Wednesday, May 13, 2009

There goes the neighborhood

The neighborhood within walking distance of my office has been changing afresh these last few months.

But that's nothing new for this part of town.

When I first started spending time here, it had already gone through several cycles of change. A 19th century genteel church community had burgeoned into a honky-tonk amusement attraction, then even that was bulldozed out of existence and transformed into barren high-rise apartment houses. The fringes of the neighborhood became so shabby it was known as Dogtown. Surfers, skateboarders, bodybuilders and garage bands made their homes here. And then, its poverty attracting counter-culture free spirits and artists, another cycle began. By the time I came here, it was the home of architects and actors, yoga instructors and website designers, riding their fat-tired bikes home to the little restored bungalows and angular concrete row-houses lining the side streets.

A whole stretch of Main Street frontage had been demolished, and blocks of residential development were under construction. The buildings are low-storied to fit the neighborhood, with retail at the sidewalk, and done in an inoffensive airy modern style fresh out of "Dwell" magazine. All told, intelligent city planning this time around - better than the sterile and souless sweep of the early '60s.

But I first came here when the housing was under construction, so that's what I got used to. For lunch breaks, I walk down the block to the little natural food store, where I could get containers of tabouli or avocado sandwiches, and where organic vegetables languished dimly in the old-fashioned produce coolers. It's run by a nice Japanese family, and they've come to know me enough to chat. There is a liquor store, too - if you want unnatural food and artificial flavors, a moribund shoe-repair shop, and a surf shop wafting incense out the door.

During the construction phase, I'd walk past the concrete block facades, the scaffolding, the shiny aluminum wall studs, smelling plaster and new paint, but see only construction workers on the street and the occasional homeless person.

But now, the residential developments are open, people are moving in, and the retail spaces at the sidewalk are opening.

The first was a beauty salon. Then a wine and specialty foods store - a lofty space with black-varnished bamboo flooring, and racks of imported dried pasta selling for $14 a pound. You could buy French butter or Italian artesanal charcuterie. You could get a brie and prosciutto panini. The albacore sandwiches cost twice as much as the tuna salad on whole wheat at the little natural food store across the street.

Earlier this spring, we started to see activity in another sidewalk space. Brightly colored signs went up, market umbrellas and furniture appeared in the cafe area, and one day lines of job applicants stretched out to the sidewalk.

This Monday, the place opened. I stopped by for lunch to check it out.

The entrance is lined with galvanized buckets planted with herbs - a pretty idea. You order from a chalkboard menu at the counter, and then take a numbered chit, threading past a narrow aisle in front of a high steel counter where cooks and servers scurry. A large room opens up beyond, with a bar where you claim your beverage and utensils, and find a seat at a table. I placed my numbered chit in the tabletop holder, and soon a cheerful server delivered my lunch - Thai chicken salad.

It was a little pricey, at $12.95, but quite tasty, all the same. A big china plate, and the flatware was heavy and solid. Though my iced tea came in a plastic cup, there were wines by the glass on the bar menu. Even though it was lunch on a weekday, a few people indulged - it was served in generously large stemware.

The room was high-ceilinged and with an industrial feeling, exposed ductwork and track lighting all painted black. The tables and chairs were blonde-colored birchwood, and a soundtrack of hip music played - not too loud, but enough to make it feel bustling. There were lots of seats outside beneath the umbrellas, in an area enclosed by a low wall.

The store logo is a cheerful bright orange and green - very current and trendy - and the space was accented with those colors - napkin dispensers and chits in orange, the staff in orange aprons - one server even wore bright orange Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. The place was busy but not crowded, with a steady stream of customers.

I was probably the oldest person in the place - the clientele was relentlessly young. Most people were casually dressed, in shorts or tank tops, although some in khakis and shirts looked like they worked at the nearby courthouse or think-tank offices. Good haircuts. Edgy-looking glasses. Lots of tattoos - the cool kind, not the sleazy kind. A laptop or two on a table.

When I left, the counter person called a cheery farewell - here's hoping the pleasant customer care will last. Walking back to work, I went next door to the other trendy new food and wine shop, to see how they were competing with their new neighbor. Not much commerce here, in comparison. I bought a small cup of grapefruit-campari flavored gelato for dessert.

I looked at the shabby little natural food shop across the street, the surf shop and the liquor store. Over there, an old bike was cabled to a signpost marking a bus stop. On this side, the cars at the meters included a Lexus, a Range Rover, and a convertible Alfa Romeo with sleek leather upholstery.

Well, there goes the neighborhood.


mo.stoneskin said...

Fascinating - I've seen a couple of movies/documentaries they made about Dogtown.

g said...

Hi, Mo. Yes, it is really that Dogtown.

cactus petunia said...'s always that way, isn't it? Artists and musicians find a cheap place to rent, make it a groovy and creative place to hang out, and then the big money moves in, and all the folks who made it worthwhile can't afford to be there anymore. It happened in NY and San Francisco and LA, and it's happening here in Portland, too. Why can't we all just get along and coexist?

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

I lived through the same gentrification in the West Village in NY.

Is this the Dogtown of the film "Dogtown?"

g said...

There are two Dogtown films - one is a documentary called "Dogtown and Z Boys" and the other one is a fictional feature film called "The Lords of Dogtown." The first is real, and is about this part of town; the second is based on the first and is fictional. I haven't seen "The Lords of Dogtown" so I don't know how true to life it is.

Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

sure have enjoyed looking at all the posts I have missed in the last day or two! you write so well!

kcinnova said...

This is what happened to University Avenue in Seattle. Now it is too expensive for the students and struggling artists.

Life with Kaishon said...

The gelatti sounded so good. Grapefruit. Yum. I always wondered what it would be like to be surrounded by that kind of wealth every day.