The Alberta area was run down and forgotten. Drugs, guns and intimidation were the rule on the streets. In the 1993 editions of the Concordia News, the descriptive word was blight. The neighborhood association was formed to “clean up the neighborhood”. An epidemic of drive-by shootings, abandoned cars and derelict houses; that was Concordia in the 80s and early 90s.
1997 was a pivotal year in Alberta Street’s history. The story goes that a local developer encouraged several businesses that were showing art, to open their doors on First Thursday for the traditional Art Walk usually held on the west side of town. Those businesses discussed the possibility and decided that since the action was on the west side of the river on that night, it was unlikely that people would come all the way over to Alberta Street. But the idea grew and the group decided that they should limit the art walk to just Alberta Street and pick a different night. Last Thursday was jokingly referred to as a more appropriate name for the event and “Last Thursday” was born.
The first Art Walk, held in May of 1997, was off to a shaky start. That first year less than ten destinations were added to the monthly-published art map. As the years passed the number of participating art venues fluctuated, but the event grew in participation and attendance. Street vendors, musicians and street theatre have added a unique element to the atmosphere of Last Thursdays.
From the very beginning of the Art Walk the phrase “Art on Alberta” was coined to identify the street and the Last Thursday function. The “buzz” that Alberta Street was a place where things were happening was fueled by the monthly art walks and by media attention. Old buildings were slowly being renovated and converted and more and more businesses and art studios were locating on the street. Small independent and first time businesses set the tone and art galleries began opening their doors. -Alberta Mainstreet
It didn’t happen because of real estate investors. It didn’t happen because the City gave the businesses and landlords a lot of development money or tax breaks. It happened because the original investors in the neighborhood, the artists, the galleries and restaurants decided to try a neighborhood art walk. It sparked fifteen years of steady improvement and investment. And now, this last year, the PDC, Main Street and urban renewal have come to the street. –Concordia News 2011
Over the next 15 years, Last Thursday on Alberta developed organically, from what was originally a visual art event aimed at promoting the street’s art galleries, into an amorphous celebration of art in all its forms. The monthly event has become increasingly popular and, in recent years, is attended by approximately 18,000 people in the warm weather months.
As awareness of the numerous violations occurring during and after the event spread, the City, with Mayor Sam Adams and Councilwoman Amanda Fritz leading the way, put in place the beginnings of a governing body to address the boorish behavior. With their help Friends of Last Thursday was started.
The first two versions of this group did not make much progress. Lack of direction and divisiveness kept the committee from effectively working. While the vandalism was taking the spotlight away from the event, no resolutions were being found. As you can imagine, Last Thursday does not fit into any standard model of management.
In May 2011, the city laid a mandate on the Last Thursday table. Essentially saying get it done or shut it down.
That is when the Friends of Last Thursday steering committee came together as a positive, progressive, capable, creative group. And over the course of the summer every problem identified by the City’s mandate had been solved or with new community policing policies in place had been greatly reduced, including most of the costs the City had been paying.
Starting in 2007 Alberta Street was closed from 15th through 30th Avenues to accommodate the crowds. This cost was covered by the city until FoLT stepped in and took over these costs in 2012.
As the sun goes down on Northeast Alberta Street, crowds during Last Thursday multiply and fill the street. Art vendors, music performers and dancers hold the attention of visitors outside, while others are kept amused inside Alberta’s popular restaurants, bars and art galleries. Photo by Cari Hachmann/The Portland Observer
On what may have been one of the last warm nights before Portlanders turn in for the winter, a huge crowd showed up to revel in Last Thursday on Northeast Alberta Street last week, the final celebration of the spring and summer season when the street closes to accommodate the monthly event.
From hoola-hooping children and body-bending acrobats to native drum circles and dread-locked rappers, most everyone in attendance seemed well-entertained and all smiles.
According to Friends of Last Thursday, a grass roots organization formed a year and a half ago after the event turned controversial due to rowdy after-hours crowds disrupting surrounding neighbors; the event has become “increasingly mellow.”
Police agreed the fair seemed to be winding down after the peak summer months.
Officer Curtis Chinn, standing at one of the street’s crowded intersections, said the most common complaints are from the neighbors who are upset about noise, litter, illegal parking, and public urination.
Happy-go-lucky crowds have been a historical fact since Last Thursday’s spawning, but so has the frustration of its close neighbors who have little choice but to join in the festivities or harbor indoors with earplugs until the last drunken bar-hopper falls asleep.
“You can imagine how some of the noise bounces down the street,” said Officer Chinn.
One such neighbor, the wife of a couple living just off Alberta since 1972, says she can put up with the noise, but won’t stand for public urination.
This anonymous resident says that after watching two drunken males relieving themselves in her driveway some Last Thursdays ago, which she admits looks like an alleyway, she watered them down with a garden hose, “Those two won’t do that again,” she said
Spontaneous performances entertain onlookers at Last Thursday on Northeast Alberta Street. Photo by Tanya Yray/ Guest Photographer
Living one house down from the main drag, this veteran witness shares a list of weirdness that has spilled onto her property over the years; drunks falling asleep in her yard, wooden stakes stolen from her peonies, fire spinning fireworks falling on roofs, and bands thrashing about late into the night.
Many of her neighbors share similar frustrations and would agree that the community-owned event that started 13 years ago by a group of local artists to promote the art galleries on Alberta Street began to spin out of control quite some time ago.
“When it started, it was supposed to be an art walk,” she said, “but it’s built up into one big party.”
Tired of mayhem that lasted past the 10 o’clock official closing time, neighbors have argued for more control of the event while supporters defend the festival’s organic and spontaneous nature. Others question the city spending money for police enforcement and compare it to other community fairs which are held to steeper requirements.
When nobody seemed to want to take full responsibility or had the resources to do it, Friends of Last Thursday formed to oversee the event and help address the issues. In February 2010, Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz asked Friends of Last Thursday to take more responsibility for the event and expand its stewardship.
Since then, Rochelle Saliba, co-chair of Friends of Last Thursday, says the group has been unrelenting to their mission of “facilitating a safe and sustainable monthly public art festival that culturally enriches the community while fostering neighborhood respect.”
The group is working to assume full financial responsibility for event costs. It has raised enough money to pay for this year’s garbage bills, and plans to hold future fundraisers and find business sponsorships that will cover street closure barriers, private security, and port-a-potties.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is identifying the issues and implement programs to meet and change the culture of the event without changing the event itself,” said Saliba. The idea is to preserve the spirit of the event while taming some of the problems.
An ambassador program was created to foster respect among participants. Volunteers help vendors, answer questions from visitors, and make sure the city’s safety codes are followed.
For example, ambassadors ensure that noise should not carry more than half a block or else a ticket may be issued for $500. Fire spinners need permits. No open-containers or underage drinking is allowed. Vendors cannot block sidewalks or businesses.
Since the group got involved, the outspoken neighbor said she’s noticed a change for the better.