Last Thursday Alberta Street Art Walk
Sometimes attracting an estimated 10,000 participants, Last Thursday is Portland’s summertime, free-spirited monthly arts festival that takes over NE Alberta from 15th to 30th avenues once a month. The event is unique in that no single group had ever managed it.[i] Vendors could set up where they want, and local businesses provide portable potties and cleanup services on a volunteer basis.[ii]
By 2006, the event was increasingly perceived as getting out of control by many neighborhood residents(?), police and some local businesses. The increased popularity of Last Thursday coincided with gentrification taking hold along NE Alberta, displacing Portlanders from what had been for decades been an African American neighborhood main street. In 2006, Oregonian columnist Renee C. Mitchell wrote,
“…middle-class whites gently integrating into what used to be a mostly black and lower-income neighborhood, they've taken over. The popular Last Thursday art walk, often referred to as "White Night," is becoming little more than a drunken freak show.” [iii] Many neighbors and city officials wanted the City to crack down on the event or shut it down.[iv]
Many of the participating artists rejected the idea of it becoming a formal organization or new rules or restrictions. "I don't think anyone wants to be known as 'the leader,' and that's the whole beauty of it," said Bianca Youngers, who owns the Alberta bar Binks with her husband, Justin. "That's the magic of Last Thursdays." [v]
As Arts Commissioner and later also as Police Commissioner, working with City Commissioner Amanda Fritz and others, Adams sought to better keep the peace, to reduce the event’s impact on the surrounding residents, all while keeping it a place for local artists and galleries to show their work. "I want insight in how we can make Alberta Street work for the longer-time business owners and the newer business owners," said Adams, the council's liaison to neighborhood business districts. "The only way I know how to do that is to ask people myself."[vi]
D.K. Row, arts reporter for the Oregonian newspaper, wrote in 2010, “Let's clear up one myth that could offer insights regarding Last Thursday's future…Shutting down Last Thursday would be virtually impossible.”
He summarized the event’s history:
Last Thursday began in 1997 when a handful of galleries and other retail spaces wanted to bring attention to their new businesses and, by extension, the then-gritty and undiscovered Alberta district…They had simple goals. To bring attention to a racially diverse and complex area where storefronts were boarded up and whose residents were mostly working-class people. And to create a bona fide east side cultural district where unpretentiousness and sincerity would rise above the Pearl District's and First Thursday's haughtiness and love of pedigree. Each year, Last Thursday grew in size and popularity: The plan by the Alberta Street galleries worked. Besides art, visitors to Last Thursday saw financial opportunity, namely empty buildings to buy or lease. New residents and businesses moved in and opened stores. Property values increased. The Alberta district became gentrified. By the early 2000s, Last Thursday had become a scene, but not because of the art. Something happened that led to this identity-seeking moment. The art galleries lost what tender control they had --not that they organized the event, per se. But the galleries were the public face and unofficial advocates of the art walk, just like the city's most established galleries behind First Thursday [in the Pearl District] are for the west side event. But the small businesses behind the monthly summer art walk could not keep up with managing its growing popularity because, “for starters, some of the core group of several dealers didn't get along, and then there was gallery turnover. That's not unusual in the art business, but it was crucial to Alberta Street because most of the art walk's participating venues weren't galleries but cafes, restaurants or bookstores that exhibited art…the galleries were drowned out by other, more willful voices. In 2007, a few years after the event began to attract swarms of visitors in the summer, Allan Oliver of Onda Gallery summed up the relationship between the galleries and other stakeholders of the Alberta neighborhood: They just wanted to avoid confrontation. Now the art walk is layer upon layer of unguided activity. It's a free-for-all festival with no collective wisdom at work. Last Thursday's biggest advocates say the event embraces the city's anti-establishment heritage. There's a Ken Kesey-esque beauty in letting everyone do as they please on Last Thursday, from street vendors to fire dancers to assorted merry pranksters. But only so far. While those layers of activity indicate the event's evolution in terms of pure expression, it doesn't mean it's matured or ripened. Who's willing to burden the responsibility for what happens at the event? Right now, no one is. The reality is that Last Thursday takes place on limited geography that requires reliability. It's one strip. By comparison, it's not First Thursday's broad swathe of multiple streets and many square blocks. Activity thus becomes heightened, and hyper centralized; streets, sidewalks and private property get messed up. Throw in alcohol, and the best intentions turn into the worst scenarios. Now the city has to expedite an unsavory task for which it can only do so much.
