Tom is a copywriter and creative director in Portland with a one-man creative firm known as Les Overhead. He is also author of the book, Driving Strangers: Diary of an Uber Driver. He previously worked with Geoffrey Hiller on a multimedia piece about New York after 9/11, NYC After The Fall.
The #75 TriMet is a lifeline for many in the rapidly changing city—a link between old and new, despair and hope.
In Portland, Oregon, the past moves out while the future keeps moving in.
The famously livable city now has a severe lack of affordable housing. In the last year, home prices have grown at a faster rate than in any other major metro area in the U.S. What’s more, the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent and homeless shelter attendance is up 30 percent.
To get a glimpse of this transformation in motion, I, along with photographer Geoffrey Hiller, have been riding the #75 TriMet bus and posting about it on our blog, Bus 75: Hidden Portland.
Bus 75— which received a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, Portland’s local arts organization—is about life in the back pockets of Portland, off the radar and out of the ordinary.
It’s also, of course, about the 75 bus itself. From near the Willamette River in Milwaukie, the 75 winds its way north for 20 miles through different areas and eras, ending back near the Willamette River in St. Johns. Some neighborhoods bloom with pride while others are overgrown with apathy.
The bus is a lifeline for many and a link between old and new, despair and hope. The places (and faces) on Bus 75 portray a Portland that is unknown to most people and bring to light the transformation occurring around almost every bus stop.
More people are getting on the bus. Devoid of expression, they stare at phones, books, the seat in front, and out the window, but seldom look into the face of a fellow passenger. Alienation prevails until you hear a stranger excitedly say, “Hey, how are you? It’s so good to see you again!”
Portland Flea Market
For centuries, people have gathered near the Willamette River to buy and sell goods, just as they do today at the Portland Flea Market. The “treasures” have changed, but the traders haven’t. Admission is only one dollar. No negotiating that, but everything else is up for dickering.
“I got the time and I got the junk,” one vendor says. “Might as well get rid of it. But it’s mostly just junk.” He’s right. Living at the poverty level, he didn’t make enough to pay taxes last year. He wishes he did.
For the past 50 years, Ace Typewriter has been restoring old machines with polish and love. “Business is good,” the owner laughs. “There’s only a few of us doing this. Many writers are going back to typewriters now instead of computers. You can refer back to what you’ve written and keep going—helps prevent writer’s block.”
Tradition is kept alive at Anvil Barbershop in Milwaukie. It’s as legit as a straight-cut barbershop gets: a place where men get a cut and shave, hang out, joke, have a beer and escape from the house. No kids, no women. The walls are covered with photos, posters, and oddities and the air has a faint scent of butchwax.
From Vietnam to Italy to Portland, Thu Duong has seen, and sewn, a lot. After studying fashion design, she uprooted herself and family and immigrated to Portland, one of the whitest cities in the U.S.
“I could not find a job because I did not speak English,” Thu says. “I had two little children.” She persevered and eventually opened Thu Fashion, a small shop where she made alterations. She hopes she won’t have to move. “My customers need me,” she says.
Heartbeat Silent Disco
At the Heartbeat Silent Disco in Laurelhurst Park, people tune into their own muse and frequency, listening to sound an on-site DJ transmits via wireless headphones. The signal carries deep, not far—just a 1,500-meter radius. Some of the entranced dance, others just sit on blankets and sip on the scene. It’s a new way to escape.
Double J Tire
Double J Tire on MLK is a family-owned tire dealer and a longtime local favorite. Much of the work is done in the parking lot as cars (and buses) whiz by.
“It’s a hell of a lot safer now,” says Scott, Double J manager. “The neighborhood has improved a lot since they changed the name from Union to MLK. When my family first opened here it was pretty sketchy.” Why did they start the business there if it was so unsafe? “It’s a busy street. People need tires.”
In plain sight
It’s the mundane parts of life that are hardest to see. Ride the bus. Look around. Your views may change.