So many Portland stories have something to do with creativity, forward-thought and collaboration. The story about the burgeoning Stark Street business district in the Montavilla neighborhood is just such a feel-good story that I’m eager to write.
Part of the larger Montavilla/East Tabor Business Association, the area along SE Stark Street between 82nd and 75th has been experiencing explosive growth in the past few years—most of that in the last year. Calling it “up and coming” just seems wrong; after all, it was first platted in 1889 and enjoyed a heyday that lasted for decades in the early-to-mid 20th century. But when grocery chain Fred Meyer moved out of the area, it seemed that one by one other anchor businesses left as well.
SE Stark in Montavilla. Photo: Amaren Colosi
Ty DuPuis, who moved to Montavilla with his family as a child in 1976, remembers Dixon’s Drugs, the shop where he got his first bike, Montavilla Department Store, a beauty school and many other businesses. One by one, they followed Fred Meyer by either moving out of the area, or closing altogether.
“There used to be a lot of empty storefronts,” Dupuis tells me. He says that he felt surprised when he realized that the Montavilla he grew up in was suddenly considered “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Ty DuPuis, owner of Flying Pie Pizzeria. Photo: Amaren Colosi
That did not, however, deter him from first working at the Flying Pie Pizzeria in 1984, becoming manager in 1988, nor from buying the place nine years ago. Now with five locations, DuPuis and his flying pies have received accolades and a enjoy a pretty loyal following. Having seen the area both as a bustling district and a veritable ghost town, DuPuis has not only worked to build his own business, but has encouraged others to bring their businesses to the area and work together to help return Montavilla to its former luster. A member and former president of METBA, he says that the group has worked hard to figure out what the neighborhood wants – by conducting surveys – and being instrumental in bringing those services to them through business recruitment.
One such “wish list” item for residents was a re-opening of the old Academy Theater, built in 1948 and a neighborhood mainstay until it closed in the 1970s. In 2006, Dupuis and his business partners were ready to undertake the renovation.
“We put everything we had on the line,” DuPuis recalls. “It came out better than we expected.” Indeed, the theater now reflects its original 1940s design, with its elegantly curved lobby and vintage-style marquee out front. The Academy is known for its family friendly atmosphere; not only does it have kid-friendly matinees, but it also offers child care so adults can enjoy a movie on their own as well. Of course Flying Pie pizza is on the menu, and they boast micro beers and wine options as well.
Other businesses were undeterred by the relative quietness of the area. Lebanese restaurant Ya Hala has been a Portland favorite for 15 years. Thatcher’s, though recently renovated, has been a neighborhood staple, for a long time. But in the last five years, this little strip where it feels in many ways as though time stopped around 1960, has been making quite a comeback.
Bipartisan Cafe, photo: Amaren Colosi
“Yeah, it’s been up-and-coming since the 70s,” a banker wryly told Peter Emerson when Emerson told him that he wanted to open a neighborhood café on SE Stark Street. He flatly rejected his request for a loan. Undeterred, Emerson kept on his quest to open up shop in the little neighborhood he said had a “small town feel.” By 2005, his dream came fruition when he opened Bipartisan Café. From the very beginning, his goal was to be a neighborhood gathering place, where old, young, and everyone in between would feel welcome. His success surprised even him.
“The first three years it was hard to keep up with the growth,” he reminisces. “I spent as much money on expanding our kitchen to keep up with the demand as I did to open our doors.”
They started with one refrigerator, and now have seventeen. They didn’t even have a toaster for bagels in the beginning, and now the menu includes homemade soups, chili, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods including the pies that they are now famous for.
Bipartisan Cafe's famous pies, photo: Amaren Colosi
“I’ve seen kids grow up here. We have a lot of regulars,” Emerson tells me. Though he has a lot of customers who live outside of the immediate neighborhood, he knows that he has lots who live right here, too.
“During the big snow we had last year, we knew most of the people who came were from the neighborhood. It was packed. They came on cross country skis, snowshoes, kids on sleds, it was great.”
The Bipartisan lives up to its name by stating on the web site that it, “welcomes the prospect of engaging political debate.” Emerson admits that politics are his passion.
“Whenever I can think of a way to address an issue I do,” he says. “The last presidential election was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve always had to veer away from politics [in former jobs]. I’ve found a way to mix my interest with my work.” He says the nights of President Obama’s nomination and inauguration it was standing room only in the roomy café. He assures me it “never gets ugly,” and that nothing more than an occasional “cross word” has erupted. He says he goes to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable.
“We try not to limit debates to Democrats verses Republicans. Any two people with different opinions are welcome to debate.”
The café is adorned with remnants of its past—half of the metal sign that hung outside when it was a hardware store, old photos of the neighborhood during the 30s, 40s and 50s. Emerson has an obvious reverence for the old days, and is doing his part in recreating the best parts of it by offering a space for genuine community to occur. It is a place where people are just as likely to come in to discuss the topics of the day as they are for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.
