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Hawthorne’s empty storefronts are emblematic of challenges facing Portland shopping districts

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The Hawthorne business district, seen here on Mon., Jan. 25, 2021, is suffering from a myriad of challenges.
The Hawthorne business district, seen here on Mon., Jan. 25, 2021, is suffering from a myriad of challenges. It's a microcosm of the economic upheaval and cultural turmoil that is roiling all of Portland. Photo Gallery

When Ray Ameripour opened Classic Collection Hats on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard over a decade ago, his neighbors stopped by with well wishes and baked goods. It made him feel an immediate connection to the neighborhood, one that would only grow over time.

He loved how vibrant Hawthorne felt as Portlanders and tourists alike flocked to the area, drawn to the eclectic shops and local restaurants that have long made the district one of the city’s premier shopping destinations.

But Ameripour doesn’t know if his shop will survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales have plummeted 70% since March and he has fallen over $30,000 behind on rent. His landlord put the storefront up for lease last fall, with Ameripour’s approval. If a renter comes along, the hat shop will have to leave.

“My Hawthorne store, that’s my baby,” said Ameripour, who has a second store downtown. “I’d love to keep the shop, but everything is a struggle right now. This is the first time in my life, I really don’t know what to do, except try to have hope.”

Classic Collection Hats would join several prominent businesses that have closed their Hawthorne shops since March.

The neighborhood’s main shopping stretch west of Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard is undergoing a major transition that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Many businesses have already left and others could be on their way out. While new shops have replaced some, several notable spots sit empty.

Exacerbating the problem, a crime wave that has engulfed the entire city has been particularly acute on Hawthorne. Unchecked vandalism and burglaries have made the boulevard less welcoming for businesses and shoppers alike.

In many respects, Hawthorne is a microcosm of the economic upheaval and cultural turmoil roiling neighborhoods across Portland.

“Hawthorne is so visible,” said Craig Sweitzer, founder of commercial real estate firm Urban Works Real Estate. “It’s such a primary thoroughfare, so we notice these changes more than the subtle things that we maybe see in our neighborhood districts.”

A neighborhood in flux

A large for sale sign has hung on The Hawthorne Theatre at the corner of Southeast Hawthorne and Cesar E. Chavez since last October. Hawthorne Theatre CEO Gordon Cross told Willamette Week that he didn’t expect the sale to impact the venue, at least not initially. The theater’s lease runs through July.

Nearby, plywood covers the exterior of Fred Meyer, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo had its ATM smashed, windows broken and graffiti tagged on its building during a Thanksgiving protest. On Friday, some of the plywood was covered with graffiti, as were the walls of other buildings up and down the street.

Powell’s Home & Garden store closed permanently last fall, although its signs remain on its former storefront. The main Powell’s Books on Hawthorne reopened in November, nearly six months after the pandemic prompted a long shutdown.

Clogs-N-More and Ben & Jerry’s left last year, replaced by basketball store Ball Was Life and Dairy Hill Ice Cream, respectively.

Even the iconic red building home to Hawthorne staple, Red Light Clothing Exchange, is up for sale, raising questions about whether that store could be closing, too. The store’s owner, who also owns the building, did not respond to a request for comment from The Oregonian/OregonLive.

“Fortunately, we do see other businesses moving in,” said Bill Levesque, president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association. “Hopefully, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine coming. We’re all trying to see where all of this lands on the other side, who still is able to make it through and how much of the change we’re seeing is permanent and how much will go back to normal.”

While new stores have continued to open on Hawthorne during the pandemic, others have sat empty for months. Thirsty Monk Brewery on Southeast 32nd Avenue closed last July, but its sign still hangs on the storefront. The Goodwill off Southeast 36th Avenue closed last year as well and its large space has yet to be taken over by a new tenant. A homeless camp has formed on the sidewalk in front of the store’s parking lot.

The Starbucks on the corner of Southeast 37th Avenue quietly closed on Jan. 1. The closure comes as Starbucks shifts away from urban markets and focuses on opening more pick-up focused locations with drive-thrus, a shift that has only been accelerated by the pandemic. The storefront was still vacant on Jan. 22.

