THESE DAYS, Michael O'Connor can't walk far on NE Alberta without shaking a familiar hand. In the last year, he's made himself a fixture of Northeast Portland's famous arts district with one idea in mind: putting the beloved but controversial Last Thursday event back in the hands of the people.
"It's been degrading for a while, but that's because Last Thursday is a mess," O'Connor says. "There haven't been any new ideas in years."
Since taking office in 2013, Mayor Charlie Hales has sought to pick up where his predecessor, Sam Adams, left off. In response to complaints and lawlessness, he shaved an hour off the monthly summertime bacchanal and mulled the idea of permits for artists and other vendors. This year he's lopping off two months altogether.
And through it all, Hales' message, like Adams', has been consistent: He wants Last Thursday in the hands of responsible citizens.
O'Connor thinks he's the man to make that happen. He says he now has enough support on NE Alberta to take over the event, and he's pressing the city to loosen the reins.
But with summer nearing, O'Connor's group, Artists United, faces unlikely odds. The logistics are imposing—sanitation and security for crowds of up to 25,000 people and a cost of $10,000 each month. But O'Connor also claims he's been hampered by Hales' office, the very group trying to rid itself of Last Thursday.
"I appreciate his enthusiasm," says Chad Stover, a project manager in the mayor's office. "But the message that I've tried to convey is that it's not about whether they are serious, it's about whether they are capable. And right now, I've seen nothing from this group that suggests that's what they are."
It's a familiar story.
Five years ago, then-Mayor Adams started cracking down on Last Thursday in response to increasing complaints of mayhem. Behavior like vandalism, public urination, and flagrant alcohol consumption continue to vex neighbors and Alberta businesses—even the bar owners said to benefit most from Last Thursday. (Despite the massive influx of people, many businesses report modest to nonexistent returns.)
Artists and longtime attendees bemoan the "soul" of Last Thursday being trampled by overcrowding, intoxication, and government interference. But wrangling this mess into a workable event has proven troublesome in Last Thursday's nearly 20-year history. The last community group to attempt it was Friends of Last Thursday (FOLT), which disbanded in protest of the city's oversight in 2013 ["The Last Last Thursday?" News, June 26, 2013].
O'Connor, 30, touts his event-planning experience, including two years running an erstwhile art fair called Hump Day in Southeast Portland's Buckman neighborhood, which he says drew about 1,500 people on Wednesdays from June through October. The Beaverton native knows all too well how wild Last Thursday can get: He attended many as a younger man. Intent on helping reform the event, he also attended FOLT's regular meetings for two years, but stopped because of "leadership problems."
His plan, he says, is better.
O'Connor wants to form groups that would target the well-known "nuisance" concerns, which he says he'd quell by staffing more than 100 volunteers to keep watch over the event.
And O'Connor thinks he can pay the event's steep tab. He plans to draw about half of his revenue from vending fees and sponsorships with Alberta businesses, and says he'll look for sponsorships outside the district.
In contrast with FOLT, which O'Connor said was led by many strong personalities, his group would have one person at the top overseeing representatives of the groups most affected: residents, business owners, and artists.
"We aren't going to be arguing about the things they used to argue about—like the law," he said, including a comic beat for emphasis. "I'm not going to debate facts with the police. This is all pretty straightforward. We know what the laws are. We know what we have to do."
Last month, some nine months after setting out, O'Connor addressed city council for the first time, armed with signatures from 56 Alberta businesses (an additional 68 businesses "abstained" from signing, and two outright oppose the effort). Given his sometimes-chilly dealings with the mayor's staff, he said he was surprised to be greeted warmly by Hales, who told him, "I really appreciate what you're doing."
"We've been looking for community-based leadership to manage this event, and for my office to, frankly, work itself out of a job," Hales said at the meeting. "Because [Last Thursday] really shouldn't be managed out of the mayor's office."
There's no sign that's actually going to happen anytime soon.
In March, Hales' office announced further cuts to Last Thursday, an indication city staffers are counting on managing it at least one more summer. The plan now is to scrap the May and September events completely. The move from five months to three should save about 40 percent of the $75,000 to $80,000 the city expected to spend on Last Thursday this year, according to Stover.
The mayor's office isn't alone in its doubts of O'Connor's chances. Maquette Reeverts, Alberta Street artist and former FOLT member, said many others have tried unsuccessfully to win over Hales.
"I think [O'Connor] has a good idea. I'm just not sure he has the wherewithal to do it," she says.
But, as Artists United's long list of signatures shows, O'Connor's winning over many on Alberta.
Yosief Embaye, owner of the jazz club Solae's Lounge at NE 18th and Alberta, says he's seen a lot of O'Connor lately. And he's cautiously buying in to a future that may never come to pass.
"He seems to be doing things," Embaye says. "I just hope what he says will happen, because there's positive things that can come out of Last Thursday."