PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Every year, the cute shopping neighborhoods such as Hawthorne, Hollywood, Multnomah Village and Northwest, compete for Portlanders’ scented candle and novelty sock dollars, and will do anything to stand out.

Neighborhood businesses also compete with malls and online shopping, and in 2022 they are pulling out the stops to lure shoppers back in-person. In St. John’s in North Portland, this means starting before Thanksgiving with the holiday tree lighting, and looping in social media with the Ugly Sweater Bar Crawl (now extended to under 21-friendly stores).

The organizers, and the brick-and-mortar retailers they represent, are hoping for an in-person reaction against the humdrum, stay-at-home habits of the COVID-19 pandemic. If it takes hot cider, hashtags and gift cards, so be it.

The holiday shopping season in St John’s begins November 18 with the tree lighting. Three years ago, the lighting was brought forward to the Friday before Thanksgiving to kick off the shopping season early enough to create a festive atmosphere.

Your neck here: St. John's will be littered with ugly sweater cutouts for selfies to promote shopping in the NoPo nabe in November.
PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – Your neck here: St. John’s will be littered with ugly sweater cutouts for selfies to promote shopping in the NoPo nabe in November.

“We are actually the first tree lighting every year in Portland, just to have a nice long holiday season,” Liz Smith, president of the St. John’s Boosters Business Association, told the Tribune. “We encourage people to make ornaments and decorate the tree and spend time in a district, which is really the mission of the St. John Boosters.”

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On November 19, the Boosters will have a shopping event in the plaza where home- and service-based businesses stores can set up tables and get face time with shoppers. They will pass out maps and have the ugly sweater cutouts on the sidewalk.

“Last year’s three-day Ugly Sweater Bar Crawl was such a success we thought we’d do the entire season, so then St John’s becomes like the ugly sweater holiday town, much like St. Helens is for Halloween,” said Tanya Hartnett, district manager for St. John’s business district.

On Nov. 18 and 19, the large wooden ugly sweaters will be out on sidewalks, and after that the stores will host them. Kids can decorate the tree with mini wooden sweaters and laminated drawings.

“We don’t have Santa, for example, we don’t have Christmas carols,” Smith said. “We really wanted to make people feel welcome and promote the district. It’ll be really, really cute, because we don’t decorate the community tree, we let the community do it.”

Artist Mike Bennet at the Wonderwood Springs coffee shop he took over in St John's in October, Benner also has an immersive adventure space Wonderwood: The Scourge of Castle Maplehold, next door, for the holidays.
PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – Artist Mike Bennet at the Wonderwood Springs coffee shop he took over in St John’s in October, Benner also has an immersive adventure space Wonderwood: The Scourge of Castle Maplehold, next door, for the holidays.

Gentle gentrification

St. John’s is changing. One of the last places to gentrify, house prices are strong and the coffee is improving. (According to Redfin, average home prices peaked at $500,000 in early 2022, but have since dropped to $456,000.) The Wonderwood Springs coffee shop replaced See See Motor Coffee this summer, the Rockabilly Café (an organic diner for Greasers) arrived in the spring, and La Paloma has a makers market that is 75% BIPOC. Two other eateries opened recently, Louie’s Pizza & Pasta and Zeus Kucina.

For boosters like Hartnett and Smith, the pandemic is behind them.

“We did lose some retail stores, such as The Man Shop (a 100-year-old outfitters) and Etcetera Gifts & Goods, which is now Rom outdoor clothing. We lost some, but we gained some,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett characterizes St John’s retail scene as a mix.

“St. John’s is very nostalgic,” she said. “We have Hound and Hair Vintage, we have Blue Moon Cameras. We have three vinyl record locations in one place, which is pretty amazing. And we’ve got retail stores that have very modern, sustainable clothing, like Rom Shoes and the Salty Teacup.”

Smith said St. John’s housing is still considered affordable.

“We’re also still considered by the city an underserved district, as far as resources, but you can see the prices going up,” Smith said. “My friends, when we moved here, said ‘Oh my gosh, don’t move to St. John’s, it’s a dangerous place!’ They’re now thinking they want to move here, because it really is one of the neighborhoods that still feels like Portland. It feels you can get all your modern amenities, but there’s a lot of old timers here. People come here and they don’t leave, and then they build families and generations here.”

No collar workforce

One thing boosting the local economy is remote workers and people who work from home.

“People now move to St. John’s because they can work remotely, so we have a lot of people working in all different kinds of companies who live here now, versus needing accessibility to downtown,” Smith said.

Hartnett adds that many of the businesses are locally-owned.

“Another unique thing is the people who own these businesses generally live in St. John’s, so they’re not only store owners, they’re your neighbors, and that makes it they feel very vested in the whole neighborhood,” Hartnett said.

JOIN THE CRAWL

WHAT: Warm for the Winter Ugly Sweater Bar Crawl,

WHEN: Dec. 9-11.

WHERE: St John’s Business District, Portland

DETAILS: People can wear an ugly sweater or pose in front of a plywood cut-out of one. Then post a picture on Instagram with hashtags #lightupstjohns and #uglysweaterstjohns. Tag the bar or business for a chance to win one $50 gift certificate per day.