“No neighborhood should ever be as degraded as Mississippi used to be,” says Kay Newell, the “Light Bulb Lady” of the district’s Sunlan Lighting shop and repository of its history. Opening her offbeat light bulb emporium on the avenue in 1990 was a huge gamble at the time. Most of the buildings, dating from the late 18th and early 19th century, were either boarded up or had bars on the windows and entrances. “This place, which used to be a five-and-dime, was a dump,” says Newell. “Drug dealers, crack houses and prostitutes were everywhere.”
After enduring years of neglect, Mississippi neighbors banded together and demanded action from the city. “These were good people who felt helpless. They felt that there was nothing they could do to stop the negative behavior,” says Newell. In 1995, residents and business owners persuaded the city to establish the Mississippi Target Area, a ground-breaking agreement that targeted policing and infrastructure investment, particularly seed money for storefront improvement. The results could scarcely be more dramatic.
Today the avenue boasts a dizzying array of specialty shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars, as well as a growing number of new condominiums. Its sturdy architecture has been repurposed and, says Newell, “we are more diverse today than ever before.” Kids who were enchanted by Sunlan’s window displays, frequently decked out in toys and always brightly lit, have returned as adults to thank Newell for the memories. “We never know what impact the things we do are going to have on people. I try to do something positive.”
Many of Mississippi’s commercial “pioneers” from the 1990’s remain in business–BikeWorks, Gravy, Pistils Nursery, Por Que No and Mississippi Pizza Pub, to name just a few. A handful of boutiques and vintage clothing stores have joined them, along with art galleries, at least two dozen restaurants and several live music venues.
In true Portland style, some of Mississippi’s businesses are multifunctional. At the Herb Shoppe, owner Amanda Furbee combines retail (“your neighborhood natural alternative store”), education (classes on everything from plant identification to making your own herbal tinctures, September-May) and treatment from an on-staff naturopath, massage therapist or Chinese medicine doctor. “We can customize anything you can imagine–be it a tea blend, tincture blend, capsule blend or flower essence–all tailored to your individual needs,” Furbee says.
Also found on the avenue are some local food favorites, including Little Big Burger, Blue Star Donuts and Laughing Planet Cafe. Otherwise, and no surprise, a lot of the food skews Southern (Miss Delta, Por Que No, Gravy). Gourmands should seek out The Meadow, brainchild of owner Mark Bitterman, the James Beard award-winning author of numerous culinary treatises, including “Salted,” his manifesto and field guide to all things salt. Besides hundreds of different salts, the shop also carries dozens of high-end chocolate bars, bitters and amaris, and flowers. “He’s taken such a deep dive into a few select areas, and brought them all together,” says staff member Alyssa Baker-Blanc. “We’re here to educate,” she adds. “Why pay $8 for a chocolate bar? Why is this salt grey?” The latter referred to The Meadow’s number one seller, a truffle salt made from Italian sea salt and shaved black truffles. Delicious on popcorn!
While the real fun of Mississippi Ave. is discovering new places on your own, here are some reliable standbys:
EAT & DRINK
A hip retro spot serving made from scratch comfort food in huge portions, Gravy is one of Portland’s most famous (and busiest) breakfast and lunch spots. Get there early before the long line forms.
Address: 3957 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-287-8800. Web: gravyrestaurant.com. Don’t miss: The corned beef hash and challah french toast, and of course the fresh-baked biscuits and homemade gravy.
Southern cooking with a Cajun flair. Made for late risers, because brunch lasts well into the afternoon, consistent with the Southern belief that only a huge breakfast can carry you through the day. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Address: 3950 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-287-7629. Web: missdeltapdx.net. Don’t miss: The Southern Stack, a breakfast sandwich so massive–two eggs, buttermilk fried chicken, cheddar cheese, thick-sliced bacon and sausage gravy between large buttermilk biscuit halves–that it’s served in a bowl with a serrated knife. Wash it down with a peppery house Bloody Mary, made with local Hot Monkey vodka. For dinner, the crawfish etouffee or smoked spare ribs, with a side of award-winning mac and cheese.
