Welcome to the latest edition of A Walk On the Weird Side – An Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Fabric of Portland. – By Anna Alexander
The Kenton Neighborhood has always had a working class feel to it. From its rustic beginnings as a farming community where cattle were herded down main street (Denver Ave), to manufacturing plants and other heavy industries, to today where you can still find traces of Portland’s history next to new developments and condos. The cattle and pigs on the barrier by the Max station are a nod to Kenton’s agricultural history.
Kenton is a very walkable neighborhood, but we will need to drive to our first location, the Vanport Historical Marker near Delta Park. This marker memorializes a thriving community that was wiped out by a catastrophic flood in 1948. The area had been home to up to 42,000 factory workers but the population had dwindled to around 18,000 people (a third of which were black) after the factories closed. Heavy snow and warm weather created flooding and caused the dikes surrounding the community to collapse wiping out the homes in two hours and leaving much of the community homeless. Read more about the accident here.
Take a picture of the marker and get back into the car as we are headed to the main focal point of the neighborhood.
We will start by visiting Kenton’s most prominent citizen, Paul Bunyan. The statue was built in 1959 to commemorate Oregon’s statehood and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Paul often gets decorated for the seasons, and as of this writing is wearing mask to remind everyone to be like Paul and stay safe. Walk across the street from Paul, you’ll see four blue metal sculptures representing the hooves of Paul’s companion, Babe the Blue Ox.
Just around the corner from Paul and Babe is another iconic Kenton structure, the tree house in the nursery of Bamboo Craftsman. This three-story treehouse is just the structure everyone needs for their backyards when it’s too hot to sleep or you just want to escape from the fam. The offerings at Bamboo Craftsman are drool-worthy as well if you can’t afford a treehouse.
Walk back out to the “main drag” and turn to the left and gaze upon yet another Kenton landmark, Georges Dancin’ Bare. The strip club was closed at the time I visited, but Google confirmed it has since reopened. There was also an art installation tucked between two walls outside the club.
If you are in the mood for more art, walk over to Disjecta Contemporary Art Center. This space for artists of all stripes is a true Portland gem that honors the community and engages your mind and senses. In 2016 it hosted a biennial show in 13 cities around the state.
Gazing on art makes anyone hungry, so let’s get some food. There are many places to eat and drink in Kenton but Po’ Shines Café Del Soul is a local landmark. Besides offering tasty soul food and good conversation, Po’ Shines provides career training and mentorships for underserved youths. Come hungry because the oyster po’ boys and baskets will fill you up.
Additionally, if you’re craving breakfast burritos bigger than your head, or need to pick up some wine, pantry staples or bagels, head to The Derby Market. In pre-COVID times, Derby hosted drag queen bingo and a podcast. Owner Judy Stokes transformed the restaurant into a hip market with everything you need for those nights when you don’t want to cook or when you need a picnic platter for a leisurely afternoon in Kenton Park.
If you need some exercise, make an appointment and walk across the street to Sweet Science Boxing. This boxing gym has reopened for limited classes and members and is the perfect place to get in shape and take out your aggression. I have not been in the gym, but I have visited the coffee shop across the street in the early morning hours and there is always someone there.
Before we end the tour, I would like to point out a couple of popular historic attractions in this neighborhood. The first is the Victorian Belle Mansion. This 135-year-old building is a popular place for weddings, receptions, and is popular during the holidays as every inch of the outside is covered in one million lights. The next business of note is Kenton Station. Located in the historic Kenton Hotel building, this unassuming neighborhood pub offered popular basement ghost tours in pre-COVID times. The basement has plenty of history and hosted underground boxing events and a speakeasy. The last historic business you need to check out is The World-Famous Kenton Club. This dive bar caters to anyone who wants cheap beer and is nostalgic for wood paneling and biker bars. The bar was featured in the movie Kansas City Bomber (hence the “world famous” moniker) and is popular with grey-haired folks and hipsters alike.
Kenton is a wonderful and weird neighborhood to explore. Each time I visit, I find something new and interesting and I encourage you to do the same.
For the next Walk on the Weird Side, I’m headed to Portland’s West Side.