Portland: Division/Clinton Neighborhood Keeps Its Edge

David Machado is the owner-chef of Lauro Mediterranean Kitchen, part of the new wave of restaurants in Portland's Division/Clinton. Photo by @JohnAnthonyRizzo

Take a wander through the Division/Clinton neighborhood southeast of Portland, Ore., and it’s clear that the other side of the tracks has come up in the world. Long a gritty collection of rambling cottages and light industry, the area was still considered a poverty pocket by the city less than 20 years ago.

While there are still plenty of blue-collar residents, many of them with Chinese and Italian roots, Division/Clinton has morphed into a hip destination for Portlanders in search of the real deal.

No big box stores here ––­­ in fact an ordinance was passed that no single business could take up more than 10,000 square feet.  Most of the shops, cafes and businesses are mom and pops, owner-operated, often by people who live in the area. Indie, edgy, fiercely green and community driven, it’s a place that (so far) has resisted the vanilla sheen of gentrification.

While the community struggles to manage change, and deal with rising rents that have forced some longtime businesses to move, the neighborhood’s character and sense of place remain strong. Defined by two major commercial avenues, Division Street and Clinton Street, the neighborhood actually stretches from the Willamette River to the railroad tracks.  “For a long time, Portland’s more affluent west side didn’t cross the river to this neighborhood,” says David Machado, whose restaurant Lauro Mediterranean Kitchen was one of the forces for change when it opened in 2003.

Situated in a long-vacant former plumbing supply house, Lauro proved naysayers wrong, and was named one of the country’s best by Gourmet Magazine in 2005, helping to define Division/Clinton as a destination where unique, authentic ethnic food rules.

Pok Pok serves up Andy Ricker's snappy take on Thai street food. Photo by David Lanthan Reamer

Stroll along Division Street today, with its many shops and cafes, I find it hard to believe the street was destined for the wrecking ball in the 1970s to make way for an eight-lane freeway. Local residents and business owners howled in protest, refusing to let Division be turned into a ghostly frontage road. Typical in this city where crunch is elevated to an art form and liberal sensibilities rule, grassroots protest won out, with the city opting to put in a light rail system instead.

“People are invested in the neighborhood,” says Julie Higgs, who opened her flower shop, Fleur De Lis, nearly a decade ago. Her husband, David Stricker, is also locally connected, a partner in the nearby Kung Fu Bakery recording studio, where Pink Martini regularly records its fetching blend of jazzy Latin, lounge, and classical music. When Higgs decided to retire and close up shop, her local client base would hear none of it.  “Most businesses survive just fine by word of mouth. I never advertised. The shop just wouldn’t die.”  Instead, she sold it to longtime employee Rachel Payton. “It’s our neighborhood. It’s a fun place to be. I can’t seem to leave!”

Although the neighborhood has boomed of late, it does have a pop-culture history worth noting. It was here, at Langlitz Leathers, that the first custom leather motorcycle jacket was created in 1947. Loprinzi’s Gym on Division, one of the nation’s first body building faciities, opened a year later. At the Clinton Street Theater, an art house that hosts everything from hip hop to underground screenings, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” has screened every Saturday night since 1978, the longest run in the world for the cult classic.

Division/Clinton is a gem of a neighborhood, a place where you can still meet people who live and work and care about the place.

The signature pork dish at Vindalho, an Indian eatery with Portuguese influences. Photo by @JohnAnthonyRizzo

Mike Pardew, a jazz guitar player and partner in the  Cadenza Academy music school is one of those people: He likes that he can live, work, hang out and perform  at places like Vindalho restaurant –– all in the same neighborhood. “The edgy vibe has been around for decades. This place feeds on itself. That’s what makes is so special.”

A good read: Insider’s Guide to Portland, Oregon