THE LAST THURSDAY in August, 10 blocks of Northeast Alberta swirled with a mob of 8,000 happy people. At each intersection, a different band performed and the crowd stood in knots, listening, before flowing past. But as Last Thursday comes under stronger city control, organizers have found themselves coming face to face with serious questions of class, race, and the shape of community.
Alberta's 10-year-old art walk outgrew the sidewalks three years ago and this summer marked the first city-sanctioned and sponsored street closure. The increasingly huge monthly event has built an exciting new identity for the previously run-down area—but it has also become a major symbol of change in a neighborhood grappling with the struggles and benefits of gentrification.
In June, Magnus Johannesson, an artist, roustabout, and self-proclaimed founder of Last Thursday, blocked NE Alberta with two painted junker cars. This action snagged him a police citation for disorderly conduct but also got the attention of City Commissioner Sam Adams' office, which soon collaborated on legally closing the street for Last Thursday. Adams' office directed the city to shoulder the financial cost of a Last Thursday street closure during August and September, agreeing that it benefits the community.
The business benefits are obvious. Alberta is lined with shops that have opened in just the last five years: two coffee shops, a handful of bistros and art galleries, and a crêperie. As business has increased thanks in part to Last Thursday, so have property values. The value of the vacant lot on the corner of NE 20th and Alberta has jumped from $13,000 to nearly $319,000 in the last 10 years.
"But there are some businesses that are benefiting from it and some that aren't," says North/Northeast Business Association President Gary Marschke.
"It was the creative community that recognized the value of real estate in Northeast back in the '80s when it was all boarded-up storefronts. In order for the creative community to survive, they created Last Thursday to bring in retail traffic," Marschke continues. "What it also did was create an environment that led to gentrification, that for all intents and purposes excluded the long-term neighborhood residents."
For the first time on August 28, Portland Department of Transportation shelled out about $1,600 for barricades, informational flyering, insurance, and day-after trash cleanup. The police department also spent $4,300 in overtime pay for the 10 officers and two sergeants usually assigned to the scene in the busy summer months.
For Paige Coleman, executive director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, the permitting of Last Thursday underscores the city's 10-year absence from regulating the rowdy event.
"There are questions coming from the community about whether the city has applied its policy in a fair and equitable way," says Coleman, explaining that many neighbors believe that if 10 years ago the neighborhood's predominantly African American and Latino residents had thrown an un-permitted and boozy block party, the police would have shut it down.
"It feels a little bit out of control and neighbors do wonder, 'Why isn't the city cracking down on it?'" says Office of Neighborhood Involvement Crime Prevention manager Stephanie Reynolds, who leads the newly formed Last Thursday Steering Committee.
Northeast Precinct Lieutenant Bill Walker does not agree that city policy has been enforced unequally, explaining that the police did not see a need to regulate Last Thursday.
"As long as they're on the sidewalks, they're not breaking any laws—even though it was an un-permitted event," Walker says. "You can't shut down the sidewalks."
Walker says officers have always had a "zero-tolerance policy" on alcohol, though they hand out surprisingly few citations. August's Last Thursday was full of obvious on-street drinking, but the dozen officers handed out only 11 open-container citations.
Long-term Northeast residents' chilly attitude toward Last Thursday stems from both practical problems—trash, parking, intoxicated hooligans—and larger cultural issues. Emails sent to the Last Thursday Steering Committee tell of nine-to-fivers winding up in shouting matches with artist types over coveted parking spaces. "Their street party is destroying quality of life for the locals!" railed one email.
"It's an intimidating event—like a mini Mardi Gras," says Marschke. "For some residents, there aren't a whole lot of people out on the street that look like them and the perception is that this is a bunch of art for some affluent white people and doesn't reflect the heritage of the neighborhood around it."
So far, the signs of increased coordination for Last Thursday have been subtle but definite. The steering committee distributed fliers listing the four rules of the event: It ends at 10 pm, throw away trash, no open containers, and consider not driving. The committee plans to meet all winter to figure out what Last Thursday will look like as the neighborhood continues to change.