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St. Johns Bizarre, Parade usher in season of street fairs around city

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHSAN HOUSE - Members of the St. Johns Bizarre planning committee meets to discuss the upcoming event in the downtown plaza where much of it takes place.The summer street fair season kicks off this Saturday, May 14, with the St. Johns Bizarre, a blend of old and new events that fits the evolving character of the North Portland committee.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., is in addition to the 54th annual St. Johns Parade, which traditionally includes everything from floats to bands, drill teams, horses and classic cars. The two-mile parade route begins at noon at Roosevelt High School and winds through downtown St. Johns. This year’s theme is “Joyful Living.”

The Bizarre, which begins before the parade and continues afterward, features a crafts fair with 115 vendors, live music, family-friendly activities, food and a beer garden. It is in the downtown plaza in the heart of St. Johns.

Unlike many other community festivals, which are sponsored by neighborhood business districts, no single group is in charge of the St. Johns Bizarre. The parade is sponsored by the St. Johns Parade Committee, which has been behind it for many years. But everything else is organized by volunteers and supported by a number of different groups, including the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, the St. Johns Main Street improvement organization, and local businesses.

“I think that reflects the independent character of St. Johns. It’s geographically isolated from the rest of Portland and used to doing things its own way,” says Shamus Lynsky, an event organizer and co-chair of the neighborhood association.

The unique collaboration started 11 years ago after a number of St. Johns residents and business owners finished watching the annual parade. They noticed that many people gathered along the parade route to watch the event, but left the area immediately after it ended instead of frequenting the local shops.

“It was like, if we just put a keg of beer in the middle of the street, people would have stayed around,” Lynsky says. “So that’s what we decided to do — close a street and put up a beer garden.”

That led to the idea of including a craft fair to give families a reason to stick around. It was fairly small at first, but has grown every year since as additional attractions were added, like the multiple stages that will feature live performances from groups including the family-oriented Cardboard Songsters to the headlining Portland indy rock legends Quasi.

One goal is to keep all of the attractions as local as possible. To do that, the craft sellers are selected by a juried process that ensures their goods are handmade, not shipped in from out of town. The Creative Station children’s activity area is run by St. Johns Swapnplay, a membership-based family resource center. The beer is furnished by Occidental Brewing Co., a brewery located in St. Johns. And for the first time, cider and wine will be sold at the beer garden by Barrique Barrel, a local bottle shop.

Staging the event requires months of planning. Among other things, coordinators had to obtain permits from the Portland Bureau of Transportation to close streets around the plaza for the crafts fair and children’s activity area.

For more information, visit http://stjohnsbizarre.com.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - The St. Johns Bizarre planning committee includes, from left, Harriet and Ian Youngstrom, Shannon Duff, Shamus Lynsky, Amy Frey and Josh Leslie. The St. Johns Bridge is in the background.Neighborhood in transition

St. Johns is the largest neighborhood in Portland. It encompasses more than 11 square miles and more than 12,000 residents, second only to the population in the Cully neighborhood. It’s located on the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Willamette River and the Columbia River.

St. Johns was a separate city from 1902 until 1915, when voters there and in Portland approved its annexation to Portland. Perhaps the best-known landmark is the scenic St. Johns Bridge, which crosses the Willamette River and connects U.S. Highway 30 to the plaza where much of the fair will be held. The Oregon Department of Transportation has agreed to close one lane over the bridge during the event.

The St. Johns Parade and Bizarre will take place this year as the neighborhood is changing, along with much of the rest of Portland. After many years of being an almost overlooked, scrappy, working-class part of the city, St. Johns was discovered by developers in the years before the Great Recession.

Although only a few housing projects were built before the economy tanked and practically all construction stopped in town, development is surging again as business picks up and more people move to Portland. Rents and home prices are increasing, pressuring lower-income residents. Today, St. Johns homeowners say it is not uncommon for realtors to knock on their doors and ask if they want to sell, even if they are not thinking about it.

One new development will be hard to miss. The Union at St. Johns is a mixed-use building being built along the parade route at North Lombard and Charleston streets, the gateway to St. Johns. When finished, it will include 100 apartments, 20,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space, and an underground parking garage.

Lynsky says neighbors believe the growth holds promise and poses threats to the area. Additional residents will support more businesses in the small commercial district, which still has vacancies. But they also threaten older homes and natural areas, which are prime spots for new construction that could change St. Johns’ character and drive out lower-income residents.

“The neighborhood association’s land-use committee is very focused on anti-displacement efforts right now,” Lynsky says. “We want to make sure affordable housing and natural areas are preserved. St. Johns definately has that small-town feel that a lot of people want, and we’re trying to keep it.”

Street fairs last until September

Numerous annual and recurring events take place in Portland neighborhoods all year long, from business district promotions to farmers markets. But the biggest are the 13 annual street fairs. The season begins with the St. Johns Bizarre on May 14 and concludes with the Belmont Street Fair on Sept. 10.

The next street fair is the Kenton Street Fair, set from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in the North Portland neighborhood with the landmark Paul Bunyan statue.

A comprehensive calendar is posted by Venture Portland, the coalition of neighborhood business districts, at http://tinyurl.com/zn8ndsc.

A good guide to street fairs is posted by Travel Portland, the city's tourism promotion organization, at http://tinyurl.com/jx7kn3l.