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District Spotlight: Williams District
Williams District is one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing districts in Portland. In recent years, the area has seen massive development, an influx of new residents and businesses and Portland’s busiest bike lane. But change isn’t anything new in this district. Since its founding in 1873 as part of the town of Albina, Williams District has constantly reinvented itself. Stretching along Williams and Vancouver Avenues from N Killingsworth to N Broadway Streets, the area saw a large influx of African American shipbuilders and their families after the town of Vanport was destroyed by a tragic flood in 1948. The area became the center of African American culture in Portland and was nationally recognized for its jazz music scene. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, construction of the I-5 freeway and urban renewal projects significantly altered the character of the district. These days the jazz may be quieter but there’s still plenty of innovation in the air as businesses and residents work together to honor the history of this unique area and embrace the changes that continue to shape its future.
We sat down with leaders of the Williams Vancouver Business Association (WVBA) to talk about what they love about the district and why they are proud to call Williams District home.
Annabelle Snow is current President of WVBA and Owner of North Portland Wellness Center, a clinic offering acupuncture, massage and chiropractic services in a restored 1905 Albina house. She has been a resident of the Boise neighborhood for nearly 20 years. Summy To is founding President of WVBA and Owner of Myoptic, which provides comprehensive eyecare and modern eyewear as well as charitable contributions to local non-profits like Oregon Food bank and Mercy Corps. Brad Forkner is Williams District’s Organizer, the organization’s sole part-time staff member who manages district events and meetings, promotes the area, supports WVBA members and the all-volunteer board of directors.
Summy, when starting the WVBA, what values did you use to shape the organization and how did you ensure that everyone had a voice?
Summy: There was so much interest from business owners and also a lot of concern over how it should happen, namely what message we would be sending to the generations of families and businesses in an area seeing so much development. From the logo and mission statement to the membership structure, the most passionate discussion points were around how to reflect the identity and desires of the established neighborhood.
Our efforts were always around getting input from the businesses and churches that have been around for the last decade or more. We would go out of our way to invite these individuals to events and try to find ways to subsidize their membership fees so they were represented. The truth is, it was not easy but it was important.
Annabelle, how do you ensure that those values are continued today and everyone in the district has a voice?
Annabelle: Now that we have a thriving Business District and well established Business Association and identity, it’s more important than ever for the WVBA to reflect the diverse voices of our District and neighborhood. We have continued to foster strong relationships with the associations of the three neighborhoods that we serve, as well as the non-profits and faith-based organizations that have been long-standing district strongholds. We have continued to do our best to have representation on our board of directors from many different types of businesses and non-profits, including everything from legacy businesses and non-profits in the area to the newer businesses and everything in between. We continue to advocate for a sustainable business district and neighborhood – utilizing our strength in numbers to ensure that despite our change we stay connected to our neighborhood’s history and values.
The WVBA formed in 2012 and strives to make Williams District a successful place to live, work, shop eat and thrive by creating connections between district businesses and honoring the history of the area.
What is your favorite thing about Williams District?
Summy: The dynamic energy. There’s so much going on and with the mix of longtime residents and newcomers, there’s always something new to discover. It’s a very diverse district as well. We have such a rich history and there’s definitely a passion about preserving it but we also welcome the change. When Myoptic opened on N Williams Ave in 2010, people were surprised and a little confused about the location, but now they are excited. It’s been a big shift.
Annabelle: I love the walkability, the bikeability and the creative energy that is popping up everywhere. There’s a lot to love. When we first moved into the neighborhood in 1998 the district was very different. There was a tire shop, a Hostess factory where New Seasons is and a lawnmower shop where Barre3 is. But when the zoning changed you could tell that big changes were coming. Recently, the district has become a hub for a lot of creatives to live and work here. There’s Felt Hat, Instrument, Treehouse, architects, designers and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) recently moved in.
Brad: I really enjoy the positive, can-do, supportive mindset of the business owners and the engagement of the community here.
