District Spotlight: St. Johns

St. Johns Bridge from Forest Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Few districts in Portland have preserved their pioneer spirit as well as St. Johns, located in the city’s northernmost tip. What began in 1844 as settler James John’s small homestead near the mouth of the Willamette River, quickly grew into a bustling town thanks to a new railroad line and thriving lumber, shipbuilding and wool industries. In 1931 the district received its greatest gift – the iconic St. Johns Bridge, the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River at the time. The bridge would go on to become a point of pride for residents and its unique design would set the stage for the quirky business district that would develop at its foot. Today the district retains its distinctive small-town feel, with old and new businesses and buildings meshing seamlessly against a beautiful backdrop of the St. Johns Bridge and Forest Park in the distance.

Venture Portland sat down with the leaders of the St. Johns Boosters Business Association to talk about what they love about the district and why they are proud to call St. Johns home.

Mike Johnson is the President of the St. Johns Boosters and owner of St. Johns Ace Hardware, the district’s only hardware store. Liz Smith is a St. Johns Boosters board member and owner of Bizzy Lizzie Social Media Marketing, a marketing agency specializing in social media content, copywriting and blog writing. Beth Preciso is a St. Johns Boosters board member and longtime employee of The Man’s Shop which has been providing men’s clothing and expert alterations since 1940. Calvin Hoff is St. John’s Organizer, the organization’s sole part-time staff member who manages district events and meetings, promotes the area and supports the all-volunteer board of directors.

What do you enjoy most about St. Johns?

Liz: I love the small town atmosphere. People are really passionate about their neighborhood and community. Everyone from students to retirees are involved and they get out, explore and help out in whatever way they can. 

Mike: The Roosevelt High School Jazz Band played events like St. Johns Ace Hardware’s grand opening and the district holiday tree lighting. Recently some Roosevelt student volunteers built new benches in their woodshop for St. Johns Plaza and installed them with the help of IQ Credit Union, a new business in the district.

Calvin: It’s great how there’s a bridge between the old and the new. When you look at the architecture in the district, you see a diverse mix of buildings built in many different eras. I think that is reflective of the people here as well – there are both new Portlanders and people that have been here for decades.

Beth: I appreciate that we’re getting a lot of younger families moving to the area. The demographic has definitely been changing over the past few years and you are seeing that reflected in the types of businesses in the district.

St. Johns Business District contains 333 businesses that provide 2,689 jobs. The district features a walkable ‘downtown’ area plus industrial areas and multiple parks including St. Johns Plaza, which has been managed by the Boosters since the 1970’s and hosts the St. Johns Farmer’s Market, Cathedral Park, which hosts the annual Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, Pier Park, which features a skatepark and disc golf course and St. Johns City Park, which includes St. Johns Community Center, a hub for indoor recreation. The district can be reached via car by N Lombard St. or the St. Johns Bridge, via Trimet’s 4 and 75 buses, or via bike on N Willamette Blvd.

St. Johns Farmers Market at St. Johns Plaza. Photo: St. Johns Center for Opportunity

How has St. John’s identity changed over time?

Beth: St. Johns used to have a reputation of being a kind of rough part of town. It was very blue collar and the parents of everyone I grew up with worked down at the shipyards or the docks. People didn’t come out this way very much. When I started working at The Man’s Shop around 1990, there wasn’t even a place to have lunch. There were only a few businesses and a lot of them closed during that time.

Calvin: Since then the district has become a shopping and dining destination for people all over Portland and even international visitors. The diversity of the businesses and residents has really made it a welcoming place with something for everyone.

Liz: Now we’ve gone from no restaurants to lots of restaurants, even multiple vegan restaurants like The Sudra, Homegrown Smoker, The Big Dilla and Flourish Plant-based Kitchen.

Calvin: Homegrown Smoker actually supplies a lot of vegan restaurants in Portland so the district’s influence can be seen all over town, which is definitely a new thing.