A casual, elegant raw-brick tapas bar serving top-notch cocktails and, in the open kitchen, mingling strong Scandinavian influences with a Northwest twist. Weekend brunch features a dozen globe-trotting dishes, designed for sharing.
Address: 3951 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-841-6948. Web: radarpdx.com. Don’t miss: The smoked bluefish pate made from fresh Northeast bluefish flown in and served with house pickled vegetables. For brunch, try the smoked pork shoulder with cotija grits, chile puree and fried hominy, or the arugula salad with poached egg, lardons and Yukon gold potatoes.
The Mississippi district’s only marijuana dispensary, one of eight locations city-wide, Nectar provides top-quality bud served up by knowledgeable, professional and very friendly budtenders.
Address: 4125 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-206-4818. Web: nectarpdx.com
THE HERB SHOPPE
Traditional medicine for modern times, whether it’s a cold, headache, upset stomach or insomnia, bountiful offerings to help you feel better. Classes on medicinal herbs, essential oils, DIY herbal products, etc. from September-May.
Address: 3912 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 971-703-4347. Web: theherbshoppepdx.com. Don’t miss: Kombucha tea on tap. Kombucha tea on tap!
SUNLAN LIGHTING INC.
Quirky shop with huge assortment of rare, retro-style and specialty light bulbs. Rotating window display, currently showing a large collection of Star Wars memorabilia.
Address: 3901 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-281-0453. Web: sunlanlighting.com. Don’t miss: The back room, with Christmas light strings, including reproduction bubble lights.
Thousands of products from all over the world, including a huge assortment of artisan chocolate bars, gourmet specialty salts, bitters and amaris. Originally a flower shop, still sells flowers as well.
Address: 3731 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-974-8349. Web: themeadow.com. Don’t miss: Salt blocks for cooking, along with Mark Bitterman’s “Cooking with Salt” to show you how it’s done. And of course the chocolate!
THE Q CENTER
The largest LGBTQ community center in the Pacific Northwest is an event space, information hub and drop-in facility serving the Portland metro area and southwest Washington. Auditorium, meeting rooms, office space for five LGBTQ organizations, and programs for seniors, recovery, veterans, youth and over 30 peer-led affinity groups.
Address: 4115 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-234-7837. Web: pdxqcenter.org.
NORTH PORTLAND BIKE WORKS
One of the oldest businesses operating on Mississippi, a nonprofit community bicycle store selling new and used bikes and gear, with weekly repair and maintenance workshops in a non-intimidating environment. Specializing in commuter bikes and parts at accessible prices.
Address: 3978 N. Mississippi Ave. Phone: 503-287-1098. Web: northportlandbikeworks.com. Don’t miss: Community Repair Night, the second Tuesday of every month from 6:15-8:00 p.m., a sliding-scale, donation-based open workshop with tools and a mechanic available for advice.
Photo 1 – “Manager Matt Olson of Nectar started as a receptionist for the dispensary 18 months ago, says he’s proud to be ‘a professional, responsible neighbor’ on Mississippi Avenue.”
Photo 2 – “Cate Andrews works in the Plant Lab at Pistils Nursery, their in-house design studio, creating living works of art made to order by hand.”
Photo 3 – “Staff member Alyssa Baker-Blanc stands in front of a small portion of The Meadow’s extensive collection of exotic gourmet salts.”
Photo 4 – “Amanda Furbee, owner of The Herb Shoppe, welcomes the public to learn about how the body works and how herbal medicines can enhance functioning.”
Photo 5 – “Owner Kay Newell, ‘the Light Bulb Lady,’ says she has seen a lot of changes on Mississippi Avenue since she opened Sunlan Lighting in 1990.”