New Seasons’ Williams District location opened in 2013 and features sculptures from local artist Ivan McClean and a ‘green wall,’ where living plants thrive. As a nod to the district’s history, the market makes sausage using the same recipe as the butcher shop that once occupied the site in the 1940’s. The recipe was donated by the family of John Sinner, the former butcher shop’s owner and one of many Volga-Germans that occupied the area in the 1940’s.
Barre3 was founded in Portland in 2008 and now has nearly 100 fitness studios across the country. The company’s 3 pillar approach to fitness includes exercise, nutrition and making connections for a balanced and happy life.
The Felt Hat is a design firm that has created eye-catching visuals for Bridgeport Brewing, Burgerville, Oregon State University, Pacific Power, Portland Brewing and more.
Instrument is a digital creative agency that has built brands for YouTube, Nike, Google and Ebay.
Treehouse provides affordable classes on web design, coding, starting a business and more to more than 220,000 students and companies worldwide.
PICA was founded in 1995 and regularly hosts performances, exhibitions and lectures that advance new developments in contemporary art. Their Williams District location opened in 2016 and has allowed PICA to expand year-round programming.
How has the District’s cultural heritage shaped its current identity?
Brad: The district has a rich and diverse history, most recently as a hub for Portland’s African American Community. What a lot of businesses have done along with the business association is honor that history while embracing the change. As a community, we are committed to remembering that history and letting it influence our programs and design. April was Jazz History Month and Williams District was once the center of jazz music in Portland so our April Walk Williams event reflected that. We also partner with community organizations like Self Enhancement Inc (SEI), Ethos and the local neighborhood associations and places of worship to make sure that they are represented.
Annabelle: A good example is The People’s Pig. The building was previously home to Tropicana Barbeque, one of the few African American-owned restaurants in the district that was a neighborhood gathering place for many years. When People’s Pig first opened, they made an agreement with the owner that they wouldn’t change the interior of the building. When you go inside it looks like something straight out of the 50’s, even the bathrooms are the same. The building is still African American-owned and the restaurant continues to be a community hub. The property next door is the Bluehouse Greenhouse, an urban farm that sells vegetables to local restaurants and residents through their community supported agriculture program.
Brad: As part of our plan to honor the district’s history, this year the WVBA is holding its Annual Meeting at the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, one of the most significant African American historic buildings in the Pacific Northwest.
SEI has provided services for 35 years to guide underserved youth and help them realize their full potential. SEI is the largest African-American led non-profit organization in Oregon.
Ethos was founded in 1998 and promotes music education in Oregon public schools. Ethos has been named one of the top 50 after school arts programs in the US six times since 2003.
The People’s Pig began as a food cart dishing up wood fire-grilled meats and southern-influenced side dishes and opened their Williams District brick and mortar in 2014. The restaurant occupies the former site of Tropicana Barbeque which opened its doors in 1957 and closed in 2013 when 90 year-old Chef and Owner Lula Parker retired.
Bluehouse Greenhouse began as an experiment in 2010 and uses sustainable farming practices to grow quality, fresh food for the community. Veggie lovers can purchase a share of the farm and get fresh produce from May through September. For your own garden, Livingscape offers everything you need to grow your favorite fruits and vegetables.
The Billy Webb Elks Lodge was built in 1926 and has served as a YWCA, Red Cross emergency center following the Vanport Flood and since 1959, an African American branch of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Connections to the district’s industrial past can still be found at businesses like Brown Printing, which has been providing printing services to Portland for nearly 80 years; Portland Packaging Co, which has been manufacturing shipping crates since 1952 and Ink Brigade, a screen printing shop that uses environmentally friendly inks and cleaners.
Other long-time businesses in the district include Best Window Coverings which has been providing quality window treatment products since 1975, Sloan’s Tavern, which has been slinging suds since 1979 and North Portland Bible College which has been providing Christian ministry education since 1982.
