TAYLOR ELECTRIC FREE SPACE
Seven years ago, a massive fire engulfed the wooden frame Taylor Electric Supply Warehouse on SE 2nd & Clay in the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland. The building housed electrical equipment, flammable materials and chemicals. It was one of Portland‘s largest industrial fires ever. It burnt into the night, causing power outages and oil spills in the Willamette River. The next day, the smoldering building collapsed. All that remained was a charred skeleton and an ash-covered floor.
Today, the building‘s shell stands mostly unchanged, but with one important difference. It serves as a public art gallery, a mecca for Portland’s street art and photography community. Here, emerging and veteran artists showcase their art to the public; free, direct, and uncensored. On most days, visitors discover a range of graffiti here including, tags, stencils, installations, and huge masterpieces. As with many official and unofficial ‘free walls,’ the graffiti in Taylor Electric is generally found to be more aesthetic pleasing. The artists have time to create more detailed work.
During the day, the building comes alive in other ways. On the edge of Produce Row, a flurry of manufacturing and shipping activity surrounds it. Professional photographers, film crews, wedding parties, and urban explorers descend upon the building to photograph its walls. It is even used to market locally-made mustard.
Even though graffiti is often stereotyped negatively as promoting blight and urban decay, a thriving street art scene is also a sign of a vibrant, innovative, and creative city. Under-use and decay of built environments is not caused by the presence of graffiti; it is instead a by-product of an area that’s already in disrepair. Artists are drawn to these spaces because of their gritty aesthetics and the anonymity they provide.
Cities like Berlin, London, Melbourne, Basel, and Miami have realized that fostering creative activities in public (both planned and unplanned) can be beneficial to the city, financially and culturally. In many cities around the world, graffiti removal is mostly targeted to the central downtown core. The extent of graffiti abatement outside the city is left to individual neighborhoods to decide and manage. Some neighborhoods are mostly free of graffiti, and other areas the walls burst with color. This is not the case in the City Portland, where a blanket zero-tolerance policy covers the entire city. It is illegal to paint graffiti (or a mural) on an outside wall, even if you have permission from a property owner. If graffiti is not covered up in 10 days, property owners run the risk of being issued substantial fines from the city. Additionally, Portland does not host any official free walls, like other northwest cities, like Tacoma and Olympia do. What often results in Portland is an abundance of quick tags (which most people dislike) all over the city, instead of more elaborate pieces painted on designated walls or districts.
Portland’s zero-tolerance policy has been playing out on the walls of Taylor Electric for years now. The entire building has been ‘buffed’ (painted-out) every few months to remove the graffiti even though it was an un-salvageable building with no residential neighbors. The premise behind this continued effort was that it would “reduce social deterioration within the City and promote public safety and health.” The assumption is that consistently covered up graffiti will deter more from occurring. Research done by Portland State University graduate students in 2004 and 2012 (Gorsek & Conklin, respectively), suggests that, in fact, buffing does not to deter graffiti from reoccurring. If anything, the solid paint provides a fresh canvas to work on and incentive to get bigger and better.
The potential for re-development of the Taylor Electric site, and the surrounding area, cannot be denied. It sits just minutes from downtown Portland, offers panoramic city views of the city, and easy access to the Willamette River, East Bank Esplanade, and Hawthorne Bridge. Down the road, you find Distillery Row, the heart of Portland’s craft distilling movement, several of Portland’s famous food cart pods, the Museum of Science and Industry, and most recently, the new Eastside Streetcar line.
A different type of gentrification is occurring in the Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID). It is zoned industrial, not residential. Some of the businesses in this district have operated here for decades. There is even a non-profit, volunteerorganization, responsible for representing businesses and property owners in the Central Eastside Industrial District. This group fights to protect the rights of property owners and businesses in the district and keep CEID as an ‘industrial sanctuary,’ and major employment zone for the city.
Just recently it was announced that the Taylor Electric Building had been sold. It is now slated to be re-developed into office space. New building plans can be found here. This re-development was inevitable. Portland’s and urban growth boundary makes it a very dense city. Most vacant land in and around the urban core is developed. This land-use planning protects our cherished natural surroundings, fosters walkable, bikeable, cohesive, and vibrant neighborhoods.
However, this density also makes finding hidden under-used spaces that allow for alternative uses very hard to find. Undeveloped landscapes serve as a reminder that there is value in not having all urban space in continuous official use. These spaces in-between are voids that allow for unscripted activities. In Portland, out of under-used parking lots, culinary meeting grounds arise. In a trash covered ditch under a bridge, one of the most famous skateboarding spots in the world, Burnside Skatepark, was built by hand and without permission.
Although many people might at first think these spaces as uninviting, boring and even dangerous, other people see great potential in these derelict wastelands. These spaces offer respite from the city‘s watchful eyes. They are places in a state of uncertainty, caught between uses, and open to endless possibilities.
ALL PHOTOS © PSAA