County Cat owners Adam and Jackie Sappington,
photo: Amaren Colosi
Another business that might bring back memories—personal or historical—is The Country Cat. Owned and operated by chefs Adam and Jackie Sappington, The Country Cat has developed a loyal following and has received many accolades (Bon Appetite, Sunset, and Gourmet magazines to name a few) since opening in the Spring of 2007. Jackie says that they were drawn to the quaintness of the area, and mesmerized by the old photos of Stark Street that showed it as a bustling main thoroughfare. She likes to think of the growth here as a revival. She calls it a “nice little pocket,” where the business community works together.
“We all get our bikes tuned up at the Oregon Bike Shop, we visit the other bars and restaurants,” she says. She thinks that all of the new businesses have really helped the morale of the neighbors as well. As new businesses come in and work on their store fronts, she says neighbors are out there making improvements to their homes as well – planting gardens, painting. All of it, she says, “fosters a real family atmosphere. People go to see a movie then come in for dinner. There are lots of people out and about.”
A patron enjoys a meal at Country Cat.
Photo: Amaren Colosi
An area that has had its fair share of petty crime and prostitution, the growth of businesses on Stark Street has also helped to combat such problems.
“There was a community uproar, a real grassroots effort to say this is not welcome here,” Jackie says. She feels that there has been a huge drop in illegal activities in the past three years.
James Jonke, co-owner of the Oregon Bike Shop corroborates Jackie’s claim that the neighborhood supports each other. Though they were supposed to open in July, they were bombarded with requests for services as soon as they took possession of their building in June. The Oregon Bike Shop offers service, rentals, sales of bikes and gear, and information on races and places to ride. A native New Yorker who had previously owned a bike messenger service in Manhattan and has worked in bike shops since he was sixteen, Jonke said he was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who popped in to thank him for opening the place (Ty DuPuis confirms that through resident surveys the business association knew that a bike store would be well received). He says that his neighbor businesses have been instrumental in building his business by coming in themselves, and by sending their employees and customers to him as well.
Oregon Bicycle Shop, photo: Amaren Colosi
Jonke was brought to Portland by his wife, a native Oregonian, and he loves it, and really loves the business district he is now a part of.
“It reminds me of neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Queens,” he says, “Only the people are nicer and there is much more access to great trails!”
Another business opening that excited the work-weary of Stark Street is Vintage Cocktail Lounge. Supported by people around the city, locals, and many from the food service industry, Vintage is a bit of a departure from low-key bars like Roscoe’s and Thatchers that share Stark Street. The former bar manager for Trebol, and admittedly passionate about liquor, Justin Akins is indulging his love with an inventive menu that incorporates classic cocktails, house made tinctures and bitters, and an eclectic selection of liquor. Flights of whiskey, tequila, and other liquor allow the well-informed staff to share their knowledge of the booze, their flavor profiles, and the stories behind them.
“Somebody referred to Vintage as a bartender-owned bar,” Akins says, “And that is exactly what I’m going for.” Offering craft cocktails and a whole lot of knowledge he’s more than happy to share, Vintage is Justin Akins dream realized. His favorite thing to hear – and he’s heard it a lot since opening this summer – is: “We’ll be back and we’ll bring friends!”
The Observatory, photo: Amaren Colosi
Four other service industry veterans also saw Stark Street as the perfect location to open their dream spot, called The Observatory. Its funky, eclectic décor is echoed in a menu with similarly diverse offerings. Owner Chelsey Kjarstad, along with friends Kate and Todd Duncan, and Dale Warriner, tells me that they have found both residents and fellow businesses in the area to be phenomenally supportive.
Nicole Prevost owner of Union Rose, photo: Amaren Colosi
Two doors down from Vintage is one of the newest (though not for long) kid on the block – Union Rose. Owner Nicole Prevost moved just over a month ago from her NE MLK Boulevard location to Stark Street. She has lived in the neighborhood for seven years, and jumped at the opportunity to move onto her home turf. Peter Emerson, owner of Bipartisan Café, encouraged her to look at properties when they were up for lease (Prevost has been a regular at Bipartisan since it opened). When the right one became available, she wasted no time renting it.
Union Rose features clothing for women and children, accessories and gifts for men, women, and children, and other goods all made locally by a collection of 40 women.
“I can tell the personal story of every one of them,” Prevost assures me. She also features her own line of sweet, vintage-y women’s and children’s clothing, called Big Brown Eyes.
Union Rose, photo: Amaren Colosi
Since her November 30th opening, people have been popping in, or writing to her on Facebook and Twitter, telling her how happy they are to have her in the neighborhood.
“It’s all about neighbors helping neighbors here,” she says, referring both to the residents and the business owners. She works with other owners to promote each other’s businesses with discounts, by sending each other’s customers to one another, and by Tweeting about each other.
“I do a LOT of social marketing,” she says with a laugh. She rattles off the long list of new businesses, and more that she knows are coming.