The district hosts a variety of cultural events at Dawson Park including Concerts in the Park and the Jambalaya Festival & BBQ. The park was originally a cow pasture and then a stopping place for small circuses and medicine shows in the early 1900’s. It became the unofficial town square for the surrounding African American community in the 1940’s and hosted speeches by Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights marches. The park’s gazebo showcases a 120 year-old cupola that was salvaged from the Hill Block Building, a former landmark in the district.
Other cultural events include Portland’s annual Juneteenth festival and celebration at Legacy Emmanuel Field and various activities hosted by the District’s places of worship including Vancouver Ave First Baptist Church, Immaculate Heart Catholic Church and Life Change Church.
How has the changing streetscape affected the District?
Annabelle: It’s so walkable now. I’ve lived here since 1998 and never has it felt more interesting and fun to walk everywhere. You really don’t need to drive if you don’t want to – we have easy access to almost anything you’d need. And there are kids, families animals all enjoying walking together down the streets. There is so much energy here.
Summy: I feel like the bike lane is a benefit to the district. When the project began, there was a lot of uncertainty and frustration from the businesses on the street but now we feel that it is a win. We have so many bike businesses – Abraham Fixes Bikes, Metropolis Cycles, Portland Bicycle Studio, Sugar Wheel Works and United Bicycle Institute, which is internationally recognized for its bicycle mechanic training programs.
Brad: There’s even a bike-themed bar – Hopworks Bikebar! One of the reasons we started Walk Williams was to show off our new streetscape and encourage people to discover something new by walking the district.
Williams District boasts Portland’s busiest bicycle commuter corridor which is used by more than 7,000 cyclists per day. The city of Portland recently invested $1.5 million in the area to improve pedestrian crossings, calm traffic and enhance bike travel. It is the only bike lane in Portland that is on the left side of the street.
Abraham Fixes Bikes was founded by Abraham Sutfin, who started fixing bikes out of his garage and opened his N Williams shop in 2010.
Metropolis Cycles is a full-service bike shop that offers a variety of commuter, mountain, road and kids bikes.
Portland Bicycle Studio was founded in 2001 and is the #1 cyclocross shop in Portland.
Sugar Wheel Works produces hand-built bicycle wheels and offers classes on bicycle wheel building.
The United Bicycle Institute has been teaching bicycle maintenance, repair and frame building for more than 35 years. Their Williams District facility features a mechanics classroom and a frame building shop.
Hopworks was founded in 2007 and was the first brewery in the Pacific Northwest to earn B Corporation certification for their sustainable business practices. Their Williams District Bikebar opened in 2011 and features a cycle-themed menu and exercise bikes that visitors can pedal to generate electricity for the bar.
The streetscape also changed in 2016 when the Williams District got its first financial institution – Unitus Community Credit Union. The Williams District branch is the Portland-based credit union’s ninth.
What’s your favorite time of year in Williams District?
Annabelle: Summer! There are so many restaurants with outdoor seating like Crisp, TeSoAria, Open Tandoor, Vendetta, Lompoc 5th Quadrant and Hopworks Bikebar. We also have the Dawson Park Concert Series during Summer which is a really wonderful time for the community to come together. Because we have such a walkable and bikeable neighborhood, everyone is out and about and you get to see how our district really works.
Crisp opened in 2016 and offers a dozen signature salads, sandwiches and soups with vegan and gluten-free options.
TeSoAria Vineyard and Winery was founded in 2008 in Roseburg, Oregon and produces more than 25 varietals. Their Williams District tasting room opened in 2013 and hosts a variety of weekly events and specials.
Open Tandoor began in 2013 as a food cart in downtown Portland known for its dishes prepared in clay tandoori ovens. Their Williams District location opened in 2016 and features a Biketown hub in front of the restaurant.
Vendetta opened in 2006 and is known for their extensive patio and shuffleboard table.
Lompoc 5th Quadrant is a full-service bar and restaurant that brews classic Lompoc beers like C-Note and Proletariat Red on site.
