I tried to think of the best way to open a series of posts about my experience in Portland. For any traveler, the timing of a trip is usually the first aspect of what gets planned so I figured acknowledging the calendar dates of this trip was the simplest place to start. Expect several posts about Portland over the coming week. Then the third week of August you can expect to hear more about my upcoming adventure, including thoughts and resources for how to make long-term travel possible for you!
"Wait, today is what day?" I found myself asking this question on several occasions during my 2-week trip to Portland at the end of June. Perhaps this is the meaning behind "summertime." Summertime is when school lets out and, for most young people, time loses all relevance or meaning. Unfortunately, the freedom summer affords usually changes when you reach adulthood. For most adults, it's business as usual working a 9-5. As a graduate student, it's the same deal: "Summer? What summer?" I'd often say to my family when they asked if they would see me more now that it was May or June. "HAAH!" I would laugh, and they would learn rather quickly that I no longer had summers off like I had in the past.
What I love about Portland is that actually knowing the day of the week in the summer means something fun is planned. In fact, if you're not paying attention to the time--you just might miss out on the most fun ever.
Okay. Maybe not ever. But I had the chance to see some amazing cultural events while in Portland because I did, occasionally, pay attention to the date. There was Last Thursday, First Thursday, Monday Funday, and the Saturday Market. Portland is clearly obsessed with naming events after days of the week. I'm not sure what happened to Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Maybe those days are just reserved for getting lost in time again.
When: 6-9:30pm, every last Thursday of the month, May-September
Where: Alberta St. between 15th and 30th
Last Thursday was the first big cultural event I attended in Portland. On the final calendar Thursday in June, I hopped on the 8 Bus from downtown and got off at 15th St.—the beginning of about 15 or so blocks along Alberta Street filled with arts, crafts, music, dance, theatrics, food, alcohol, and more!
I listened to and watched a series of unique performances as I made my way along Alberta. There was dancing, flame throwing, tribal chanting/singing, folk music, a Prince cover band, and more. If you're a Portlandia fan and were wondering—yes, Portlanders totally "keep Portland weird," especially with some of the stuff the hip and mostly young crowd ate, sold, and performed at this event. Take this clown balancing a cat on a pole:
No kitties were harmed during (or after) the photographing of this trick.
The event is full of local, struggling artists seeking exposure, experience, community, and donations as well as entrepreneurs selling hand-made jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and other crafts.
Apparently, this event used to be run by local artists and community members but the Mayor's Office recently took control. Rumor has it that eventually artists will have to pay a fee to set up as vendors at the event and there will be other fees for participating, even just as an attendee. This may turn away artists from sharing their work and from community members and visitors like myself from engaging with the local culture at this event. Last Thursday has been going on for 17 years and really was an awesome introduction to Portland for me. To hear that Charlie Hales, the mayor, may further limit artistic expression and cultural freedom is a shame. As the organizers put it:
"Fees, registration and placement become barriers. They do not invite the public to freely participate. It denies the child, restricts creative movement for happenings and bars those that cannot afford. It eliminates spontaneity and stifles interactions."
In protest, artists organized a clean-up pedal down Alberta street to pick up litter and gently encourage participants to clear off the street at the close of the event. They rode bicycles that read "L-O-V-E" in a mesh netting lined in pink lighting as they slowly moved along. The only downside was seeing the Mayor's police force hovering at their tail with loudspeakers. The image speaks for itself: Artists attempting to spread the love (quite literally) and the Mayor's foot soldiers closing in to assume control. But the artists' float stole the show. Love did conquer in the end, and I hope it continues to do so for the sake of the artists and the community.
When: 6-10pm, every first Thursday of the month May-September
Where: The Pearl District, downtown (street gallery is between Hoyt and Kearney on 13th) - view map here.
Similar in a lot of ways to Last Thursday (and yet so different) was the First Thursday event. At around 6pm, downtown became bustling with people, food, art, vendors, and music. Wandering into the Pearl district, named for its not-so-attractive building "shells" holding beautiful art galleries within, my friend and I sought out First Thursday by asking a local where to go. He directed us to 13th Ave where we were first greeted by a large band. As they performed, they had dancers as part of their group motivating the crowd to get into it. My friend and I happily joined in the fun.
The band was dressed in silver and white—perhaps they were emulating pearls? Apparently, the Pearl district got its name 25 years ago from a gallery owner that was then made popular by a traveler who wrote about the area. Hooray for travel writers helping to make cool names like the Pearl district stick!
