Main streets: Win some/lose some

Oak Grove, Ore., in the early 1950s during the light rail days.

Like many cities and towns across the country, the 1970s [and starting in the mid-60s] were not kind to close-in, non-suburban neighborhoods. In many current Portland neighborhoods, amongst the well-tended gardens, lovingly restored homes, and close-in amenities, are reminders of a recent era: the ubiquitous security bars on homes and businesses, as if to say mockingly, “Remember me? Give me another long recession and I may return.” I certainly hope not.

I’m amazed and heartened at how many Portland’s neighborhoods have morphed into vibrant, sustainable and livable places as well as neighborhood’s Main streets bursting with local businesses, activity that help to sustain the surrounding community.

But what of other places in Oregon? The dying – or dead – mill towns? The former blue-collar working cities that have fallen on hard times and are desperately searching for ways to pump up the local economy? Or the southern Oregon cities that lack basic services such as libraries because they’re so broke?

Why do some Oregon Main streets and cities thrive while others struggle to find their voice, their niche, their purpose? Is it the population that supports (or doesn’t) support local economies? Or is it simply “the economy?” Do thriving Main streets need a close-in user base to use it or can they attract visitors as part of a destination?  Is it funding – federal or state or local that needs to jump start a local economy?

One very good example is downtown [if you can call it that] Oak Grove, Oregon. Located a few minutes south of Portland [a bike ride into Sellwood takes 20 minutes; via car it’s seven – I counted] and snuggled along the Willamette just south and west of Milwaukie [another city dealing with its own Main Street challenges] its little downtown has seen better days. Once a moderately thriving downtown core, it had shops that catered to the local population. It was also a stop on the long-abandoned streetcar that served riders to downtown Portland. In the 1950s, the streetcar was ripped up, close-by [McLoughlin] 99e was expanded, a Fred Meyer was put in and that was pretty much the death knell for Oak Grove’s downtown.

Downtown Oak Grove. Hopping off the trolley after a day at the Waverly Country Club?

A couple years ago, Oak Grove Coffee opened its doors on Oak Grove Blvd. It was a cool coffeeshop, selling Stumptown, serving sandwiches and Voodoo Donuts, that became a genuine community hangout. Would this be the spark that the wilting street needed to re-energize it? [Which is not to downplay the existing businesses there – there’s a popular hair stylist, two popular bars, and group of revolving businesses]. Perhaps. There was talk of a new taco shop, a bakery, the coffee shop expanding it back deck, possibly serving fresh, local beer, and other community-building businesses coming in on the street. But it never happened. And last month Oak Grove Coffee shuttered its doors leaving a big hole on the street. Was it local apathy? Location [There are numerous coffee chains to choose from on McLoughlin]?  Who knows?

But, things might be looking up for the street – there’s a new coffeeshop coming in the old space. The new Trolley Trail [a bike/ped path located ironically where the suburban streetcar used to traverse] should be starting construction soon that will connect to the Springwater Trail, connecting bicyclists to Portland, bringing thousands of bicyclists by Oak Grove Boulevard daily. Then there’s light rail coming [maybe] that will have an impact on the area – proponents say it will re-energize the area; opponents say it will bring crime [using the term “crime train” as a talking point]. No one knows where the money will come from to fund it.

To make matters even more interesting there’s a group that’s been throwing around the idea of annexing the small unincorporated [and very low-density – not a lot of sidewalks but there’s not a lot of vehicular traffic either] Oak Grove as its own city. On many levels it makes sense, the biggest in my opinion: more local representation. [Clackamas County commissioners have a wide swath to cover and often focus on the more high-visibility areas, read: more money, such as Lake Oswego and West Linn and tend to overlook the Oak Grove area.] Like everything else though, it all comes down to money. How will police, fire and local jurisdictions be funded in this new city? And though the group has also re-emerged with a strong anti-rail bent [strike while the iron is hot, eh?] I’m still intrigued by its “local control” message.

It’s going to be interesting how this all plays out in the next decade.

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2 thoughts on “Main streets: Win some/lose some

  1. Very interesting post. The city I am closest to pretty much has no downtown – I mean it’s 2 blocks! Bizarre!

    I’m reading a book about one of the first female architects in the U.S. who made her mark in Miami – that entire generation of architects was criticized for planning everything around automobiles.

  2. My grandmother used to live on Rupert in oak grove…after school she’d always take me to the soda fountain at the pharmacy for a malt, and a burger. Something you didn’t say was that for a while the drug store was also a green front(liquor store)! And yes there was a post office. Chestnut trees….. Beautiful little town then…..

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