The holiday season is also a wonderful time to visit the district, especially during the annual ‘Shop Williams Late’ event where retailers stay open late and offer discounts for one night only. The district even has its own toy store, SpielWerk Toys, which specializes in healthy, high quality children’s toys made in Europe and the USA.
What would be your perfect day of food in Williams District?
Summy: I’d start the day with a nice soy latte at Ristretto Roasters while waiting in line for Tasty and Sons brunch. It’s worth it! For lunch I’d grab a happy hour pizza at Life of Pie; it’s such a good deal! Then I’d get an afternoon snack at Coco Donuts. I’d get steamed dumplings at XLB for dinner and then stop at Box Social for a cocktail.
Annabelle: I’m going to assume I’m with my partner and child which is lucky because the district has so many kid-friendly businesses. I would start the day with breakfast at Poa Café. It is very kid-appropriate and they have great smoothies. Then I would go to Hopworks. They have amazing kid-friendly areas with lots of toys and great kid’s meals that come with a tiny little ice cream at the end. I would have dinner at Kayo’s Ramen but try to get there early to beat the crowds and take advantage of their happy hour! After dinner, I would stop in to TeSoAria for a glass of wine.
Brad: I would get breakfast at Bread and Honey Café because they are fellow book lovers. They do a book exchange during our Walk Williams event. For lunch I would go to Open Tandoor. I really like Cajun food so for dinner I would go to Eat Cajun Kitchen and Oyster Bar. It’s a really fun atmosphere and on some nights they have live music. After dinner, I might stop by the Waypost for drinks and some political conversation.
Ristretto Roasters has been producing handcrafted coffees since 2005 and works directly with coffee farmers South America. Their Williams District location opened in 2008 and regularly hosts exhibitions by local artists.
Tasty and Sons dishes up ‘new American diner’ cuisine inspired by Chef John Gorham’s travels and experiences with the immigrant community.
Coco Donuts is the only donut shop in Portland that also roasts their own coffee. Their donuts are made using a secret family recipe passed down over 30 years.
XLB dishes up home-style Chinese soup dumplings in a cozy dining room that features 40 year-old Chinese lanterns.
The Box Social offers an impressive list of artisanal cocktails, wine and beer in a prohibition-era setting.
Poa Café is a family-friendly restaurant dishing up brunch, bowls, smoothies and coffee. The Café’s name is derived from the Swahili word for being in a good mood.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar opened in 2016 and is known for their signature ramens and an eclectic mix of authentic and inspired Asian street food.
Bread and Honey Café dishes up everything from sandwiches to savory pastries and regularly partners with local charitable organizations like the Center for Youth Engagement and Boise Business Youth Unity Project.
Eat Cajun and Oyster Bar serves up authentic Southern food and hosts a jazz brunch every Sunday from 10am-2pm.
The Waypost is the oldest standing bar in Williams District and has hosted live music, trivia and open mic nights since 2006.
If you are looking for dessert, the district offers plenty of options like Saint Cupcake, which offers made from scratch cupcakes, pies and pastries and What’s the Scoop?, a sustainable ice cream shop that makes their ice cream from scratch using liquid nitrogen.
What are some hidden gems in the District that most people might not know about?
Brad: One hidden gem that just opened inside the Hub building is called Klum House Workshop, a sewing shop that lets you go in and work on projects and take classes. Lark Press is another great one because they do their printing in the store so it’s a really fun atmosphere to see them working. There’s also a few hair salons like Akemi, Cloak and Dagger and Mod Salon.
Summy: You can definitely find some hidden gems in Workshop Vintage!
Annabelle: ReClaim It! is another place to find diamonds in the rough. They salvage materials from the dump and sell them. We even have the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club. They are a private club but they open to the public in November and it is like every child’s dream. Their train display is the size of a basketball court and takes 30 people to operate! We also have a large number of health and wellness related businesses in our district which are supported by a lot of the local residents.
Klum House offers a variety of workshops including sewing, bookkeeping, fabric block printing and running a small business.
Lark Press is a small letterpress studio that sells art prints, poems, cards, books and gifts created on their 100 year-old letterpresses.