Along 13th Ave my friend and I browsed artistic works for sale by local artists that were a bit more upscale and pricey compared to what I had seen at the Last Thursday event the week before. Locals had told me that First Thursday tends to be a bit more "snobby" but we wanted to see for ourselves. While Last Thursday kept Portland weird with its youthful vibe, this event seemed to be targeted at older adults or at least people with deeper pockets and an eye for high-end art and crafts. That didn't make the experience any more or less enjoyable for us! I just kept my wallet closed and took in the various and engaging musical acts—a First Thursday soundtrack that we bopped to as we moved up the street.
When: 5-10pm, every Monday when the weather is nice
Where: Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland (South of Belmont between 20th & 26th)
On the first night staying with my host, Dylan, in southeast Portland, we grabbed a few PBRs and traipsed across the street for "Monday Funday." I have heard of the phrase before, but had no idea that it was actually a "thing" in Portland. I had no idea what to expect. As we approached the small park, I saw maybe 100 to 150 people gathered together on the lawn and the tennis courts.
As the name would imply, everyone was gathered together for the sole purpose of fun. A random smattering of young people were hanging out, some smoking, others drinking. Everyone was playing, doing gymnastics, munching on snacks, or just kicking back. Many brought along items to play with: juggling sticks, Frisbees, bubbles, dodge-balls, bicycles, etc. This was the place to be outside, create your own entertainment, and socialize.
We parked ourselves in front of the tennis courts and positioned ourselves for some earnest people watching. A large group of friends in front of us were practicing some balancing acts on each others' feet. One of them danced and practiced spinning unlit flame throwing sticks. This seemed to be a group of circus gymnasts - just being free, doing lifts, spinning each other around like pinwheels, and enjoying the remaining light from the setting sun.
An enormous group of people had also come together for one of the largest games of dodge ball I have ever seen. I never did like the game growing up but as an adult I can see it being fun to revisit. You know, to try to make up for being a big loser at it back in high school!
To me, the event seemed fairly random and unorganized. Boy was I wrong. Dylan shared with me that the event tends to be word of mouth, popping up when the weather gets nice. But they do have a Facebook group. The organizers bring the dodge balls and plan the trash and recycling cleanup at the end of the night to make sure they don't get shut down. Dylan mentioned that an older woman had recently explained that the event used to take place when she was a young adult. So it seems to be a pretty well-rooted cultural event in Portland.
If you realize it's a Monday night in Portland and the weather is nice, definitely check this place out for some people watching, outdoor sports, and socializing with local folks.
When: Saturday (10-5) AND Sunday (11-4:30) in summers
Where: By the waterfront downtown
As I strolled up to the market along the waterfront (you cannot miss it with all the people gathered around), children were cooling off in the fountain beside it as others looked on. With all the local artists or "vendors" set up in tents, this was similar to the Last and First Thursday events but with a bigger, more traditional market feel to it.
Clothing, paintings, hand-made crafts, bead work, funny costume pieces, woodcrafts, jewelry, lighting, live music, and plenty of food trucks to fill your belly—the Portland Saturday (and Sunday!) Market was a treat downtown by the waterfront. This is a huge, organized event held every weekend in the summer. You can check out all the vendors here. Many of the artists demonstrated their craft live, like the drawing I watched of a pudgy-faced baby who posed in its mother's lap at Li's Portraits.
This is definitely a family or "for everyone" event. I had a great time walking around viewing all of the unique crafts. I wanted to buy practically everything I came across.
Above are photos of the musicians known as Gaea Soul. I had to give them a special shout out in this post because, not only was their music beautiful, but they were also at EVERY market event that I attended while in Portland. At Last Thursday, First Thursday, and both Saturday Market weekends I attended, I found them squatting somewhere jamming away. Talk about dedicated! I really enjoyed watching the Cellist strum away with his blonde hair hanging down as he head banged along to his own beat.
These musicians emphasize the continuity between all of the above events I went to while in Portland. At the same time each event had its own unique atmosphere. Although Portland is a fairly big, spread out city, it was warming to see the tight sense of community built through the many different opportunities locals had to share, engage, and celebrate their work. I'm glad that I was paying attention to what day it was (at least some of the time) while I was there. If I hadn't, I would have missed out on all of the above.