In 2009, when the monthly group size started to hit 10,000, after continued complaints about drunkenness, public urination, noise, trash and traffic, Fritz, Adams, took a much bigger role in the management of the Last Thursday art walk. They held a held a town hall meeting attended by 300 people to figure out what role the City should play.[vii] At the town hall, some spoke in favor of the freewheeling, Northeast Portland event. Others begged the City to step in and control the rowdy crowds. A letter, sent to Mayor Sam Adams and all council members, asked for help with illegal alcohol use, parking problems, vandalism, public urination and defecation, trash and other nuisance issues.
The Friends of Last Thursday committee grew out of the town hall. The group aimed to figure out how Last Thursday could be sustained without negative impacts on the community[viii]. That input led to an action plan that focused on:
Discourage over-drinking and public drunkenness.
Address the lack of restrooms.
Manage the closure and opening of Alberta. Nurture the creation of a diverse stakeholder group to manage the event.
The city subsequently took several actions.
Hired an event management to manage the event and stakeholder groups.
Diverted cars and TriMet buses away from Alberta Street from 15th to 27th avenues, so they would no longer get marooned in the crowds on Alberta, or pose a threat to pedestrians.
Took over the closure and reopening of Alberta Street [ix]
Beefed up police presence and had a noise control officer on site to issue tickets to excessively loud bands and revelers.[x]
The first rollout of the new actions went well. The street fair seemed to go off without a hitch. "The atmosphere was really good, lots of kids, lots of families," Adams said. "It had a really good feeling."[xi] However, Adams got criticism for these actions:
The hiring of an "event coordinator" to oversee Last Thursday is yet another example of misplaced priorities at City Hall. At a time when Portland can ill-afford to add another expense to its budget, Mayor Sam Adams ignores conventional wisdom. There are more pressing issues that should be commanding City Hall's attention, such as curbing the escalation of gang violence, securing a new home for Beavers baseball and nailing down a workable blueprint for the Columbia River Crossing.”[xii]
Adams also expected community organizers to assume greater responsibility.[xiii] And businessman Magnus Johannesson, a Last Thursday founder, took out a permit for the event, agreed to help populate committees to work on doing community outreach, making sure any food that's sold meets health standards and developing strategies to control noise, trash and public drinking. [xiv]
But recruiting volunteers remained a challenge. “We need 100 volunteers to successfully pull this off as a community-led event," Event Manager Bridget Bayer says. "We have seven hardcore volunteers who come to committee meetings and come to the night of event. Those are really our stalwarts. And that's it." [xv] And, unreimbursed the city staffing increased from 21 officers to 32 officers along with three sergeants, and one lieutenant.[xvi]
Bayer said the biggest problem was that a younger crowd, less interested in fattening neighborhood businesses and shopping among the street's arts vendors, kept showing up after dark. Like the way an amusement park or fair changes after the nighttime lights on the midway come on, “everything changes after it gets dark," she said. "They're having a good time. A great time, actually. But they're not part of an art festival. They're just enjoying the fact that they can be on a street that's closed. It's a different vibe."
[i] Har, Janie (February 19. 2010). “City asks street fair to chip in.” The Oregonian [ii] Har, Janie (August 19, 2010). “Party over for Last Thursday?” The Oregonian. [iii] Mitchell, Renee (November 23, 2006). “Work together or watch diversity disappear.” The Oregonian. Page 16. [iv] Har, Janie (August 19, 2010). “Party over for Last Thursday?” The Oregonian. [v] Har, Janie (February 19. 2010). “City asks street fair to chip in.” The Oregonian [vi] Mitchell, Renee (November 23, 2006). “Work together or watch diversity disappear.” The Oregonian. Page 16. [vii] Har, Janie (August 19, 2010). “Party over for Last Thursday?” The Oregonian. [viii] Bingham, Larry (February 19, 2011). “Who will take responsibility for Last Thursday?” The Oregonian. [ix] Mitchell, Renee (November 23, 2006). “The party must learn to patrol itself.” The Oregonian. Page B1.
[x] Har, Jani (August 26, 2010). “You won't have to look far for lemonade.” The Oregonian. [xi] Har, Janie (August 27, 2010). “They're taking a stand for a cup of lemonade.” The Oregonian.
[xii] Tait, P.D. (August 27, 2010). “Reorder priorities, City Hall.” Letter to The Editor, The Oregonian. [xiii] Beavan, Stephen (July 4, 2009). “City sets pace for art walk.” The Oregonian.
[xiv] Mitchell, Renee (November 23, 2006). “The party must learn to patrol itself.” The Oregonian. Page B1.
[xv] Mitchell, Renee (November 23, 2006). “The party must learn to patrol itself.” The Oregonian. Page B1.
[xvi] Theriault, Denis (August 31, 2012). “Scuffles, Pepper Spray, Cops, and Plea for More Volunteers at Last Thursday.” Portland Mercury.