An Arts District renaissance

The big idea
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 2, 2008

If nothing else, 2007 was the year the Arts District found its footing in Portland nightlife. And 2008 is shaping up to be the year it supplants the Old Port as the primary destination for locals, and perhaps tourists too.

The evidence is, frankly, heading towards overwhelming. Cheap and mid-range new restaurants like Bonobo (starting weekly backgammon tournaments this Monday), Green Elephant (one reason to eat brown rice away from home), and Pom’s Thai Taste (the noodle house we’ve been waiting for) are settling in nicely, and Local 188 is wrangling in fine diners and casual drinkers of yore at its new location.

The district’s art scene continues to fill in some gaps, with the Four Walls Gallery and Susan Maasch Fine Art offering interesting contemporary art that’s in too-short supply in Portland. Likewise, the artists in the State Theatre building are becoming more active, and Whitney Art Works has moved its entire operation to the new Congress Street location. In the Old Port, the Salt Institute’s gallery is being sold and the school is moving to, yep, 561 Congress St.

As far as retail goes, the Port is still the place to be, though it doesn’t have a new virtual driving range to brag about...

Regardless, the greatest sea change on Congress Street in ’07 has come from bars and live-music venues. The pervasive paranoia caused earlier last year by zoning restrictions, noise complaints, and police moles seems to have died down, and has been replaced by genuine optimism.

SPACE Gallery and the White Heart are awfully young to be looked upon as the institutions they are, and along with Geno’s the clubs triple-handedly cater to every music scene in the city. All have rosy futures, with SPACE looking to increase its unique local programming (think ideas like ’07’s air-guitar competition, the wildly popular Pecha Kucha arts mixer, and the excellent “Listening Room” live radio-show series) and the other two bars playing home base to most of our artistically relevant musicians.

Blue has formed an axis of acoustics with the North Star Café and Free Street’s Dogfish to anchor our roots and singer/songwriter scenes; last summer’s sad goodbye to the Soundpost has led to more frequent alt-folk shows at Strange Maine and the Meg Perry Center.

Perhaps most exciting are the strides a couple of new area clubs will be taking in 2008. The brand new Empire Dine and Dance is sized for big crowds, demanding sound, and (fingers crossed) dance parties. (We do plead, though, for some bric-a-brac in that dank downstairs bar.) The club promises to bring national roots and blues acts in as well, which Portland doesn’t see much of. And One Longfellow Square, continuing to improve its infrastructure, has an ambitiously full calendar and some exciting programs lined up for ’08 (including weekly movie nights, and a series with local musicians — beginning with Samuel James at the end of January — providing live scores to silent films).

All of this stands in stark contrast to an Old Port that’s too often coasting on location and density of bars, where tribute nights and last-minute booking are increasingly the norm. We’d like to see that area take more risks and introduce new ideas into the mix, but in the meantime, there’s a lot to explore in the bustling Arts District. It now seems just a matter of time before vacant lots like the State and the Stadium’s upstairs bring us that most elusive gift: an active mid-sized venue.

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