Strong Towns member Joe Cortright runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. This post is republished from City Observatory with permission.
There’s a tension in the city between the permanent (or seemingly permanent) and the fleeting, between the immutability of the built environment and the minute-by-minute change in human behavior. Great cities not only change, they excel at incorporating and encouraging change.
There are deep lamentations and wailing about the death, three weeks ago, of one Portland’s largest and longest-running food cart pods. For more than a decade, a cacophony of cuisine sprung up on the edges of a surface parking lot in downtown Portland, between 9th and 10th and 11th Avenues and Alder and Washington Streets. You had your choice of everything from tacos to tempeh, pad thai to potato knishes. The site was a lively gathering place, especially at lunchtime and in the evenings.
But it’s all gone now. The carts have been cleared away.
The block is being leveled for a new 35-story development that will include offices, residences and a Ritz-Carlton Hotel (the first in the Pacific Northwest). On one level it’s the story of the most diabolical capitalism imaginable: hardy, family-run immigrant entrepreneurs tossed out on their ears to make way for a chic hotel that caters to the one-percent. (For good measure, the block is part of an Opportunity Zone, and so investors are likely to get a cushy capital gains tax break on the $600 million project.)
The foodies at Eater plaintively asked “Can Portland’s Food Carts Survive the City’s Development Boom?” Their article somewhat misleadingly appeared to blame city government for the decision to close the carts, saying “When the city shut down a downtown cart pod to make way for a hotel, dozens of small-business owners — many of whom are immigrants — felt left in the lurch.” While the parking lot that hosted the carts was called “City Center Parking,” it was a private company, operating on private land, and the plans for developing the site have been widely publicized for a year now. Still, the carts that occupied the site are scrambling to find new locations.
In true Portland fashion, however, steps are already underway to buffer the impact of the change. Ultimately, the new development will include one street facing with “food hall” space for small-scale food proprietors. (We doubt seriously that it will approach the gritty edge-of-the-parking lot charm of what it replaced, but it does at least provide space for some businesses to continue.) That’s at least two to three years off, and won’t have enough space for everyone to return, so the city is setting aside space in one of its North Park blocks, just a couple of blocks away, for the food carts to settle.
But the bigger picture is that foods carts are, and ought to be, a decidedly mercurial and always evolving aspect of urban space. They’re great for quickly activating underused spaces at low cost; the number and composition of carts in a pod are usually steadily changing as different carts go out of business, move to different locations, or, in a handful of cases, make the jump to brick-and-mortar. And pods themselves are cheap market research: a pod in the burgeoning East Side Industrial District (on Stark Street and Martin Luther King) flourished for a while, but has reverted to parking (and staging for nearby construction). Southeast Portland’s popular Tidbit food cart pod, hailed as one of the best in the city, lasted just three years, and has given away to an apartment building — but other pods have started or grown nearby.
And fear not, gentle (or hungry) reader: Portland continues to have a robust street-food scene. At last count there are more than 500 carts — so many, and changing so frequently, that there’s a full time web-site dedicated to tracking their comings and goings. There are food cart pods in neighborhoods throughout the city, each with its own distinct atmosphere and assortment of cuisines. Plus, they represent the adaptive reuse of urban space. One food cart pod on Killingsworth Street is a repurposed gas station, which has seamlessly woven the garage, pump island and surrounding lot into a series interconnected dining spaces and play areas. And food carts are a great entrepreneurial opportunity for immigrants: helpfully, Multnomah County, which licenses the carts, provides application materials and guidance in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Arabic.
The ephemeral quality of food carts also needs to be viewed in the context of the restaurant business, which itself is rife with turnover. The restaurant business is a fickle and fashion-oriented one, and the struggle to develop the next new thing is only slightly less pressing than in the tech world.
The real lesson about food carts and food cart pods may not be so much about protecting the existing locations, but instead making it sure that it is always possible to upcycle, even temporarily, underused bits of the urban landscape. At their best, cities are living and dynamic, and open to new ideas, new businesses and new arrangements. The openness to new things necessarily means that at least some of the old things will change. The opportunities to innovate, improve and occasionally fail will move the city forward. So, to answer Eater’s question — “Can Portland’s food carts survive the city’s development boom?” — food carts will survive. They’ll find new niches and adapt as the city changes, which is a lesson for all of us.
(Cover photo of 10th and Alder food cart from Wikimedia Commons)