The Sudra opened in 2016 and is the second location of the Indian inspired vegan restaurant; Homegrown Smoker opened in 2017 and is known for their seitan burgers, mac-n-cheese burritos and tofu fish and chips; The Big Dilla opened in 2015 when owners Austen and Rebekah Courpet got the idea from their daughter, who refused to eat anything but quesadillas; Flourish Plant-based Kitchen grows most of their ingredients on a 5-acre plot of farmland on Sauvie Island, just north of St. Johns. Other destination businesses in the district include Stormbreaker Brewing, a brewery that also features indoor axe throwing, Block Bikes, a full service bike shop offering repairs, maintenance and new bikes for sale and RoM Shoes, a shoe store which specializes in fair trade, employee owned and charitable brands.

Stormbreaker Brewing. Photo: Deanna Cantrell Photography

What are some legacy businesses in St. Johns?

Beth: The Man’s Shop will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2020. But there are others that are even older than us! Crouchley Plumbing is the oldest business in St. Johns and Baxter Auto Parts opened their second Portland location here in 1949.

Liz: Your Inn Tavern opened in 1923! It’s in kind of a residential area and they still open at 10am everyday so the longshoreman can come in for their breakfast. They are definitely a neighborhood spot. Even during a snowstorm, it’s great to have a place you can walk to and get a really good burger.

Beth: When my kids turned 21, we definitely took them to Your Inn Tavern! Slim’s is an even older bar in the district. They opened in 1911 and their food just keeps getting better.

Crouchley Plumbing opened in 1907 and provides service for water heaters, sinks, dishwashers, piping and more; Baxter Auto Parts started in Chehalis, Washington in 1936 by St. Johns natives Ray and Wilma Baxter and now has 35 locations across the Pacific Northwest; Your Inn Tavern regularly hosts Bingo Nights, Spaghetti Dinner Fundraisers and a costume party on Halloween and Slim’s is the oldest continuously operating bar in St. Johns and hosts live music, open mic nights and DJs. Other legacy businesses include The Wishing Well Restaurant, which opened in 1949 and was frequented by country musician Willie Nelson in the 1950’s and Ace Typewriter, which opened in 1961 and is one of the last remaining typewriter repair businesses in Portland.

What is your favorite memory from a St. Johns event?

Beth: The St. Johns Parade started in 1962 and I have been in it every year for everything from scouts to school, then with my own kids and finally just as a spectator. I also helped start the Night on the Town +1 holiday promotion with a couple other businesses. Last year we incorporated the Tree Lighting and the popularity just took off. It was very exciting to see the growth of that event.

Liz: Last year’s Tree Lighting was a good example of taking an established event and doing it a little differently. By changing the focus to a business district shopping season kickoff it made a huge difference. My favorite memory is from a couple years ago. I was walking past St. Johns Plaza and saw a table with a bunch of cakes on it. I thought it was someone’s birthday, but it turns out they were having a cakeluck, which I hadn’t heard of. It’s a potluck where everyone brings a cake and everyone eats different cakes for two hours. Anyone who walks by is invited to try some cake! It’s definitely an event that is unique to St. Johns.

Calvin: I have a lot of good memories from our newest event St. Johns Bites. Every bar and restaurant offered $5 specials. One of the participating businesses was Bluebird Tavern and their $5 special was a shot of tequila. I stopped by and saw an older couple who didn’t look like typical Bluebird patrons having a great time playing pinball and drinking tequila. It was exactly what we wanted to see – people discovering businesses that they hadn’t been to before and bringing our community together.

Mike: The St. Johns Bizarre is huge! We are a sponsor every year and as a thank you, we get a framed event poster. Well-known artists compete each year to design the poster so I’ve got 6 or 7 of these really cool posters in my living room.

Liz: Lisa Congdon is the artist that did this year’s poster! She’s a really talented and well-known artist whose illustrations are on all kinds of books and cards. It was very exciting to have her involved.

Cakelucks are random pop-ups that happen 3-4 times per year in St. Johns Plaza. The St. Johns Parade occurs on the 2nd Saturday in May at 12pm and features floats, bands, drill teams and horses. The Parade happens in conjunction with the St. Johns Bizarre, which started in 2006 and kicks of Portland’s season of street fairs with live music, kid’s activities and 135 vendors. Night on the Town +1 occurs on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving and features a shopping passport, live music, refreshments and Portland’s first holiday tree lighting of the season; St. Johns Bites occurs in April and features $5 specials from St. Johns bars, restaurants and food carts; Bluebird Tavern is one of the few bars in downtown St. Johns that permits drinking alcohol in their outdoor seating area.

St. Johns Bizarre

What would be your perfect day of food in St. Johns?

Beth: I would have Bernstein Bagels for breakfast. I want to eat there everyday! For lunch I would go to Thai Cottage and get the yellow curry. For dinner I would get tacos at Tienda y Taqueria Santa Cruz but, if there’s a line I would go to Super Burrito Express!

Liz: For breakfast I’d have a Bloody Mary at Your Inn Tavern, for lunch I like Paiku. For dinner I would go to the St. Johns Beer Porch and Food Cart Pod or the Fish Wife. It’s slightly outside of St. Johns but worth it!

Mike: I like the Bacavo Omelet at John Street Café for breakfast. It’s got bacon, avocado and blue cheese. For lunch I like the St. Johns Deli and Grocery. Their sandwiches are really good. For dinner I’m a huge fan of Gabagool. I go there all the time. I usually get the spaghetti and meatballs and a trittata which has prosciutto, salami and chick peas. They used to be a food cart and opened a brick and mortar location in 2016.

Calvin: I also want to give a shout out to Two Stroke Coffee. They are my go-to coffee shop. And they serve a great avocado toast. Another one of my favorites is Affogato. I didn’t even know what it was when I first visited. Affogato is gelato with 1 or 2 espresso shots. It ends up melting into an espresso float. The owner makes the gelato on site.

Bernstein Bagels opened in 2017 and makes bagels in the traditional New York style – hand rolled, rising for 2 days and boiled with lye; Thai Cottage opened in 2008 and serves authentic Thai street eats, traditional dishes and seasonal offerings; Tienda y Taqueria Santa Cruz opened in 2000 and is located in the back of a Mexican bakery and grocery store known for its  sweet bread; Super Burrito Express is a Mexican restaurant that serves up everything from Tortas to Tacos; Paiku opened in 2014 as a food truck and expanded to a brick and mortar in 2018 serving sweet and savory pies of all kinds; The St. Johns Beer Porch and Food Cart Pod started in 2013 and is home to DeHomis, Farm Food Cart, The Grind Coffee, Falafel House PDX and El Burrito Mojado; The Fish Wife opened in 1989 and offer classics like clam chowder, Alaskan Cod and locally caught salmon; The John Street Café serves up classic breakfast and lunch fare with vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options; St. Johns Deli and Grocery offers a variety of sandwiches and sides along with other to-go staples; Gabagool opened in 2013 and serves hand rolled fresh pasta and source many of their ingredients directly from Italy; Two Stroke Coffee is a coffee shop that features classic motorcycles on display, a fabrication shop next door and designated motorcycle parking out front; Affogato opened in 2012 and serves a variety of gelato crafted from scratch and fair trade coffee roasted in Eugene, Oregon.

John Street Cafe. Photo: Deanna Cantrell Photography

What are some kid-friendly businesses in St. Johns?

Liz: St. Johns Clay does a clay camp for kids. The Aspire Project is a non-profit that offers dance classes for disadvantaged youth. Bridge City Kid is a kid’s outdoor gear store that does a lot of great activities like pictures with Santa, scavenger hunts and kid’s music. Salty Teacup and Anna Bananas both have kid’s play areas.

Beth: Cathedral Park Music does music lessons and Cathedral Park Performing Arts Collective does marimba band, choir and musical theater for kids. My granddaughter takes violin lessons there! Both of our movie theaters are also kid friendly.

Calvin: Two Rivers Books has a good selection of kid’s books. They recently held an event where they had mini horses come into the store for story hour. When they switched locations, they did it as a parade with the kids from St. Johns Swapnplay and the mini horses and they marched the books down the street to the new location.

St. Johns Clay offers classes and workshops for kids and adults and was founded by Lindsay Allington who specializes in creating terra cotta feeders for chickens; The Aspire Project was founded in 2009 and offers 55 dance and movement classes each week for people of all ages; Bridge City Kid opened in 2017 and is Portland’s first outdoor store for kids, donating all profits to environmental non-profits; Salty Teacup opened in 2010 and specializes in American made women’s clothing, jewelry, home décor, local art and more; Anna Bananas serves up bistro style casual food including sandwiches, soups and seasonal treats; Cathedral Park Music was founded in 2010 and offers all-ages instruction for piano, guitar, violin and voice; Cathedral Park Performing Arts Collective was founded in 2015 and offers classes on acting, improv, music and choir; St. Johns is home to two movie theaters – St Johns Twin Cinema which opened in 1913 as a vaudeville house and St. Johns Theater and Pub which is one of the few remaining structures from the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition; Two Rivers Books regularly hosts storybook hour, book clubs, cookbook clubs, author events and more and St. Johns Swapnplay features a 4,000 square foot play space where kids can share books, toys and clothes. Other kid-friendly businesses include Tinker Maker Toys, which offers toys, games and classes focused on the Art of STEM, an engineering design based curriculum and St. Johns Library which was built in 1913 in the Georgian style and is home to more than 25,000 books.

Tinker Maker Toys. Photo: Deanna Cantrell Photography

What are some hidden gems in the District that most people might not know about?

Liz: Cathedral Park Place is a bit off the beaten path. It’s an old woolen mill that was converted to artist space and a business incubator. Occidental Brewing and Urban German are located in there as well. Behind that is Green Anchors which is a maker space with welders, tiny house builders and more space for artists. We can’t forget about all our of Health and Wellness businesses like Breathe, Inspire Wellness, Blue Marigold Massage, Delicious Life Wellness, ShantiOm and Bikram Yoga St. Johns.

Beth: Speaking of makers, Moonstruck Chocolate is also located in that area. They have lots of chocolate samples and a big window where you can see the chocolate being made. Metamorphic is another hidden gem that has a lot of crystals, clothing and plants. Blue Moon Camera and Machine is one of the last businesses of its kind in Portland. I just sewed the owner’s pants the other day!

Calvin: Final Form is a hidden gem for sure. They sell vinyl records of video game soundtracks along with old video game hardware and memorabilia. Not to be confused with Vinyl Resting Place, which is a record store that carries classic rock, jazz, folk and more. Sabi and Friends Vintage is also a great shop. They were one of the original founders of Night on the Town +1. Another is Sabatino Vintage Moped and Scooter. You may have seen their vintage scooters around town, but they are based right here in St. Johns!

Liz: Zumbido De Portland is a very unique business that gets products from all over the world. We also have 2 pet stores – Nature’s Pet and Tré Bone. Every year Tré Bone does a ‘Dogs of St. Johns’ calendar that features professional photos of dogs from the district. The proceeds all go to the Oregon Humane Society. My dogs ended up on the back cover. They were not well behaved that day.

Occidental Brewing started in 2011 and hosts an annual Oktoberfest celebration complete with German music, food and beer; Urban German was started in 2010 by Berlin transplant David Gluth and can be found at street fairs and festivals across Portland; Green Anchors opened in 2011 and is a 7-acre industrial park in a remediated World War II shipyard that houses businesses and artists studios; Breathe is a collective of wellness businesses that offer everything from massage therapy, skincare, acupuncture, nutrition counseling and more; Inspire Wellness specializes in acupuncture and Chinese medicine and naturopathic medicine; Blue Marigold Massage was founded by Dali Singh who studied massage in Hawaii and holds certifications in Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage; Delicious Life Wellness offers massage, yoga and nutrition coaching; ShantiOm offers daily yoga classes but also hosts workshops on everything from singing to astrology; Bikram Yoga St. Johns is St. Johns first and only hot yoga school and the first Bikram yoga school in Portland to offer childcare; Moonstruck Chocolate started in 1993 and their master chocolatier Julian Rose was recognized as one of the top ten chocolatiers in north America by Dessert Professional Magazine; Metamorphic opened in 2015 and regularly supports local non-profit organizations such as St. Johns Food Share; Blue Moon Camera and Machine opened in 2001 and is one of the world’s last remaining optical printing labs; Final Form opened in 2018 and features a free play area where customers can try games before they buy them; Vinyl Resting Place opened in 1997 and is one of the oldest operating used record stores in Portland; Sabi and Friends Vintage opened in 2008 and sells antique furniture, art, books, clothes, kitchenware and more; Sabatino Vintage Moped and Scooter is a dealer of vintage mopeds and scooters and ships their bikes all over the US; Zumbido De Portland sells fair trade jewelry, pottery, cards and more from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti; Nature’s Pet sells natural pet food, treats and toys and even has a pet washing station and Tré Bone opened in 2007 after the owner saw a St. Johns storefront that reminded him of his hometown of Marseille, France.

