THE LAST THURSDAY in June, 15 blocks of normally busy NE Alberta were car free for exactly 67 minutes—the length of time it took police to tow two colorfully painted junker cars that were blocking traffic, left by neighborhood roustabout Magnus Johannesson.
For years, Alberta's monthly art night has overflowed its sidewalks. Now, neighborhood organizers are using both bottom-up action and bureaucratic meetings, trying to gain official street closure for an event that relishes its informality.
This month, TriMet met with members of the group Arts on Alberta and agreed to reroute the #72 bus line that runs up the thoroughfare. Since the #72 is Portland's busiest bus line, the city has been hesitant about making a change that could inconvenience hundreds of riders. Meanwhile, the change is a big step forward for car-free supporters.
Another major challenge to official street closure is cost. According to neighborhood arts organizer Kriss Parnell, officially barricading NE Alberta would cost at least $1,500 each month. Usually neighborhood event organizers pay for street closures by charging vendors for street space, but the heart of NE Alberta's Last Thursday is lack of formal contracts with vendors. "Nobody wants to end up like the Pearl where someone decides who can set up," says Parnell.
In the meantime, pedestrians, bikers, and cars are sharing a dangerously tight space on Alberta each month. Neighbors have decided that the best way to make Last Thursday car free while working through the city process is simply to do it themselves. Volunteers are slated to stand at each end of the Alberta stretch this Thursday, July 31, with posters encouraging drivers to choose alternate routes. If cars keep going, Johannesson says clowns riding tall bikes will be on hand to pilot them through the crowd.
"It's been frustrating getting the street closed down and I wanted to show that it's pretty straightforward," says Johannesson. "We're responsible people on Alberta."
Johannesson says he has also printed hundreds of buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Pranksters for Pedestrians."
Elly Blue, an organizer of the Towards Carfree Cities Conference 2008—held in Portland last month—thinks that after years of neighborhood enthusiasm about the idea, the next step toward a car-free Last Thursday needs to come from city hall.
"Seems like there hasn't been a ton of political will for it," says Blue, hoping that the bottom-up neighborhood actions will prod the mayor's office or a city commissioner to prioritize pedestrians at Last Thursday over automobiles. "It could probably use a kick in the pants," she says. "And maybe it's gotten it now."