Out and About on North Mississippi Avenue: Thriving business district sparks community on historic avenue
By Kathy Eaton
photos by Judy Nelson
“North Mississippi Avenue is returning back to the street it was a century ago. It was a streetcar community with approximately 400 homes built by Northern European immigrant craftsmen,” said Kay Newell, owner of Sunlan Lighting, 3901 N. Mississippi Ave.
Historic North Mississippi Avenue is part of Boise, a Northeast Portland neighborhood bordered by Fremont and Skidmore streets, Rodney Avenue and I-5. Newell, also known as “the light bulb lady,” opened Sunlan in 1990, when there were 43 mostly white-owned businesses on the avenue. Part historian, part sociologist, Newell enjoys sharing her knowledge and photos of early North Mississippi Avenue with customers from around the region.
Light industrial businesses once populated the street, including a chemical plant where The Meadow, a specialty store selling chocolates and artisan salts, now stands. Sunlan previously housed a variety store and meat market downstairs with apartments upstairs.
After World War II, a variety of multi-cultural groups settled in North and Northeast Portland. Newell recalls revitalization efforts beginning in the 1990s that set the stage for community stability and growth on North Mississippi Avenue. “Social pressure can create positive effects,” she said. Born in Ontario, Oregon, Newell greets every customer with the same question: “How can I light up your world?” Nearby business owner, Lane Cooper, president of Cooper Design Builders, 4076 N. Mississippi Ave., says Newell has a bit of a cult following.In 2005 Cooper bought a 1923 Arts and Crafts style historic bungalow on North Mississippi Avenue, for his design and contractor business, from descendants of the original owner. “An 85-year-old African-American lady showed up and said she’d lived in this house for 50 years. It may have been a Sears-Roebuck catalog house,” recalled Cooper.
Building materials are backdrop for building community
Shane Endicott, who founded the nonprofit Our United Villages (OUV) in 1997, is a life-long resident of North Portland who remembered visiting his grandmother who owned the Swinging Anchor Tavern on North Mississippi Avenue. Endicott stated that OUV’s goal always has been community building. In 1998, Endicott secured a loan and obtained a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust to buy the large building OUV needed for The ReBuilding Center, 3625 N. Mississippi Ave. “We were using a 1974 white Ford Econoline van to pick up building materials when we started the business,” said Endicott.
Today The ReBuilding Center accepts the region’s largest volume of used building and remodeling materials, generating funding to sustain the OUV, which employs 35 workers and more than 2,000 volunteers in six departments. The complex also houses DeConstruction Services, which offers a sustainable alternative to conventional demolition and which opened in 1999; and ReFind Furniture, which offers a diverse line of green furniture and home accessories and which opened in 2000. For more information: Visit ourunitedvillages.org or call (503) 331-9291.
Boise Business Youth Unity Project
Our United Villages facilitated discussions between business owners on North Mississippi Avenue and neighborhood kids who wanted jobs, according to Endicott. Our United Villages partnered with Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC), at the alternative high school on 717 N. Killingsworth Ct. to serve as a clearinghouse for identifying and hiring youth. POIC prepares at-risk youth for future success through education, employee training and placement. With support and funding from stalwart Mississippi Avenue business owners Bryan Steelman with Por Que No? and Phillip Stanton with Mississippi Pizza, about 12 youths annually have secured summer jobs. Endicott acknowledged that the capacity was always there: “Facilitation has value, but it’s not the secret ingredient; it’s all about building relationships.”
“North Mississippi Avenue is more than just another hip district. It’s the best little town inside Portland.”
– Bridget Bayer, honorary mayor of Mississippi Avenue
Music, dance, art thrive on Mississippi Avenue
Jim Brunberg, owner of Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi Ave., toured with a band in the late 1980s and became aware of a close-in urban neighborhood with boarded-up buildings on Mississippi Avenue. “The community was diverse, tolerant, and exciting,” he said. When Brunberg learned about a street church for sale that had lain empty for 18 years, he made plans to buy the building that became Mississippi Studios. The recording studio sprouted a music venue, then a bar and restaurant, with Bar Bar located next door. “I’ll never close Mississippi Studios. I’d like it to be one of the longest continuously running quality music halls in the country,” said Brunberg. For more information: Visit mississippistudios.com or call (503) 288-3895.
The Northwest Dance Project is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by artistic director Sarah Slipper and Executive director Scott Lewis, whose goal was to bring professional dancers together with choreographers to perform and teach classes. By 2007, they formed a dance company and in 2009, opened a studio space at 833 N. Shaver St. Northwest Dance Project employs 10 professional salaried dancers who perform in an intimate studio setting for audiences of 75 and offer dance classes for adults and youth aged 4-19. Commissioner Nick Fish, who manages the city of Portland’s arts portfolio said, “I’m a big fan of Northwest Dance Project. Each year one of the highlights of my holiday season is attending “In Good Company” at their Mississippi Avenue studio. They are an internationally recognized dance company located right here in Portland. It doesn’t get any better than that.” For more information: Visit nwdanceproject.org or call (503) 421-7434.