“There is so much going on!” She tells me a “light bulb” moment for her was when she decided that she wanted to have a real “home-made” Christmas. She needed lots of supplies for her crafts, and realized that she could get them all right here in the neighborhood. A crafty lady herself, she realized that this was the right fit for her business with its strong “buy local” message.
Nicole Prevost seems to know everyone on Stark Street already, and sends me over to see the ladies at Portland Garment Factory across the street from Union Rose. Though the name is fitting (pun intended), it does little to describe all that goes on in the little store.
Portland Garment Factory, photo: Amaren Colosi
I walk in to see a group of women, heads bent over sewing machines in the back. The front room features local art, jewelry and clothes, and one petite woman flitting about like a little bird. She is contemplating the window display, and offers me a smile and a hello.
It turns out she is co-owner and founder of Portland Garment Factory, Britt Howard. Wearing an oversized, patterned button-down shirt with tights and boots, I can see she is that kind of woman who tends to throw outfits together in a seemingly haphazard way but always looks fashionable. I ask her about the business.
“We manufacture for local designers,” she explains. “We basically do everything related to textiles—we make patterns from designs, we grade existing patterns to create garments of different sizes, we’ve even made display screens for Nike.”
With low minimums, they really cater to small, independent designers. She started in a warehouse on Southeast Belmont before moving to the Stark Street location with business partner Rosemary Robinson.
Portland Garment Factory owners Britt Howard and Rosemary Robinson.
Photo: Amaren Colosi
“We wanted a storefront,” explains Howard. “We want to throw parties, have trunk shows, display art, display the clothes that we make.” Howard has a line of baby clothes called Little Babushka. Rosemary Robinson explains how things got started.
“Britt has lots of friends in the fashion industry and saw a need [for a local garment factory]. It was just an idea she was throwing around, but when she talked about it, everyone said ‘do it!’”
The women say that they have been kept very busy ever since they started, and love the support they’ve felt from the other businesses on the block. They support them right back – claiming to frequent places like Roscoe’s and the Bipartisan Café. They have a 1st Friday party with a new artist each month, and hope to collaborate with other businesses to make it a street-wide event.
Howard and Robinson now have contract employees and interns working in the factory, freeing up their time to develop the retail and community space up front. With owners who have a seemingly boundless supply of energy, I expect that Portland Garment Factory will be a fun destination for people interested in exploring local fashion and art.
Photo: Amaren Colosi
Hoping to be opened for, fittingly, Valentine’s Day, Laura Widener will offer cupcakes, tarts, cookies, small pastries, and specialty cakes at her European-inspired, comfort-dessert style bakery called Pastry Girl (no web site yet; will be located at 7919 SE Stark Street).
“I hope to create very approachable treats – nothing so fancy you’d be afraid to eat it,” Widener explains. “I always use the freshest, best quality seasonal and local ingredients. I know if you put good product in, you’ll get a good product out!”
She hopes to be a “dessert destination,” imagining that people might get dinner elsewhere on the street and then walk down for a goodie. She also hopes to foster a collaborative, non-competitive environment in the small business district. She’s already met with Peter Emerson at Bipartisan, who currently reigns as offering the best pie on the block.
“I won’t be making pie,” Widener asserts. She hopes to be able to work with Bipartisan to offer something that they don’t make – like cakes or danishes – to serve in the café if they would like.
Widener has lived in the neighborhood for seven years and is thrilled not only about the revitalization of the area, but also at the opportunity to be a part of it. She remembers that one of the reasons Dixon’s Drugs (where The Country Cat now resides) finally closed its doors after being a Montavilla mainstay for years, was because it was unable to keep up with the vandalism.
“The fewer people out on the street, the higher the crime rate,” Widener explains. Now, with families and businesses returning to the area, she says that vandalism and petty theft have gone way down. She also says that although there are still homeless people who occasionally make their way up Stark Street, she tries to engage with them in friendly conversation.
“Building mutual respect lowers the chances of crime,” she believes.
Photo: Amaren Colosi
The burgeoning business district on Stark Street continues to grow. Along with Pastry Girl, Mt. Tabor Brewing will be moving in (in three stages; the timing for an actual brew pub is not yet determined), and Immortal Pie and Larder. Other recent openings include the Montavilla Wellness Movement Studio which houses Montavilla Chiropractic Clinic, Portland Yoga Studio, and other natural health services, and on the other end of the street is the new Montavilla Acupuncture.
The list of businesses – new and old – continues to grow, and with them the neighborhood is taking on some of its former glory. From country cooking, to local fashion, from sushi to bikes, the revitalization of Montavilla’s Stark Street illustrates just how rich and diverse a community can be, when residents and businesses share a vision and work together to make it happen.
Other Montavilla Businesses include Miyamoto Sushi, Kim's Billiards, Romo's Latin Quarter, Mr. Plywood, Tub and Tan, Montavilla Farmers Market, Raw Ink Tattoos, Salty's Dog and Cat Shop and Gift and Toys, Inc..
View the slideshow for more images of the SE Stark Business District in Montavilla, or visit our Flickr gallery: