Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Victoria needs more Portland

Corey Judd of Cabin 12 restaurant in downtown Victoria checks out a delivery of a gross of eggs.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
October, 2011

Pilgrims return with word of paradise on earth, a place where junk shops hold treasures; where brew pubs outnumber churches; where food carts offer a United Nations smorgasbord of delectable delights; where restaurants serve only the freshest of locally-grown foods; where java joints dot every corner with steaming cups of fair-trade organic coffee; where record stores actually sell vinyl, and where a roster of used-book stores includes a sprawling emporium covering an entire downtown block.

I speak, of course, of the fragrant City of Roses. Portland! O shining exemplar of all things urban and trendy and good, you are my hipster heaven.

My own foray to the Wonder on the Willamette included a stay at the Ace Hotel, where rooms come equipped with record players and a photo booth can be found in the lobby. (In its previous incarnation as the Clyde Hotel, a dive, the hotel served as the setting for the harrowing movie Drugstore Cowboy.) The groaning shelves of Powell’s City of Books lured me one block north for several hours of scanning dust-jacket spines. Elsewhere in the city, the local McMenamins chain of brew pubs offers inexpensive fare and good beers in odd venues, such as a converted funeral parlor. Over in the Hawthorne district, a cornucopia of mom-and-pop shops offers trendy, funky and bohemian choices.

So hip that it aches, the scene has been parodied as Portlandia, a sketch comedy show. (Check out the clips on YouTube. Hilarious.) On the show, Portland “is the city where young people go to retire.”

We’ve got our own Portland North going on in Victoria. We need more of it.

Young entrepreneurs have turned commercial spaces into communal gathering places. For instance, the interior of the restaurant called Cabin 12 seems as homey as grandma’s living room, filled as it is with pocket books, long-playing records and board games. The restaurateur Corey Judd raised funds through appeals on social media. He was so broke he lived for a time in a room at the back. Judd hired employees of similarly struggling backgrounds, seeing in them an echo of his own resourceful self. The presence of Cabin 12 improved the neighbourhood, but the building in which they are located has been sold and will be redeveloped. Cabin 12 has to find a new home.

Other restaurants that contribute to the city’s vibe first had to deal with a slow-moving municipal bureaucracy. Located in a repurposed shipping crate on the Inner Harbour, the terrific Red Fish, Blue Fish offers sustainable seafood fare. The lines now stretch the full length of the wharf. It took ages for the owners to get permission for what has been a worthwhile contribution to the waterfront.

A decade ago, intrepid travelers Jodi Mann and Nick Crooks decided to bring the street foods of Southeast Asia to hungry pedestrians in Victoria. They stir-fried noodles from a converted hotdog cart in a Chinatown parking lot. But the city’s red tape and an unhelpful health department led the couple to abandon the outdoors. Today, the Noodle Box has five indoor outlets in the city, as well as two more in Vancouver.

Instead of throwing up roadblocks, the city should be encouraging the use of food carts, an inexpensive way for budding entrepreneurs to get started. Carts bring foot traffic and activity to the street.

A city’s vibe depends on the residents, not just commercial ventures. In my Gonzales neighbourhood, an annual block party on Maddison Street brings a temporary halt to busy lives as locals meet and share favourite foods. Children find new play pals, while older neighbours living on their own become a little less isolated.

A smaller backyard party is held every summer on the nearby 1000-block Clare Street. The Clare folks have placed arty, hand-painted signs at either end of the block, warning drivers of the presence of children and pets. One of them even built a box in front of her house from which passersby can borrow, or donate, books.

Over in Fernwood, one woman’s initiative has led to the painting of hundreds of telephone poles (many defaced by ugly tags and graffiti) with bright designs. The neighbourhood is also a place of mom-and-pop operations, such as the Fernwood Coffee Company, an artisan roaster. The Fernwood people have the right idea in creating a hip, funky, engaged neighbourhood, an eccentric outpost in a world of global brand names. The place is so groovy I think of it as Little Portland.

Portland's hipster ache drives Portlandia, a wickedly funny portrayal of the worst of the best: "In Portland, you can put a bird on something and call it art."

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