Can Alberta Street’s Last Thursday Be Stopped?
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Vendors, food carts and street performers would follow, while urban renewal transitioned Northeast Alberta Street from “the poor part of town” to the Alberta Arts District, home to commercial shops and pricy real estate.
Today, the district’s Last Thursday street festival draws close to 20,000 attendees, with tourists and out-of-towners rounding out the majority.
But trash left in residents’ yards, blocked driveways, and the party spilling beyond the designated 15-block zone, has turned long-time residents and businesses against a community event they once cherished.
And most are not afraid to say it – they would like to see Last Thursday shut down for good.
“Nobody here likes it,” said Brian Cummings, a local artist who has lived off of Alberta Street since 2007.
In the early years, Cummings loved going to Last Thursday every month to buy art and hang out with his neighbors. But the times have changed.
“After the police come through and clear everything out and the vendors close, there’s still this huge group of drunk people who don’t live around here,” said Cummings. “I’ve seen kids walking on top of cars that were parked bumper to bumper.”
Yet with no one really managing it, stopping a “word-of-mouth” event is a quagmire for the neighborhood.
Former Friends of Last Thursday
For 16 years, Last Thursday had been running with little city involvement. In 2011, Friends of Last Thursday, a group of community art supporters, formed a steering committee to try to wrangle the growing chaos of Last Thursday.
According to FoLT organizer, Maquette Reeverts, they came to Mayor Hales with a plan to keep the event free for all artists but create fees for non-art vendors to help pay for services.
“It addressed safety and livability concerns,” said Reeverts. “The plan also included how to reduce street congestion, provide more parking areas, create paying jobs for our locals and other strategies for making Last Thursday a gem of Portland.” But they needed a small monthly stipend – $4,000 – to do so.
The city didn’t go for it, and in 2013 FoLT stepped down as the organizing body of Last Thursday. The former FoLT members now comprise a non-profit called Alberta Art Works, which continues to support local artists.
“I personally believe the event could be brought, once again, back from the edge and made into that gem,” continued Reeverts. “I still have the playbook. But the money has always been the final issue.”
A bad neighbor
Like a hot potato, Last Thursday fell into the city’s lap two years ago, and they’ve been looking to pass it on ever since.
Their primary focus is to return the street fair to a “manageable size.”
“As it gets smaller and a little better controlled, we believe we will find a third party that wants to take it over,” said Dana Haynes, communications director for Mayor Hales’ office.
But since 2009, the city has spent close to $100,000 each summer on portable toilets, security, street barricades and a giant water hose to wash the streets clean at its 9 p.m. curfew.
In an effort to curb taxpayer dollars, the city is now providing services for only the months of June, July and August.
During its last edition in May, however, the festivities took a tragic turn when a 16-year-old resident of Vancouver, WA discharged a firearm and shot three people. The mayor's office has maintained that the incident was not a symptom of Last Thursday, but an issue of gun violence as a whole.
“Last Thursday has not, historically for many years, been a good neighbor,” said Haynes. Complaints from residents have included loud music playing deep into the night, and attendees urinating, defecating and even fornicating on their lawns – and leaving used condoms behind.
In the event of a third party taking it over and deciding to shut it down, Haynes said, “We wouldn’t take any heroic efforts to try to save or resuscitate it. But we just don’t think that’s going to happen because it’s run for so many years and draws so many people from outside of Portland.”
But that’s just the problem, said Mairin, a bartender at Alberta’s The Hilt.
“People from outside the neighborhood, or Portland even, come here, trash it and just leave.”
Mairin points out the unfair fact that, because of Last Thursday, The Hilt and other bars are scrutinized by the fire marshal and the OLCC each month. It’s the reason The Hilt now closes during the street festival.
The aggression from some attendees is also worrisome. A friend of Mairin’s was attacked when walking a girl home from Last Thursday, and had to get facial reconstruction from the incident.
After living in the Alberta district since 2008, Mairin recently moved to another neighborhood.
If someone passed her a petition to end Last Thursday, she would sign it. “I would like for it to be shut down,” she said. “I think the only people who support it are newer, larger businesses that don’t serve alcohol.”
“It’s not about the art anymore,” she continued. “No one even goes to the galleries. It’s just a street shit-show.”
The people keep coming
But how does one stop – or even scale back – a street festival with no official organizer?
For Brook Balocca, a former member of FoLT, Last Thursday works well as a “micro economic booster… but it is a bit out of hand, and wrangling it back together will be tough for whoever – if anyone – steps up to take a whack at it.”
“Most events start from the ground up, and the rules and expectations are very clear,” continued Balocca. “Last Thursday is the opposite: powered by the people that attend, and beginning with no infrastructure or management to speak of, has created a difficult problem to solve now that it’s so large in size.”
That’s one point a former organizer and the mayor’s office can agree upon.
“If we tried to stop it tomorrow, we believe the same tens of thousands of people would show up anyhow,” said Haynes.
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