Sabatino Vintage Moped and Scooter. Photo: Deanna Cantrell Photography

If St. Johns had a theme song, what would it be?

Liz: ‘I’ll Do it My Way’ by Frank Sinatra! We have a feisty independent nature out here. Part of it is our location as Portland’s northernmost business district, part of it is because we weren’t always part of Portland. We do things our own unique way!

 St. Johns independent spirit can be traced back to 1898 when it seceded from the City of Portland after claiming inadequate benefits for the taxes paid by residents. It incorporated as a city in 1903 and remained so until 1915 when, ironically, soaring taxes forced residents to vote to rejoin Portland.

What would be a good souvenir for a visitor to St. Johns?

Beth: You can get pretty much anything with a picture of the St. Johns Bridge on it! Get a St. Johns T shirt at The Man’s Shop or Club Sky High! If you are into wine, 45th Parallel Wines has a lot of great local brands and the owner, Matt, helps light up the street during the holidays. They also carry pickles that are made here in St. Johns!

Liz: Get some glassware! Every year, the St. Johns Bizarre releases a collectable cup for their beer garden, Occidental Brewing releases beer steins during their Oktoberfest celebration and St. Johns Center for Opportunity has a collectable glass for their annual Winter Beer Fest.

Mike: Around the holidays St. Johns Ace Hardware has an entire section that features locally made art. Everything from cutting boards to light switch covers and even jams and jellies.

Club Sky High opened in 2013 and is one of the only black-owned cannabis dispensaries in the US; 45th Parallel Wines offers a selection of wine, beer and cider with a focus on sustainably minded producers in Oregon and St. Johns Center for Opportunity is a non-profit organization working to strengthen North Portland neighborhoods through economic empowerment, community building and art-based events and programming. Other destinations for unique items include Therapy, which started in 1994 as an antique furniture store in San Francisco and donates 1% of their sales to local food banks; Etcetera Gifts, which offers locally made clothing, jewelry and art and Hound and Hare, which sells vintage clothing, housewares, décor and more. Visitors can also take home a souvenir haircut from district barbershops and salons such as Morehouse Barbers, North End Barber Company and Bridge City Salon.

Etcetera Gifts. Photo: Deanna Cantrell Photography

What future plans for St. Johns are you most excited about?

Beth: We’ve gotten several grants from Venture Portland and Travel Portland for new district banners and we are excited to continue hanging them throughout the district.

Liz: I can’t wait for the next St. Johns Bites. I think that is a great addition to our district’s events and hope it becomes a longstanding tradition that people from all over Portland attend. 

Calvin: We are currently in the process of converting our historic St. Johns Marquees into full color electronic message centers that will help us to promote our member businesses and events even more. Look for them later this year!

 In 2018 and 2019 the St. Johns Boosters installed 40 new banners throughout the district that were designed by local designer Alshiref Design; St. Johns Marquees can be found at each entrance to the district – N Ivanhoe St. and N Philadelphia St., N Lombard St. and N Richmond St. and N St. Louis St. and N Lombard St.

 For more info about St. Johns visit stjohnsboosters.org

Left to Right: Calvin Hoff, Beth Preciso, Mike Johnson, Liz Smith