Then & Now: Portland’s Pearl District

The Pearl District is nestled in between rolling hills to the west and the Willamette River that flows through Portland, Oregon. Pre-pandemic, it was one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city because of its abundance of cute boutiques and quaint little coffee shops. It is also home to the world’s largest independent bookstore, Powell’s Books, and the Brewery Blocks.

Many locals don’t think the Pearl lives up to Portland’s quintessential quirky reputation—it’s often referred to as glitzy and bougie. But Stanley Penkin, Pearl District Neighborhood Association President, pushed back on that notion by saying that the Pearl has the highest concentration of affordable housing in the city—“It’s not just a bunch of rich people.”

Pearl District railroads before the neighborhood was renovated.
NW Flanders and Front Avenue in 1930. | Credit: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2009-009.1724
Pearl District railroads, today.
NW Flanders and Front Avenue in November 2020. | Photographer: Devin Hutchings

In the early 1990s, the area was sparsely populated. Warehouses and railroad tracks were prominent features of the neighborhood, even though the lumber and manufacturing industries it was once known for were long gone. Some of these warehouses became homes to thriving new businesses like Powell’s Books, but most others remained unoccupied. In the late 90s, however, the Pearl District embarked on a new path. City officials constructed a robust streetcar network through the neighborhood, sited three new parks, and a group of local developers agreed to build thousands of new apartments.

The hustle and bustle of the Pearl District died down during the pandemic, but that didn’t stop community members from coming together to support one another. At the beginning of the pandemic when uncertainty was at its peak, Pearl District residents celebrated healthcare workers by banging pots on their patios, and one friendly neighbor poured wine out his window into the glass of the woman who lived downstairs from him. The Pearl District Neighborhood Association also initiated a gift card raffle to encourage the community to come out and support local boutiques, coffee shops, and small businesses that give the Pearl its identity.

A shot of Union Station in the Pearl District, taken years ago.
Union Station in December of 1904. | Credit: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2004-002.212
Union Station in the Pearl District, as it looks today.
Union Station in the Pearl District on a crisp November 2020 afternoon. | Photographer: Devin Hutchings

Julie Gustafson, the executive director of the Pearl District Business Association, mentioned that although there have been a handful of small business closures in the Pearl District, she’s hopeful because many businesses are finding creative ways to stay alive. “It is possible that the profile of the average employee in the district will shift from being those that commute to those that are working from home and living in the Pearl,” she said.

The Pearl District is an already walkable neighborhood, well connected to many public transit options, and many residents have ditched their cars and the nearly $200 per month parking permit that comes with living in a densely populated neighborhood. The city has come up with a way to make the offer even more compelling, with their “Transportation Wallet” program. Residents can swap their parking permits in exchange for credits to bike share or scooter share or ride local trains, buses, and streetcars.

Adapting and innovating is in the Pearl’s DNA. The plan that started in the ‘90s envisioned a complete, compact, and connected community, and there’s every sign that it continues working toward that goal today.

Blueprint contributor Devin Hutchings

Devin is a writer, communicator, and policy nerd. Most recently she was co-director of Bridgeliner, a local publication in Portland, Oregon.


(Photo credit: Caroline Smith)


Leaving so soon?
Get great content straight to your inbox