A Walk on the Weird Side: St Johns

Welcome to the latest edition of A Walk On the Weird Side – An Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Fabric of Portland. – By Anna Alexander

The St Johns Neighborhood in North Portland is one of those neighborhoods I often kick myself for not visiting as often as I should. It’s a quirky little neighborhood with lots of history and nooks and crannies needing attention and frequent visits.

St Johns feels very much like a small town because it originally was. Back in 1902, this neighborhood was a separate, incorporated town with a thriving railroad and industrial scene. At one time, the city council approved an ordinance to tax dancehalls to keep liquor and gambling out of the city limits. Apparently, it was OK, however, to let your cattle roam the streets and trample people’s gardens. These days, St Johns is a very walkable, scenic neighborhood with plenty of places to wet your whistle and dance if you feel the need.

Come along with me in the Barbie Corvette, because we’re starting our tour at Cathedral Park to admire the grand dame of the neighborhood, the St Johns Bridge. Wander around this beautiful, sprawling park and take plenty of pictures of the historic suspension bridge. Bring a picnic or enjoy a snack while you people watch and soak in the ambience. If you come here at night, please note that some people have reported hearing screams from under the bridge. This is due to the fact that a young woman named Thelma Taylor was murdered here back in 1945 and buried in an unmarked grave. Apparently, she likes to make her presence known.

If you’re not creeped out enough, hop back into the car and let’s go look at a MARKED grave in the middle of a heavy industrial area. On the intersection of Burgard and Columbia is an overgrown corner with graffiti and trash that most people probably wouldn’t look at twice. You’ll have to ride a bike or walk over here to find the grave of a local colorful character named Frederik H. Ramsey because there’s no parking anywhere. Mr. Ramsey was a St Johns pioneer and bootlegger who died in a fire in 1895 while smoking in bed. I couldn’t find anything on why his grave is still there, but it’s still an interesting hidden landmark.

Let’s head back to the “main drag” along Lombard where we’ll park the Barbie Corvette and wander up and down the street. Our first stop is the St Johns Twin Cinema. As of this writing, the theater has not reopened but they do offer movie popcorn and snacks to go for you weekend binge-watching pleasures. Built in 1913, this theater has survived multiple fires and vandalism and is one of my favorite places to go for first run movies. It also has a ghost of a murdered vaudeville actor that likes to haunt the place.

With all the ghosts in St Johns wanting your attention, you might want to document them with an old-fashioned camera. No, not your phone, a camera. You know, those contraptions requiring film. This is where Blue Moon Camera can help. This old school shop specializes in new and used analog cameras, classic typewriters, and film development. When things open up again, I highly suggest checking out the camera museum.

Just a few doors down from Blue Moon Camera are two historic businesses which have sadly closed, but still have signs marking their presence. The first is the Man’s Shop. This 79-year-old shop closed back in 2019 and offered everything a well-dressed man might have needed. Next to The Man’s Shop is Pattie’s Home Plate Café which also closed a few months before the Man’s Shop. Pattie’s was a 1950s style diner complete with Formica tables and vinyl seats that stuck to your legs on hot days.

As I noted in the opening of this piece, St Johns has more than made up for the city council trying to keep booze out of the neighborhood as there is a dive bar or watering hole for every 5 people. Slim’s Cocktail Bar & Restaurant has been around for over 100 years and offers strong drinks and good company in a classic dive bar setting.

Perhaps strong drinks aren’t your thing, so cross the street to grab some food at Signal Station Pizza. Formerly the Signal Tower Gas Station, this former gas station, flower shop and now pizza shop was built 1954 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is scenic and well-maintained and the perfect place to people watch on a Saturday afternoon.

I found our last stop on the tour almost by accident. From the outside, 45th Parallel Wines looks like your average Portland bottle shop, but once you step in, you’re transported back to 1908 when the building was erected. Some of the wine shelves are supported by polished old radiators and the owners have a collection of Polaroid pictures documenting the pandemic in St Johns. When my husband I got excited about the look of store, the person working there gave us a short history of the building and took us to the back to gaze upon the original vault that came with the building. She also pointed to the original tin stamped ceiling tiles. 45th Parallel is THE place to hit up for beverages and snacks before you head to the park for a picnic.

This wraps up our tour of the historic St Johns neighborhood. I hope you enjoyed the ghosts, graves, libations, and snacks. On the next tour, I promise to hang with the hipsters in the Boise Elliot neighborhood like I mentioned last time. I just needed more time to do research.

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