bouffe International Gourmet is just a short walk away. This specialty international market is considered a hidden gem of the neighborhood with middle eastern cheeses, grape leaves, pantry staples, wine and a fabulous bulk spices section for those times when you just need a little bit of Za’atar seasoning and don’t want to commit to a whole bottle. I dare you to come in here and not spend $50.
One block up and around the corner from La Bouffe is Portland Garment Factory. This zero-waste, lady-owned business is a full-service creative design and fabrication studio for the designer or fabricator in your life. The PGF has a variety of programs like the in-house incubator to help you develop your “weird, wild and unimaginable” idea like an inflatable fabric lung or a giant city flag. PGF also has an artist-in-residence program to actively engage underrepresented artists on specific, fabric-based projects. PGF is a place I would pay to allow me to hang out in for a day so I could listen and learn.
Next up we’re headed into Toast. I’ve walked by Toast many times not knowing what it was exactly and finally learned it is a shop that crafts custom wood and leather products and cases for your phone, laptop, gaming system and more. You can get a custom, leather wrapped pint glass commemorating your anniversary or a beautiful wooden case for your smart speaker. Toast was launched in 2012 via a Kickstarter campaign and all the products are made in their studio in Portland. Plus, they have a mascot named Justin Beaver so it’s worth checking out.
Before I leave you to explore the rest of this neighborhood, I would get flogged for not pointing out that the iconic Academy Theater. This historic and second run movie theater opened its doors in 1948, closed them in the 70s, and re-opened in 2006 after a renovation. This is the theater you go to when you miss favorite indie movie, anime feature or classic movie. They have an excellent selection of food and beverages AND they have on-site childcare available during your movie so you can enjoy a date night or some much needed alone time.
Thanks for joining me in the Montavilla neighborhood. I look forward to reading your gritty crime novel. Please join me on our next adventure to the Rose City Park Neighborhood where we will go searching for an elf village, learn German and get cuddled.