Originally published in the Feb. 3, 2010 edition of the Portland Observer.
When the nights are warm and the sun lingers late into the evening, the crowds come to the Alberta Arts District on the last Thursday of the month.
Artists lug wooden crates brimming with their work to sell. Musicians set up on street corners as happy crowds converge on Alberta.
Last Thursday, an arts celebration that has been occurring in a gentrifying part of town for roughly 13 years, has embodied the spontaneity and innovation of a city that sees hordes of young creative types flock to it every year.
But City Hall seems poised to impose more structure on the freeform event that has drawn the ire of residents who’ve had to endure the noise and congestion from the crowds, as well as the remnants of the night’s revelry in their yards.
The monthly event, as its name implies, has been the polar opposite, in substance and style, of First Thursday, a night when the upscale galleries downtown and in the Pearl District open up their doors.
Last Thursday- which is part street fair, part carnival, and part art walk- has uncertain origins in a part of town that was once a hub of gang violence, but also an incubator for a robust art scene provided by the area’s cheap rents.
Donna Gaurdino, the owner of Gaurdino Gallery on Alberta, said that the event began as an attempt to get Portlanders to take a second glance at the area.
“There never really was an infrastructure,” said Magnus Johannesson, the owner of the real estate company Urban Focus, who was involved with the event early on.
Johannesson, whose office on Alberta and 24th Avenue has had bullet holes from gang battles, explained that because the event lacked and top-down structure it was seen as “authentic” gathering where people could showcase their art.
“It wasn’t at all hard to find artists,” said Johannesson.
But as the event grew, it’s become increasingly unpredictable and rowdy. Some are worried that the celebratory nature of the event has eclipsed its original goal.
Neighbors began complaining about the noise from amplified instruments on Alberta, the lack of parking, loud partiers making their way home, and deposits of vomit, garbage, and feces on their lawn. Others, like Johannesson, felt Last Thursday had become more of a “frat party.”
“I do feel Last Thursday has developed into something different,” said Gaurdino. “When people show up at the door to my gallery, they’re already drunk.”
Allan Oliver, the manager of Onda Gallery on Alberta, isn’t sure the event even helps his business since people are so overwhelmed by the event before they even walk in his door.
“I sort of have a love-hate thing with this,” said Oliver. “Spontaneity is very overrated.”
Larry Holmes, the chair of the nearby Vernon Neighborhood Association, said that resident’s feelings on the event are a “mixed bag.” Some despise it. Others think it’s cool, he said.
Things reached a fever pitch in April 2007, when a riot nearly erupted outside The Nest, a bar on Alberta.
According to Oregon Liquor Control Commission records, police officers were trying to clear the street that was filled with people dancing and reveling when they encountered a group who resisted. One of them grabbed an officer’s Taser.
The incident quickly escalated with patrons at The Nest making lewd hand gestures and hurling beer bottles at the officers.
Since then, the street has been closed off during the festival. Last year, the city also stepped up its involvement, adding a greater police presence, garbage cans, and port-a-potties.
But it costs the city $10,000 a month to offer these services from May through October, which is prompting city officials to look into imposing some sort of formal structure on the event to recoup costs.
Both First Thursday and Saturday Market have point persons that the city can contact to resolve issues- something Last Thursday lacks.
Next week Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Amanda Fritz will be holding an open meeting to get feedback on what should change. The session will take place on Monday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Acadian Ballroom, 1829 Northeast Alberta Street.
Roy Kaufman, spokesperson for Adams, said that City Hall doesn’t want to use a heavy hand to shut down Last Thursday.
“That’s not at all the goal,” he said, pointing out that events like Last Thursday keep Portland unique.
But he did note that there needs to be some sort of shared responsibility, maybe with Alberta Street Business Association or Art on Alberta.
Fritz, a former neighborhood activist, said that the meeting is being held so that she and Adams can get a sense of peoples’ thoughts on the event. She said that it’s a “huge problem” that there is no person or group in charge of the event to take responsibility. All options are on the table, including shutting it down, said Fritz, who isn’t sure how that would happen.
But Becky Guest, an artist who braved the cold last month to showcase her handmade copper bracelets, said she loves how the event brings people together and hopes the city will think twice before it imposes any sort of structure that stifles the event.
“Why would they do that?” she said. “What’s the problem?”