“We have seen different situations for different businesses, depending on the type of business they are and how well they’ve been able to adapt,” Levesque said. “Then you’ve got places, like Starbucks, where there’s corporate decisions being made as opposed to individual proprietors who are trying to make things work for their small businesses.”

A surge in crime

Many Hawthorne business owners who remain are just trying to hang on, hoping that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel once the pandemic finally starts to recede.

Cassie Ridgway, the owner of Altar, a boutique at the intersection of Southeast 33rd Avenue, said she is trying to keep her debt at a manageable level in hopes that she can make it through the pandemic and be around when a sense of normalcy begins to return to the neighborhood. She said she has been heartened by the support she’s received from customers, but is still scared about the future of her store.

To make matters worse, she and other business owners along Hawthorne have been forced to deal with pervasive crime that makes it that much harder to keep their businesses afloat.

From March through November, reports of vandalism were up 115% on Hawthorne, according to data from the Portland Police Bureau, compared to the same period in 2019. Burglaries were up 49%.

“Driving up Hawthorne right now, seeing graffiti-covered, boarded up buildings,” Ridgway said, “it’s definitely pretty chilling for those of us who are in here every day trying to make sure we create jobs for our staff and just trying to keep our lights on.”

Levesque said the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association has been working to aid businesses with graffiti removal ever since multiple buildings were vandalized during a Thanksgiving protest last year. While the city has been dedicating extra resources to graffiti removal for months, Levesque said that they weren’t able to respond quickly enough to the neighborhood after the Thanksgiving protest, prompting his association to step in.

Still, he said he didn’t expect the issues with graffiti and vandalism to go away so long as storefronts remain empty and some businesses continue to remain closed temporarily.

“You have businesses that have lower traffic, lower revenue,” Levesque said. “Then on top of that they’re dealing with damage from graffiti and break-ins and it’s one more financial hardship, one more thing that they are having to respond to. It’s taken a tough period and made it that much tougher in terms of time and money.”

Other Hawthorne businesses have dealt with significantly worse damage than graffiti.

Pam Coven, the owner of Imelda’s and Louie’s Shoes, said two men backed an SUV into her Hawthorne store in October, shattering the windows and causing structural damage to the building. They then pulled purses and shoes off the shelves and threw them into the car before fleeing. No arrests have been made in the case.

But Coven said those issues aren’t unique to Hawthorne.

Her Northeast Alberta Street store was burglarized three times between April and September of last year as well. The Portland Police Bureau has said they’ve seen crime surge across the board since the start of the pandemic, but haven’t had the resources necessary to adequately respond to the criminal activity.

The burglaries came at a time when sales at Coven’s Alberta store had already plummeted as foot traffic decreased substantially, especially near the edge of the neighborhood at Northeast 14th Avenue where her store is located.

While Coven said she believes that her flagship Hawthorne store will survive the pandemic, she said it is likely she will have to close her Alberta shop.

“I think shopping districts across the city are dealing with similar issues,” Coven said. “I know just on my block on Alberta, there are other businesses closing. It’s just indicative of what’s happening across the city.”

The future of Hawthorne

While empty storefronts and for lease signs continue to dot the core blocks of the Hawthorne district, Urban Works’ Sweitzer said he is not concerned about the neighborhood’s long-term future.

Even amid the pandemic, he said commercial spaces are still turning over fairly quickly in popular neighborhoods across Portland, especially spaces that are set up for restaurants and bars and that don’t require major renovations.

“I think these storefronts will get snapped up fairly quickly,” Sweitzer said. “The neighborhood small shop spaces, primarily those that can be used for food and beverage, are being repurposed.”

Coven has been on Hawthorne for nearly 30 years and has seen the neighborhood evolve considerably during that time. She, too, believes that Hawthorne is just in the process of another evolution and will ultimately return to the vibrant shopping hub it was before the pandemic.

But she knows that many of the stores that once populated the neighborhood may no longer be there.

“I do think it will come back, it will resurrect,” Coven said. “It just might look different.”

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