Our Town - article from Conde Nast Traveler Magazine, Written by Tom Huth, March 2002 Issue
|Astoria, Oregon, with its hill-sides of stately Victorian homes overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River, is a miniature San Francisco just waiting for a Tony Bennett to call out its name. At a time when mega corporate makeovers have drained the American landscape of local color, Astoria's core remains uninfected by the monotony of progress. Gimmre's Shoes has been in the same family for 109 years; Home Baking for 91 years; Knutsen Insurance for 82. Astorian's know who runs Steven's Fine Clothing and Chris' News.
A poster in Tony's Bar from the 1920's proclaims Astoria "the future New York of the Pacific" and shows skyscrapers towering over the river. In reality, the local industries -- fishing, canning, and logging -- have been in decline ever since. But Astoria knows how to bounce back from disaster: After the downtown burned to the ground in 1922, it was rebuilt in just two years.
Now, some inspired new-comers have settled into Astoria: city people in search of a quieter place that feels more authentic, a place where people still know their neighbors. They've opened bright new restaurants and comfortable Victoria B&B's; they're restoring the classic 1920's Liberty Theatre for live performances; an antique railroad car ding-a-ling along a waterfront promenade whose abandoned canneries are being reborn, slowly, as galleries and bars. It's a "scrappin' town" is how a marine conservationists summed it up at a festival held to support the local salmon fleet. "We find ways to pull together."
I wondered if small towns like Astoria had anything to teach us about ourselves as Americans at a time when we could use some reaffirmation. Was our heartland still a bastion of endurance, faith, and community?
Last autumn, in those first weeks after our nation was attached, when Anthrax was still in the air, I went out to spend some time in five regionally quintessential small towns; this port in the Pacific Northwest, a college town in deep South, a Midwestern river town, an old frontier outpost in Texas, and an exquisite New England village. What was I looking for? Some hope? Some reassurance in the once familiar? Maybe just a dose of simple comfort.
Astoria is an American original. Here, in 1805, the proto-tourists Lewis and Clark ended their westward journey of discovery and spent the rainiest winter of their lives. ("O!" Clark wrote. "How disagreeable is our situation during this dreadful weather.") Here in 1811, parties sent out by John Astor founded the first U.S. settlement west of the Mississippi, and over time the peninsula was filled in by Scandinavians and other hearty immigrants who could handle the clammy winters.
On a Monday night in Astoria, it was easy to feel the town's heartbeat. In Uniontown neighborhood under the bridge to Washington, the Finnish Brotherhood was meeting over coffee in the gaunt Suomi Hall, just as it has since 1886. Up the street, the intimate River Theater was having its monthly poetry reading, and half of the twenty who came were sharing their efforts.
I stopped at the twelve-lane bowling alley and saw that, unlike in the modern paradigm, Astorian's weren't bowling alone but in leagues. I dined on the river at a new restaurant, Baked Alaska, which was started by newlyweds who discovered Astoria while selling homemade soup out of their van.
The night's real find, though, was the Labor temple, the oldest communal union hall in the Northwest. Here a few dozen working men and women were shooting pool, playing video poker, and having a good time drinking two-dollar beers and singing karaoke ("…lift us up where we belong, where the Eagles fly"). It didn't feel like a recession at all, or a people at war. The public was welcomed and I felt right at home, having come from a working-class town myself. But so involved were these people in the moments of each other's lives that for the hour I was among them, I remained happy invisible.
||Astoria is fertile ground for the cross-cultural traveler - relaxed enough that its fanciest restaurant share a corner with the Pontiac dealership; engaged enough to have a community radio station, a food co-op, and a legitimate arts scene. An abstract painter who'd just arrived was washing dishes in order to rent a room (a loft, you could say) in the deserted building Oddfellows Building. "Astoria," he told me, "has a cool poetic funk to it."
When something needs to get done here, it's volunteers who do it. They run the salmon festival that helps out the fishermen, who get only thirty cents a pound because of cheap globalized imports. They are the one's who restored the waterfront trolley and who now ham it up as conductors. The town's Christmas lights were found at a garage sale by UPS driver Tom O'Bryant and were strung up over Commercial Street by volunteers. When booster started talking up a community aquatic center, it was approved by seventy-five percent of the voters. A riverfront cleanup was announced, and six hundred people showed up in the rain. Resilience? A vendor as the salmon festival had been laid off by a sawmill after eighteen years and now makes a living creating sculptures from the mill's discarded saw blades.
As a visitor who loved to hike in Oregon's ancient forests. I enjoyed the scale and the grit, the refreshing texture of Astoria. I liked how its people bragged about having the second worst weather in the nation - the worst being some place up in Washington. I liked watching barges full of sawdust and new Toyotas glide along the Columbia River between the downtown buildings as if Astoria itself were floating away.
I admired the nostalgic mural on the wall of the Sears store, but when I heard that it had been done by a Hollywood set painter, I had to wonder: Was Astoria about to take off? I nagged myself, should I buy that five-bedroom Victorian for 100,000? But then I wondered: If Astoria became a hot ticket for vacations and summer homes (in conjunction, let's say with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial on 2005), what would happen to the town's peculiar weave - to the Finnish Brotherhood, the Vasa Lodge, the Sons of Norway, and the Danish Society; to the Moose, the Elks, The Eagles, and the bowling leagues; to the Labor Temple itself?
For now, these foundations of a more certain past appear secure. A healthy crowd turned out for the American Legion's Autumn pig roast, and a member named Dave confided in me, "There isn't a man here who couldn't shoot Osama bin Laden from eighty yards with one bullet."