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Bohemias last stand

Shabby Slabtown gets beauty tips from nearby Pearl District

The feral cats howl in the night. A van with a cracked windshield is home for one denizen, and razor wire curls around the top of a Cyclone fence. Gutters hang off of old brick apartment buildings, and even the rain falls in crooked sheets.

Condoland winks from just across the way, but Interstate 405's massive ramps and pillars divide the Pearl from its oddball sister, Slabtown, like a concrete curtain.

Slabtown is located west of the freeway. At one time the name referred to a large portion of Northwest Portland. These days, the name is generally used to describe the area around Northwest 16th Avenue, between

Hoyt and Lovejoy streets. A working-class neighborhood, Slabtown still has its share of old bars and saloons.

In the late 1800s, residents burned wood to heat their homes, storing 'slabs' of wood in front of their houses. Factory workers lived in the small houses and worked in nearby industrial areas.

'It would have been very smoky and loud there back then,' says Portland historian Chet Orloff. 'It was ethnically oriented. People cooked or heated with wood. The old streetcars that ran along the upper avenues would have rattled and clanged. It may have have smelled of cooking fish.'

Sixties-era urban renewal brought the I-405 freeway. Portions of what was then primarily a Scandinavian neighborhood were cut off, says Orloff.

Music to their ears

Portland rock band the Dandy Warhols memorialized Slabtown in a CD titled 'Tales From Slabtown Vol. 2.' Singer Courtney Taylor still rents an apartment in the divey Bjelland Apartments on Northwest Lovejoy for a song, despite the fact that he's pure pop gold. Neighborhood regulars call his building the 'Rock Dorm' because so many occupants are musicians; the smaller apartment building around the corner is 'Rock Dorm Jr.'

Taylor, on tour in Australia, writes in an e-mail that Slabtown has been 'a high for our clique of artists for about five or six years. The area that we now refer to as Slabtown is the last few square blocks of Northwest Portland that are still a dump.'

That's a compliment in gentrification-shy Portland.

The video for the Dandys' hit 'Bohemian Like You' was filmed at Cal-Sport, a bar now under new management and called Slabtown.

Matt Simons and two partners bought the business from Magar Magar Ñ who owns the building.

Simons worked at Cal-Sport for two years.

'It was all crusty, dirty and weird in here,' Simons recalls. 'There were times it got really awful. Now it's just honest and clean.'

Most of the staff are members of Portland's rock music scene. 'We call ourselves the Portland Varsity All-Stars,' Simons says.

Le Happy, a creperie-nightclub, opened on Northwest 16th Avenue just as the Portland streetcar made its debut three years ago. Owner John Brodie has noticed small changes in the neighborhood.

'It was quieter here three years ago, but it's still a quiet little nook,' Brodie says. 'The freeway will always be there and give it this distinct feel. We started calling it 'the bucket' around here when nobody knew where it was. We felt it needed a name.'

Now, ways to connect this section of Northwest Portland and the Pearl are being explored.

John Carroll, developer of the nearby Edge Condominiums and REI store on Northwest 14th Avenue, did a land swap with Retriever Towing, located under -I-405. The lot will be used for employees of the new REI store, which opens Sunday.

Two neighborhood associations, Pearl District and Northwest District, are working with Carroll and another property owner, Al Solheim, to spruce up the dark corners under I-405.

Standing under the ramp on Northwest Johnson Street, Pearl District association Vice President Patricia Gardner says: 'We want to create a place that's a connection between the two areas, not a barrier. There could eventually be many uses for the space under here Ñ from sports to artist spaces.'

Gardner is the landscape architect for the project, which was financed by grants from the two neighborhood associations. Some $40,000 was awarded for improvements on Northwest Kearney and Johnson streets. A second grant from Metro paid for the lighting.

'Both of these areas are evolving at the perimeters,' Gardner says.

Says Carroll: 'In the interim we want to make this an asset to the neighborhood.'

Crossover customers?

The ivy-covered grounds along the sides of the freeway ramp were cleaned up in time for the opening of the REI store. Battered wooden slats were removed from the Cyclone fencing. The barbed wire that enclosed the former Retriever Towing Yard is down, and lighting has been added.

Eventually, a wrought-iron fence with signage will be erected that narrows the sidewalk and discourages homeless people from camping beneath the freeway. The fence will be lengthened block by block.

'In the short term, we'd like a safer place,' Gardner says.

Artist Eva Lake has kept a gallery-studio in the ActiveSpace building since 1999. 'It was a no man's land before,' she says. 'But I've always liked the isolated parts of Portland.' Lake recently started to decorate the window space in the former auto supply shop, now called the Standard Arts Building, across the street from her studio.

Other businesses are bound to pick up as more people venture from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Radio cabbies gravitate to Yur's Tavern, a cavernous bar and former cellar. Carlos Juarez started cooking here about seven months ago, preparing homemade Mexican food from scratch. He painted the restaurant walls and added other touches to improve the low-slung space.

Juarez's cousin owns the successful Cha Cha Cha on Northwest Glisan Street, which at times seems a million miles away. 'But I know there are a lot of people coming soon,' Juarez says.

Sheila Scott owns the Emanon Cafe, a restaurant at the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue and Lovejoy Street that's been open a little over a year. She approves of the changes.

'The area was always on the rougher side, the seedier side,' but that's changing, Scott says.

'We're in the middle of these two really thriving areas,' she says. 'It has to come alive.'