It's been six years since we closed on our current home, where the Irvington and Alameda neighborhoods meet in Northeast Portland. And in that time, the neighborhood grocery store has virtually disappeared from sight.
Upon our arrival here, we had not one but two smaller groceries less than three blocks away, both at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont -- Nature's, a whole-food, bulk-product, low-packaging, earth-friendly market which at two storefronts wide was still pretty small; and Alameda Foods, a more traditional small grocery with all the plastic corporate American fare you could ever want. Both had fresh meat, a deli, and produce galore. The lines were short, and the convenience was incredible. If we needed a lemon, some maple syrup, a loaf of bread, or a bottle of wine, it was an easy walk and a quick errand. There was no thought of taking the car. The fresh air was good for the soul.
But it started to slide downhill soon after we arrived. Nature's packed up and headed nine blocks west to expanded quarters at NE 15th and Fremont. It was great for the new neighborhood, but not so hot at the old location. In its place there, after a substantial vacancy period, came a restaurant and a high-priced garden store. They both folded after very brief runs. Since then, another restaurant has come and gone, and a second garden store -- not as ritzy, but still not at all down-to-earth -- is hanging in there on the site.
Meanwhile, Nature's was bought out by Wild Oats from Colorado, and a new Portland-based chain, New Seasons, has sprung up elsewhere in Northeast, giving the new owners of Nature's a serious run for their money. Wild Oats has lost its pharmacy, much of its clientele, and whatever charm it may have had to go with its quirky attitude. It's not a very fun place to shop, and the help never smiles any more, either.
Across 24th from the old Nature's site, Alameda Foods reportedly had its rent abruptly jacked up, and the Arab-American guys who ran the place folded it. Now we have a commercial bank branch, which I can't believe anyone from the neighborhood ever patronizes, and a long-empty storefront that's apparently going to be a dentist's office. How cold is that?
From a comestible standpoint, then, what have we got left? A 10-block sojourn to the nearest fresh food place, and a somewhat forlorn scene when you get there. Except in periods of major ambition, the car is involved. And if you're in the car, why not drive 25 blocks to the New Seasons in the Concordia neighborhood, where the shopping is so much better?
All this is old news, I guess, but now the same thing is happening in the heart of Irvington, at NE 15th and Brazee. What had been a funky little food market for as long as I've lived in Portland, has recently been vacated and gutted to make way for what the landlord hopes will be a toney Italian restaurant and some sort of pricey clothing store. And so people down that way will be forced to deal with Safeway, Fred Meyer, Wild Oats or the new Zupan's (in the ghastly new condo tower on NE Broadway) whenever they need something as simple as a tomato. The old Irvington Market on NE Weidler is gone too, of course, displaced by a fast-food Chinese cafeteria that would be just perfectly appropriate for a bad shopping mall in Detroit.
How very sad.
A pox on all the landlords, I say. Fie on the toney new restaurants. Fie on the garden stores with the platinum-plated hoes and spades. Fie on the dentist's office where the Romaine lettuce is supposed to be. I won't patronize them until there's a little grocery store back in the neighborhood.
The livable city gets a little less livable every time an independent grocer is forced to close up shop. I really wish the Big Idea People down at City Hall would try to do something to preserve these small businesses, instead of embarking on all the misguided mischief that the bureaucrats are so good at. Instead they kiss up to Home Depot, who will run out all the mom-and-pop hardware stores, too.