By 2008, Amber and Pat Castaldo, owners of Land Gallery, 3925 North Mississippi Ave., had outgrown their Olympia, Washington, warehouse and moved to Portland, expanding their on-line business. Amber Castaldo said, “Seeing customers respond to art is something I didn’t get with on-line sales.” On February 13, 2014, “Love for Sale,” curated by artists Frank Chimero, Kate Bingaman-Burt and Will Bryant, opens at Land Gallery. For more information: Visit landpdx.com or call (503) 451-0689.
Businesses thrive on Mississippi Avenue
In December 2012, Lily Tollefesen, president of the Historic Mississippi Business Association (HMBA), opened Radar Restaurant, 3951 N. Mississippi Ave., with her husband Jonathan. “Jonathan works the back of the house; and I work the front of the house doing marketing, dealing with purveyors, greeting customers and sometimes mopping the floors,” said Lily. They renovated the former bike shop for restaurant space, doing much of the physical labor themselves. “We like being part of this neighborhood and share the values of hard-working business owners on the street,” said Lily who lives nearby in Alameda. For more information: Visit radarpdx.com or call (503) 841-6948.
The Meadow’s eclectic collection
In 2006, Mark Bitterman opened The Meadow, 3731 N. Mississippi Ave., as a natural outgrowth of his passion for food and travel. He sells a unique product line: fresh flowers, artisan salts, chocolates, wines, 33 craft vermouths and 200 varieties of bitters. He attributes his success to a supportive community of business owners and patrons. Bitterman has since opened two other locations: Manhattan’s West Village in New York City and Portland’s Northwest 23rd Avenue sell the largest variety of chocolate bars in the world, according to Bitterman. He’s published two books on salts, including Salt Block Cooking released in May 2013. He also co-lectured with Dr. Miles Hassell of Portland Providence Medical Center, on the medicinal values of chocolate. Customers can expect classes soon on how to incorporate delicacies such as dried mustards, maple syrup, sherry vinegars and fish sauces into everyday cooking. For more information: Visit atthemeadow.com or call (503) 288-4633.
Like Bitterman, Jamie Jessen, who owns Gypsy Chic, 3966 N. Mississippi Ave., has traveled extensively. Combining her love of fashion and travel, Jessen started her business at Portland’s Saturday Market in 1999. “I was drawn to the Mississippi location and opened my first brick-and-mortar store in 2006 shortly after giving birth to my first child during the throes of an economic recession,” she said. Using fabric remnants fairly traded, her goal is to “keep prices affordable so customers can get the look without the price tag.” In 2012, Jessen opened her second store on Southwest Morrison Avenue. For more information: Visit gypsy-chic.com or call (503) 234-9779.
Boise Neighborhood Association
According to Boise Neighborhood Association (BNA) chair, Caroline Dao, “North Mississippi Avenue still feels quaint,” which attracted her to move to the neighborhood two years ago. Residents have dealt with associated growing pains of noise, safety and traffic issues, according to Dao. Joining BNA as chair of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, Stephen Gomez moved to the neighborhood eighteen months ago. “New construction with little to no parking is a concern to Mississippi neighbors, like other neighborhoods in Portland,” said Gomez. He offers an alternative view to the subject of on-street neighborhood parking, however. “By not including parking, developers can reduce building costs and potentially offer lower rents, attracting a diversity of residents,” said Gomez. The trade-off is “residents may no longer have the luxury of parking in front of their houses.”
Future issues facing the BNA will focus attention on commercial development that’s exploding on North Williams and North Vancouver avenues. One block north of Fremont Street and North Williams Avenue, developers are building three innovative engineering and designed office buildings with retail outlets on the first floor. Traffic flow and safety are already on the table as the BNA partners with the city for greenways to provide quiet, safe routes for bicyclists and pedestrians to access business districts. Today, North Williams Avenue is the second most bike-traveled street in Portland with 3,000 bike trips per day, according to Gomez.
A future column will focus on the challenges and opportunities facing North Williams Avenue. Watch this space.
Family-friendly North Mississippi Avenue Street Fair
Approximately 35,000 people attend the annual Historic North Mississippi Avenue Street Fair. This year’s event will take place Saturday, July 12, from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Proceeds benefit Boise-Eliot Elementary, the Boise Business Youth Unity Project and Self Enhancement, Inc. Visit mississippiave.com.
Comics for the people:
In 2005, Michael Ring, formerly of Dark Horse Comics, opened Bridge City Comics, 3725 N. Mississippi Ave., where customers can discover or reaffirm their love of comic books while developing friendships over their shared interest. Visit bridgecitycomics.com or call (503) 282-5484.
Beer flows on North Mississippi Avenue
Mississippi Avenue is bracketed by beer purveyors:
Iconic brewer John Harris opened Ecliptic Brewery in October 2013, combining his love of astronomy and brewing at 825 N. Cook Ave. Visit eclipticbrewing.com or call (503) 265-8002.
Beer entrepreneurs Dan Hart and Chris Navarra founded the German pub, Prost!, 4237 N. Mississippi Ave. Visit prostportland.com or call (503) 954-2674.
Hart also owns Interurban Tavern, 4057 N. Mississippi Ave. Visit interubanpdx.com or call (503) 284-6669.
Explore the Speak Easy located inside The Modern Man Barber Shop, 3956 N. Mississippi Ave. Visit themodernmanpdx.com or call (503) 522-8470.