The Portland Night Market

Somewhere in Bangkok, an empty warehouse sits alongside an abandoned railway. The tracks remain, but the train never comes. The only apparent movement is the flicker of a fluorescent light and a can of spray paint pointed in the direction of a steel edifice. One can only imagine that Rod Fai, the “Train Market,” is a ghost town during much of the week. But Thursday through Sunday, an overwhelming bustle takes over, and thousands of Thai locals and tourists flock to the southeast corner of the city to find something a little different. Brightly colored tents pop up, creating a patchwork of neon overhead. Inside, vendors arrange their antiques and collectibles, artists showcase the week’s work, and chefs prepare the searing hot plates that will cook the night’s food to perfection.

Train tracks, empty warehouses, weekend metamorphoses of space—if that sounds familiar, then you might have been to our own Night Market. Not to be confused with the Jade District Night Market, this bazaar convenes in the Central Eastside Industrial District once per season. Located on the premises of a City Liquidators warehouse, the Night Market offers locals a new approach to the vendor economy. Its main organizer, Emma Pelett of City Liquidators, developed the concept when she noticed her industrial neighborhood changing at warp speed. Having traveled to various parts of Southeast Asia in search of eclectic furniture, she wondered how she might be able to apply a similar night market model while engaging the community in her native Portland. In a meeting of the Merchants & Makers committee held as part of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, neighboring businesses expressed enthusiasm for Pelett’s idea, and the group began figuring out how to execute her vision. The city welcomed the focus on local business, and in its second year of operation, the Night Market includes 150 food and drink vendors alongside the same number of retail merchants.

Brigid Blackburn, neighbor to City Liquidators and co-owner of Cargo, provides ideas and props for what she refers to as “experiential installations” inside of the warehouse. Since the market opens seasonally, its aesthetic varies, but always remains “authentic to our district,” she says. This past Night Market (May 13-14) celebrated Mother’s Day and springtime, despite stormy and somewhat unseasonable weather. People in worn rain jackets huddled beneath tents outside, savoring foods from all over town. Inside, neon inner tubes and an inflatable pink flamingo gave a very different impression of the season, as young families and gaggles of teenagers swarmed tables offering samples of caramels and chocolates, then checked their teeth before taking a picture in the photobooth. “Snapchat doesn’t load in here!” I overheard one teen exclaim, and with just one glance at the multitude of people in attendance who were also on their phones, the reason was clear.

Though much of Night Market’s main attraction is a microcosm of the city’s favorite food, drink, and retail locations, the aesthetic vision of the event’s organizers does not go unnoticed. Past Night Markets have seen garlands of white balloons extend across the warehouse or paper hearts dangling from the ceiling in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The East Asian influence is almost always present, as City Liquidators and Cargo together provide furniture and decorations from abroad. Strings of lights make for a more festive pre-holiday Night Market, while warmer months see more action outside, amid the iconic triangular flags that stretch from warehouse to warehouse between the City Liquidators buildings.

Crafts are highly celebrated at Night Market, too, with a roster of vendors extending to jewelry makers, clothing designers, artists, and merchants who are normally limited to Etsy shops. At Night Market, these creators have an opportunity to engage with the public, promote their brands, and sell their products to people who might otherwise be unaware of their work. In between sampling local gin and snaking my way upstairs, I became fascinated by the necklaces on display from Petal & Clay, a local jewelry company that allows you to accessorize with mini flower bouquets in the form of necklaces. Founder Rose Otter exclaims, “People lit up when they realized that the necklaces were holding real flowers!” She reiterates that the general feeling among vendors is one of support and mutual appreciation.

Across the way, Alex Simon, the mind behind Make Good Choices, dons a sparkly outfit to match her eyeshadow and the bright lipstick that outlines her big smile. Make Good Choices aims to “make things sparkle,” as Simon, a visual artist, brings color and vivacity to everyday objects like mugs, planters, and even pipes shaped like asthma inhalers. “Because the bulk of my sales come through Etsy, people might not know how much I embody my work [...] but at the market they get to see me in my sparkle spandex outfit, proudly prancing around the pieces that I spend so much time and love making,” she says. “I can connect with the locals in a way that feels genuine and give travelers a real sense of what it means to be a Portland business and a sequin-clad artist. When they buy something from me, they can take just a bit of that home with them.”

The bustle downstairs is only accentuated by the mishmash of activity upstairs. Perhaps the only uncrowded place in the whole building was an empty corner of a room on the second floor where a band had been setting up to play. Next to that was a space devoted to spa treatments where massage chairs lined the walls and manicurists were available to anyone with a wild hair to get their nails done amidst the commotion. Henna by Carmen made an appearance, as did Erin Aquarian, who provides individual and community tarot readings at a number of locations around town.

Pelett estimated a turnout of just under 19,000 people for the most recent Night Market, and the event has become so big and highly-anticipated that Southeast Second and the area just below the Morrison Bridge are closed off during designated hours. The largest Night Market will arrive in the winter, offering a festive, locally-focused experience in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For that particular three-day event, heated tents are installed, and the vendors begin selling their wares midday, making the event more family-friendly and less susceptible to overwhelming crowding.

While Night Market gives locals and tourists alike the opportunity to glean from Portland culture in a one-stop shop, there is an element of grand metropolitanism in what Pelett, Blackburn, and other event organizers have accomplished. In a city that continually appears to be bursting at the seams, Night Market offers a concentrated view of town in a historical location that would otherwise feel sleepy in the evening hours. While our city undergoes intense development, the sense of tight-knit community remains, apparent in the vendors’ cooperation and encouragement of one another. The general mood inside the Night Market is not one of competition or commodification; it’s one of camaraderie. People are warm and friendly in spite of the chaos. And though each vendor has limited space, everything feels familiar and communal. Each artist stands out with a unique medium, and the Night Market very much feels like a chance to celebrate the creator, the maker, the idealist. It’s a nice reminder that, even in our little town, a culture is burgeoning, and at the center of it is a local economy that still thinks big.

More information about Night Market can be found at pdxnm.com or on Facebook and Instagram (@portlandnightmarket). The next Night Market will take place September.More information about Night Market can be found at www.pdxnm.com or on Facebook and Instagram (@portlandnightmarket). The next Night Market will take place September.