Once upon a rainy day Matt Love (author and publisher of Nestucca Spit Press) and Jack Harris (co-founder and co-owner of Fort George Brewery) had a conversation about gentrification in Astoria, the city’s growing popularity, and their respective, conflicted roles in this reality.
Matt: Jack, I remember a while back we were drinking a beer in the Fort and I mentioned how I was starting to see a lot of people driving slowly through my neighborhood in Astoria’s South Slope (overlooking Youngs Bay) in a way that clearly showed they were looking for homes to buy. Previously abandoned homes or ones on the market for the two years since I moved to town were suddenly getting snapped up. It felt like these were potential second home buyers and I actually talked to people from Portland, Santa Rosa, California, and Washington who were doing exactly that. I felt a little conflicted about that development because I had moved here and immediately began raising the profile of the city with my writing! In fact, I put out a book called A Nice Piece of Astoria: A Narrative Guide, that extolled the quirky eccentricities and magic of living near the mighty river. A few weeks ago I heard from someone in Iowa of all places. A cousin from the Astoria area had mailed her the book and she’s now decided she wants to move here. I really don’t know what to think about that. Is that good or bad?
Jack: My conflict comes from my experiences from other towns and cities that I have lived in. Before I moved to Astoria, I lived in SE Portland (Hawthorne District), Boulder Colorado and Cannon Beach. In every one of these towns I felt like I had arrived 20 years late. People had moved to them in the 70’s as artists and entrepreneurs when rents were cheap, the general cost of living was inexpensive, and there was economic freedom to pursue dreams, buy houses and get established. By the time I was there in the 90’s all of these spots were prohibitively expensive to live and work in without means. Those folks from the 70’s had managed their growth very intelligently and created very attractive places to live. The attractive livability did not go unnoticed and drew people that wanted to live in those places….people that were moving from places that didn’t protect their neighborhoods and towns from strip malls, big-box stores and automobile culture. These were people who already had enough money to buy a nice house and eventually pricing the locals out of their own town.
Matt: And you see that happening in Astoria?
Jack: It was a different town when I moved here in the late 90’s and was able to buy my house for less than $100k. It was inspiring to watch people my age start up small businesses and galleries and it really made me feel like I was finally in the right place at the right time. Previous leaders had set the town up to be a jewel by cleaning up brownfields and turning them into housing, protecting the historic buildings and houses, developing the river walk and prioritizing access to the river for pedestrians. Fort George has gotten a lot of credit for the renaissance of Astoria, but the reality is that we stand on the shoulders of those who made our success possible. I am very proud of how we have fixed up the city block we are responsible for, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Matt: There’s certainly nothing wrong with fixing up a dilapidated city block and employing people in the process. And making excellent beer! I like to think my book about Astoria helped renovate a few neglected or clichéd stories in town and unearthed a few other gems, like the Steinbeck wonders of the Triangle Tavern. I also wanted to call attention to a few aspects of living here that are metaphysical in nature to me, such as thinking about rain and living near such a vital watercourse. Did I gentrify Astoria with my book? Perhaps. Maybe there should be a different word for it. And what is the word for the expansion of the motel on the Riverwalk that annihilates the view of the river and bridge from my beloved back table in the Triangle Tavern? I see this development as something truly portentous for Astoria.
Jack: My enthusiasm for living in Astoria has only increased over the years. I talk about it glowingly to anyone that will listen to me. My affection for this place is nearly as sincere and unjaded as the love I have for my family. It is hard to keep that to yourself. I have seen the local economy successfully make its’ pivot from resource extraction to tourism over the time I have been here and that sort of economy needs to publicize itself to attract the tourists that drive that engine. Those tourists see what we have and want to be a part of it. You have mentioned that Astoria needs a Tom McCall-like figure that will welcome people to visit, but discourage them from staying. I’m not sure how that kind of hospitality would be received or if there is even a practical way to successfully deliver that message to people. Maybe there is a way to target smart tourists who are actually happy where they are?