Akemi Salon was founded in 2006 and uses only cruelty-free and environmentally-friendly hair products.
Cloak and Dagger Barbershop opened in 2015 and offers haircuts and straight razor shaves with whiskey cocktails while you wait.
Workshop Vintage offers a variety of vintage items along with locally designed goods including the WSV house brand of leather goods and accessories.
ReClaim It! has salvaged more than 200,000 pounds of reusable materials from Portland’s Metro Transfer Station since 2014.
The Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club was founded in 1947 and is one of the largest model railroad clubs in the Western US.
Wellness businesses in the district include NARA Indian Health Clinic, which provides culturally appropriate health services to American Indians, Alaska Natives and anyone in need; Wax on Spa, which offers waxing, facials and spray tan services; Pacific Crest Crossfit, which offers Crossfit and Victory Athletics classes and yoga; Akasu Hair Studio and Spa, which offers haircuts and color, skin treatments and more; Legacy Go Health, which provides walk-in urgent care; the Auto & Work Injury Center, which provides chiropractic care for accident victims; Renew Chiropractic which offers chiropractic care, massage therapy and functional exercise and North Lake Physical Therapy, which has been providing physical therapy and rehabilitation services since 1987.
What is the perfect souvenir for a visitor to Williams District?
Brad: New Seasons carries Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters which is artisanal peanut butter made in the district! Its super delicious and great for cooking. New Seasons also carries a ton of other locally made items. Visitors from out of state might appreciate a souvenir from Bridge City Collective, just don’t try and bring it on the plane! North by Northeast Liquor has a good selection of Oregon-made liquors and Somethings has a ton of local makers featured in their shop.
Summy: A bag of coffee beans from Ristretto Roasters would be a good souvenir!
Queen Bee Creations creates and sells a variety of hand-made bags along with a carefully curated selection of locally and regionally crafted jewelry, clothing, accessories, paper goods and home goods.
Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters is a small batch savory nut butter company based in Williams District offering flavors like Garam Masala, Honey Chipotle, Espresso Nib and Harissa Cashew.
Bridge City Collective was one of Oregon’s first licensed marijuana dispensaries and offers a discount to cyclists who show their bike helmet. The dispensary has partnered with Williams District yoga studio Yoga Shala to offer Buddha Bud Yoga, a yoga class with complimentary cannabis.
Somethings offers a variety of locally made and imported gifts, bags, woodwork and jewelry.
Summy, as Founding President of WVBA, what is your favorite Williams District accomplishment?
Summy: The actual formation of Williams District. It was probably 5-8 years in the making. It was difficult at first but we managed to get together a group of 8 hardheaded business owners and made it happen. Now it has this new energy with Annabelle, who is amazing.
Annabelle: Coming up with a name and a district identity and boundaries and bylaws was definitely a huge accomplishment.
Brad: The association was really intent on creating identity and a sense of place by first creating a logo, which was a hugely collaborative process, and then a website which gave visitors a place to land. Next came the map which really helped to reinforce that identity.
Visit williamsdistrict.com to see business listings, a district map and the latest happenings in Williams District.
Annabelle, as WVBA President, what future plans for the district are you most excited about?
Annabelle: I’m so excited to see who is coming into our district next. We have so many new businesses opening up every month and the dynamic mix that is happening as a result of that is going to take us into the future. The Walk Williams event has been wonderful and I think it is going to continue to grow and have more and more people involved. One of the things that has been really important for me as both a resident and a business owner in this district is the opportunity to work with residents in a positive way. There’s been so much change happening so quickly that a lot of residents feel a bit lost. As things start settling down we have an opportunity to connect with our neighbors and make sure Williams District remains a great place to live, work and play for all.
Walk Williams happens on the 2nd Wednesday of every month from 5-9pm. Pick up a passport from participating businesses to score deals and collect stamps for chances to win prizes. Visit williamsdistrict.com/walkwilliams for a full list of participating businesses and specials.