Hawthorne looks down the road

Long a success story, retail district contemplates the future

Think about Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard - what comes to mind?

Funky shops like Red Light Clothing Exchange and Presents of Mind? The crepes at Chez Machin? Or, maybe you're more into the strip's nightlife offerings, ˆ la Bar of the Gods or the Space Room.

So, which of these really represents Hawthorne? That's the question that merchants along Hawthorne are trying to answer.

'Over the next few years, it's time for us to refocus,' says Paul Niedergang, president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association, as well as of Progressive Development Group Inc. 'We're looking at how to rebrand Hawthorne. The idea is to create a sense of coherency in terms of the brand name Hawthorne, which is tough because it's such an eclectic community.'

Addressing the 'What is Hawthorne?' question isn't a lighthearted foray into the touchy-feely side of the boulevard. The answers will play a huge role in securing its future as a destination and shopping area. The front-runner for street revitalization, Hawthorne is now trying to hold onto its crown. And it's not just an identity crisis that it's struggling with: Combine the tough economy, an increase in crime and panhandling, and competition from up-and-coming streets like Northeast Alberta and nearby Southeast Division streets, and it's easy to see what Hawthorne's contending with.

'For the last 10 years, Hawthorne has kind of rested on its laurels,' Niedergang says. 'All of a sudden we woke up and were in this very competitive environment. These upstarts are kicking us around - we're no longer the new kid.'

Hawthorne today

While upscale businesses such as Dosha Hawthorne spa, Imelda's Shoes and 8 Women are joining the boulevard, several longtime businesses have either closed or are in the process of closing their doors. Some business owners are retiring. Others are moving elsewhere, citing rent increases, lack of business and an increase in crime and panhandling.

Wild Life, a gift and home furnishings store at 39th and Hawthorne, is one of the stores planning to close this summer.

'We're closing due to a lack of sales,' says Steve Pickering, who co-owns the store with Larry Whitacer. 'We got a good response from the community, and the sales were increasing, but not enough.'

They didn't make the decision to close the store lightly. 'This was something we both wanted to do for many years,' Pickering says. 'We really wanted this to work. And we still want to see Hawthorne be a great strip.'

But Pickering and Whitacer say that in the last year, they've noticed a decrease in shoppers coming from outside the neighborhood. While they acknowledge that part of the problem may be due to the economy and the store's location - they're just above the more commonly visited section between 30th and 39th - they also wonder if the influx of panhandlers makes the problem worse.

'When the city did that major drug-free zone for the Pearl District, it shuffled everyone up here,' Whitacer says. 'And at 39th, they hang around at Fred Meyer's on one side of the street and at the Masonic Temple on the other side. It creates barriers for customers on each side of the street.'

Cinnamon Chaser, who opened the gift and card store Presents of Mind, 3633 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 15 years ago, agrees that the increase in crime and panhandling can be a deterrent for shoppers. Chaser says she's had numerous problems with the homeless harassing her customers and employees, or setting up their own 'shops' outside her front door.

'It's a double-edged sword,' Chaser says. 'We promote and promote and promote Haw-thorne, and then customers come here and see that and I'm embarrassed.'

Additionally, merchants worry that the competition from other up-and-coming streets is drawing not only customers, but businesses, elsewhere.

'The young (business) people who are working hard and buying what they can get their hands on, I feel they're all moving over to Alberta now,' says Kate Power, owner of Artichoke Music, 3130 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. She thinks the combination of high rents and continued gentrification means that many startup businesses don't have the money or desire to locate on Hawthorne.

'It's gentrifying,' Power says. 'And I think it's drawing a more wealthier clientele as well. Hawthorne hippies are not going to be going to Imelda's to buy shoes.'

Yesterday's Hawthorne

Of course, this isn't the first time that Hawthorne Boulevard has struggled against tough odds and overcome them. The street's origins lie in the streetcar line that ran along Hawthorne from downtown.

'For the majority of the early 1900s, Hawthorne was a convenience shopping district for the streetcar suburbs,' says Rob DeGraff, a consultant for businesses, organizations and associations who worked on the original project to restore Hawthorne in the mid-'80s.

Thus, many of the street's early stores offered necessities - groceries, shoes, furniture - along with a few used books and antiques. But that all started to change in the mid-'60s when Lloyd Center came to town.

'The thing that knocked the stuffing out of Hawthorne was when Lloyd Center opened,' DeGraff says. 'The advent of the shopping mall took many of those goods out of the neighborhood and put them in the mall.'

But Hawthorne continued to survive, and in the mid-'80s, started to grow into what it is today.

'At that point, Northwest 23rd was still run-down, the Pearldidn't even exist, and Alberta was still moving downhill,' the business association's Niedergang says. 'Hawthorne was ahead of its time, a leader in this renaissance.'

Part of what truly gave the boulevard the push toward leadership was a unique program with the city that began during that time. In September 1985, the Hawthorne business association hired DeGraff as project manager for the Hawthorne Urban Centers Program. Called the Main Street Approach, the locally and federally funded program worked to give commercial districts new life.

From 1985 to 1988, DeGraff worked with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association to implement the Main Street Approach on Hawthorne by renovating old buildings with new paint and signs, promoting the boulevard as a destination and recruiting new businesses to the strip.

The program created a buzz that eventually enticed larger local businesses such as Powell's Books and McMenamins Hotels and Pubs to Hawthorne. It also helped the fledgling Hawthorne Street Fair develop into the two-day event that it eventually became.

'By the end of that 3-year program, the boulevard had added a number of businesses and quite a few new jobs,' DeGraff says.

Hawthorne tomorrow

To ensure that Hawthorne survives this new round of struggles, the business association, along with merchants, property owners and residents, are working to rebuild Hawthorne's image and move the boulevard into the future - all the while keeping its past alive.

'There are a lot of really exciting things going on right now,' Niedergang says. 'We're essentially trying to raise the consciousness of Hawthorne as a distinct and unique community.'

Last year, improvements included more trash cans, a new Business Block Watch to address criminal activity and increase safety within the community. There also is a major transportation plan in the works, including curb extensions, additional traffic lights and other pedestrian safety features.

The association is reconsidering holding its annual Hawthorne Street Fair. While it continues to be a successful event, it also requires a great deal of money and effort to put together. And with so many merchant groups on other streets offering similar events, the competition for attendees is getting tougher.

'Hawthorne pioneered the street fair in a way, and a lot of other streets have copied it,' Niedergang says. 'So we're thinking about doing a different kind of event in the future.'

This year, even bigger changes are on the horizon, including a new Web site, www.thinkhawthorne.com, a series of TV spots and new street banners. The street's new tag line, Think Haw-thorne, will be a prominent part of all the new promotional tools.

'The message we're putting out is simply to get people to think about Hawthorne,' Niedergang says. 'Hawthorne is what we all make it. It's a living, breathing community. People talk about saving the environment. This is our environment.'