Matt: Tom McCall took a big hit from the Oregon business community for his famous 1973 statement on the CBS Evening News, “Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” But let’s face it, that attitude still resonates today in Oregon, certainly Portland, and perhaps it’s coming to Astoria. I have been astonished by the number of people I’ve met since I moved here in 2013, who are not from Oregon. Many of them have taken a writing workshop from me and they simply fell in love with Astoria and felt compelled to move here. And I must say, these people are very cool, progressive, artistic minded. I don’t feel like they’ve displaced anyone but then again, they could afford to move here. The issue is: what happens if another 200 people like this move here. Would that increase the gentrification, drive up rents and housing prices?
Jack: Don’t get me wrong. Astoria will benefit from the artists, writers, musicians and chefs that want to make this place their home. I’m not talking about closing the door behind me. However, in the last 10 years, Astoria has become a darling of national travel magazines like Sunset. The New York Times has also done multiple extensive travel pieces on Astoria, and in all of these publications, Fort George has been prominently featured. Now folks are buying second homes here or selling their houses in California (and many other places where housing is much more expensive) and moving here to get a bigger house with a view. This is having the very real effect of pricing locals out of the housing market and even making rental opportunities for a young, creative class prohibitively expensive.
Matt: I should probably tell you that a feature writer from Sunset emailed the other day and wanted to interview me about Astoria. And you probably already know the Willamette Week did a big guide to Astoria where it wasn’t clear to me that anyone from the publication actually visited Astoria. This town is hot and if you thought last summer was crowded with gridlock every day from Seaside to Astoria and all the way to Svenson, this summer is going to be even worse.
Jack: Now I’m the guy who was here 20 years ago and I am wondering if this is an inevitable progression. While I am proud of the success Fort George has enjoyed, how complicit are we in this aspect of the evolution of the town I love? Is there no way to protect both the livability and affordability of Astoria? Are these mutually exclusive goals? None of these people with money wanted to live here in the 80’s and 90’s when the storefronts were empty and it wasn’t safe to be downtown in the evenings. They are benefiting from the hard work that went on to revitalize this town over the last 20-30 years while making it impossible for kids who have grown up here to stake their claim. So my conflict is to understand how I can continue to use Astoria to promote my business without killing the goose.
Matt: My conflict as a chronicler of Astoria life is nearly the same. Should I keep writing about Astoria and spreading the good word in my presentations? I truly love living here and am thankful for what this town has given me. But should I just shut up about it?
Jack: Well, most of the mushroom hunters I know are pretty discreet about their favorite hunting spots, but I don’t know if that is a practical technique for Astoria. I’m certainly not asking to freeze the City in time. Change is going to come. Fortunately there are a lot of people living here who are passionate about the livability of our town and who are paying attention to boring details like land-use planning and growth strategies. There is nothing much more tedious than serving on bodies like transportation planning committees, but that is the important work that guides city and county government policies. By all accounts, the days of the good ol’ boys getting their way in smoky rooms are long gone. We shouldn’t take that for granted. I have a lot of confidence in the responsiveness of our city leaders. In the end it comes down to diligence from the citizens to define and execute growth and development that improves on our quality of life. I don’t have the answers, but I do believe the system can work when people are engaged.
Matt: Do you ever feel that establishing and now expanding your business leaves you a bit exposed to shots from some people in the community who want Astoria to remain exactly the same culturally and economically, even though that is no longer possible. I know I have felt this regarding my book about Astoria.
Jack: Change can be difficult for everyone. Even though we are but one of many moving parts that are contributing to the evolution of Astoria and the North Coast we take our role seriously. We are getting ready to implement some measures to reduce the impact we have on parking at our end of town. We are conscientious about when the brewery can start blasting tunes in the morning and how late our Sunday music goes to reduce the effects on neighbors. We try to support local educational and environmental non-profits. We also provide the Showroom for weekly educational lectures that are always free. Additionally we have provided forums for the City to use in planning growth, transportation systems and parks. We’ll do anything we can to facilitate the conversation as to what direction the people of Astoria want to take this town. Any sort of success comes with detractors. The trick is to pick out useful criticism that you can learn from and react to that appropriately. I always wanted Astoria to be as proud of their local brewery as I am to live here, but I never anticipated that running a little brewpub would come with such a high profile. I am always looking for the balance between thick skin and sensitivity when issues arise. We have a lot of brilliant people on our staff with the same love for this area and concerns about leaving it in better shape than how we found it. I am confident that we can find the answers to any sincere concerns others may have about our growth.