Two weeks ago, NE Portland’s Alberta Street kicked off summer with “Last Thursday“, the monthly extravaganza of art, food and culture. The world-famous March 4th Marching Band kicked things off with a bathrobe-clad parade, and the mile-long stretch of Alberta stayed packed until the last fire-spinning clown extinguished her flaming hoola-hoop. Art lined the sidewalks, retrofitted school busses served-up Thai food, and people-thousands of them-came to partake of the weirdness.
The best part, though? Finally, after years of wrangling, Last Thursday was completely car free. It’s hard to imagine how it took so long. Enjoying the fifteen carless blocks were thousands of people: many more than drive down that stretch of street in the same amount of time. Standing among them, I couldn’t imagine how the throngs had ever been restricted to the sidewalks.
Yet they were restricted, and for many years, despite Portland’s reputation as a city friendly to alternative transportation. Miles of bike lanes, light rail and even a public tram make it easy to get around the city without an automobile. Our mayor recently went car-free for a month-though admittedly it took totaling his truck to convince him to take the plunge. Given this fertile soil, it’s surprising that even modest proposals-like closing a neighborhood to cars so a few thousand people can enjoy the street-meet such deep-rooted opposition.
But when that inertia is overcome, the benefits extended beyond elbow room. While the extra space certainly made it easier to move around, it also created a stage for some unexpected performances. Dance parties broke out around jug bands. A troupe of mimes in clay-orange hooded bodysuits prowled the street on stilts, speaking in tongues and capturing gawkers in an oversized butterfly net. And whether you came for the art or the people watching, there was something for everyone.
Got a good arts night in your neighborhood? Toss a note in the comments so others can find it. Perhaps as more of these nights take off-and more go car free-it can help launch more conversations about how shutting down streets to cars can help create community, culture, and maybe even a little more space for crazy mimes.