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Astoria's New Renaissance

Lisa Smith

Thirty years ago, many viewed Astoria, Oregon as a grim, drug-infested and alcohol-infused place, down on its luck following the exodus of the canneries and lumber mills that once populated its riverfront. Back then, most travelers to Oregon’s North Coast passed through town along Highway 30 without stopping.

But in recent years, increasing numbers do stop, including several dozen cruise ships each year. So what, exactly, has happened to transform this once-struggling community into a must-visit destination?

The Astoria Sunday Market, a non-profit, was founded a decade ago to support local farmers and artisans and help revitalize Astoria’s flagging downtown. It seems to be working. Earlier this year, Smithsonian Magazine named Astoria one of the 20 best small towns to visit in America, and New York Magazine gushed over Astoria’s “small-town style and charm.” The New York Times discovered Astoria a few years back and regularly writes about its irresistible appeal.

The Astoria Sunday Market runs from mid-May through mid-October and draws visitors from near and far. Maybe they can help answer why the town is suddenly so popular:

 “I love this town because it seems very romantic and quirky and beautiful people.”

“I’m from Germany, Stuttgart to be exact ... I like this town, it is right on the river and it is just a beautiful little town.”

“When I came to Astoria I found it to be a really thriving community of people that were really passionate about what they were doing and passionate about the town and building community here and it really hooked me in and made me want to live here.”

“I came here about 10 or 15 years ago ... taking the epic Astoria bridge and my breath was taken away. First of all, it’s cool you’re moving from one state to another, Washington to Oregon, and then you see this kind of surreal, enchanting place built on hills and the more you explore it the more you love it. It’s authentic. It hasn’t lost its authenticity.”

"Authenticity" seems to be a key to unlocking the essence of Astoria’s current cachet. Astoria still has a working waterfront, active with shipping, fishing and fish processing.

And you won’t find a single corporate-chain store downtown – except the original JC Penney’s. Instead, you’ll find only locally owned-and-operated businesses and specialty shops ... None more locally owned than Gimre’s Shoes.

Credit Lisa Smith
Liberty Theater.

Gimre’s, at the base of 14th Street and a stone’s throw from the Columbia River, boasts a classic neon sign outside and enthusiastic staff within. The family-run shoe store has been in operation for three generations.

Gimre: “I remember back in the '70s logging was robust, the fishing canneries were still going full-steam and you would smell the trucks with fish coming through town which was a very distinctive smell, but we all knew that was the smell of money, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

That’s Pete Gimre. He’s lived in Astoria his entire 52 years and vividly remembers the good - and bad - old days.

Gimre: “Once the local mills shut down, the canneries unfortunately started to shut down. Downtown wasn’t exactly the place you’d want to go in the evenings. There was a problem with drug-dealing downtown. A lot of rough characters, there was a lot of taverns. It wasn’t exactly a family-friendly place after, say, 5 o’clock."

"Today it’s just a total transformation from what it was back 30 years ago, where it’s family-friendly I’d say 24/7, you know, every minute of the day.”

Over the past few years, Astoria has benefitted from an infusion of what Daily Astorian editor and publisher Steve Forrester calls “new blood.”

Forrester: “New blood sees opportunities the old blood often doesn’t see. And the new blood also has been somewhere else and gotten ideas from somewhere else and new blood also includes people who grew up here, went away, did some things, and have come back. We have a class of young entrepreneurs around here now that weren’t here 20 years ago.”

Entrepreneurs have remade Astoria. They’ve impeccably restored the majestic Liberty Theater and several vintage hotels, reclaimed former canneries for cafes and boutiques, and converted a shuttered auto-body shop into a popular brewery, pub and bakery. Custom-built homes surround a once-polluted millpond. Hip restaurants have replaced dingy dives. A riverfront trolley, with an adjacent walking path, runs on tracks abandoned by Burlington Northern. The old Railroad Depot now houses the world-class Maritime Museum’s innovative new research center.

And cultural events abound.

Taylor: “We just completed the Astoria Music Festival where we have international – national and international – artists come in. We have the Scandinavian festival that draws people in from all over the place. We have the Astoria International Film Festival. We’ve got the Fisher Poets in the wintertime, which is great, which brings all those crazy fishermen people into town singing their songs and telling their stories…”

Dulcye Taylor is a Seattle refugee who left her job as an animator and illustrator at Microsoft to buy a business on Commercial Street and move to Astoria. That was six and a half years ago.

Now she’s President of the Astoria Downtown Association and one of the town’s biggest boosters.

Taylor: “This year it’s uberly-bigger: Artist Open Studio Tour. It happens the end of July. It’s going to be pop-up studios, pop-up galleries, there’s going to be a masquerade ball. Astoria is littered with artists and I think that’s a great benefit to the town because it gives it that flavor, that creative kind of a little crazy little edginess to it.”

Darren Orange is a prominent regional artist and leader in Astoria's creative community. He’s shown and sold his work in major markets like New York and Seattle and could live pretty much anywhere. But for most of the last dozen years, he has chosen to live Astoria.

Orange: “Astoria is very deeply involved in the arts, the community supports its artists. I think artists and creatives are very welcome.”

Orange: “I’m definitely an artist of place. Everything’s big here: big trees, big clouds, big raindrops. It’s inspiring and the community has come out and supported my work.”

Orange, like others in town, worries a bit that Astoria may lose its blue-collar grittiness and authenticity to gentrification. "We ain’t quaint" is a popular refrain.

Gimre: Gimre says, “We’re always going to have the people here who are going to be working the water, working the woods, maybe not the level that it was, you know, 30-40 years ago, but that core group will always be here.”

Again, Pete Gimre.

Gimre: “We’re going to have tourists, Astoria’s become reliant to a certain extent on tourists, and, you know as far as turning into a foo-foo town, I don’t see that happening because you can’t really escape, you know, what makes Astoria Astoria.”