When the city shut down a central food-cart location to make way for a hotel, dozens of small-business owners—many of whom are immigrants—felt left in the lurch.
When the city shut down a central food-cart location to make way for a hotel, dozens of small-business owners—many of whom are immigrants—felt left in the lurch.
July 22, 2019
In early July, construction began on the Pacific Northwest’s first Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon. The 35-story tower project, which will also include offices and condominiums, is testament to the rapid growth the city has experienced in recent years. It also embodies the cultural shift sweeping through this once blue-collar town. A street- level food hall will be built where some 40 food carts stood only weeks earlier.
When the property manager, City Center Parking, announced that it was evicting the food carts in Portland’s largest, oldest, and most iconic street food epicenter, giving owners just 30 days to move out, city officials scrambled to find the businesses a new home. Cart owners and their employees—said to be at least 200 people strong—organized and community leaders rallied around them. After weeks of proposed temporary solutions, the city has finally found space for the carts and the businesses will be back up and running soon.
But this happy ending follows a very tense and trying few months that should serve as a cautionary tale for any city undergoing an influx of new residents and business investments, where lower-income, immigrant, and other vulnerable populations are displaced by successive waves of people attracted to the very culture those populations helped create.
“These food carts sprung up in a bad economy so that the lot owners could get an additional revenue stream,” said Keith M. Jones of Friends of the Green Loop, a public space advocate who worked closely with cart owners and city officials through the eviction and relocation process. “Now land is at a premium, so these lots are going to start disappearing and getting developed. The future of food carts in Portland is grim.”
Portland has decided that food carts—which, unlike food trucks, are immobile unless towed—are an indelible part of the city’s culture, but the saga of relocating more than three dozen businesses on short notice, and working with a largely immigrant community who speak many languages, suggests that cities would benefit from planning ahead to decide which cherished institutions will be ushered through change, and how that will happen.
“[The city] is trying to save the food carts,” says cart owner Richard Tran. “The tourists come here and they look for the food carts.”
The Alder Street food cart pod began when a few culinary upstarts began renting space along the edges of a downtown parking lot in the 1990s. Over the years, their numbers grew, encircling parked cars and enticing passing office workers with the smells of curries, tacos, kebabs, stir-fry, and pizza. The model spread to other downtown lots, then beyond the urban core, and eventually to other cities.
In a state where roughly 10 percent of all residents are foreign-born, and over 12 percent have at least one immigrant parent, food carts play an important role in helping new citizens forge autonomous futures. “Food carts have become a part of the DNA of Portland, not to mention our tourism industry and local economy,” said city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in a statement on the Gofundme page Jones set up to help fund the transition. “Many of the Alder Street carts are owned by immigrants and people of color, and as we continue to face an affordability crisis, we have to start addressing the displacement of small businesses as well as residents.”
Portland has become a popular tourist destination in no small part because of its food cart pods—functionally permanent installations of individual eateries that are more affordable to open and operate than a standard brick-and-mortar restaurant. But that popularity also drove up real estate prices.
In October 2018, developers cleared a smaller food cart pod directly across from Alder Street to make way for a Marriott Moxy hotel, inspiring a coalition of foodies and urban design activists to propose a development-proof plan for housing carts on city streets. Talk of a “ culinary corridor” faded quickly from the news, but it has this year resurfaced with a vengeance.
Paperwork for the Ritz-Carlton development was filed in 2018, and some cart owners began moving to other pods when they heard. Others sold their carts in situ to aspiring chefs who were either unaware of the hotel, or brazen enough, to risk investing in prime street food real estate in hopes of establishing themselves in the time that remained.
Lei (who goes by one name) is a good example. He left the military and spent $20,000 to open Eggy Pocket in September 2018, a month after his parents came to the U.S. on short notice. “They worked for restaurants in China,” he said. “After they came here, they don’t speak English, so the food truck is small investment and we can make some money—slowly. But it works pretty good.”
Food carts run on tight margins, however, making it difficult for most owners to save up for unexpected expenses or gaps in income. In the last days before eviction, while his parents served customers their popular crêpe-like bings, Lei worried over their future, as well as his wife and one-year-old. Eggy Pocket supported everyone.
The family plans to spend the next few months looking for a new spot downtown. “If nothing comes up then we’ll take the next step, probably find a job or sell the food truck,” he said.
Although intentions for the tower construction were public, the project’s timeline remained vague until recently. Several cart owners and those helping with their relocation have accused the lot’s management company, City Center Parking, of keeping the information from them in order to continue collecting rent for as long as possible, but the company did not respond to requests for comment from Civil Eats.
Sarhan, who also goes by one name, has located his business, Noah Halal, on a corner of Alder Street for the past six years. He found a new location for his cart four blocks away in a nearby pod, although he is worried about how the new spot would impact his late-night business. “I have two uncles that own food trucks [in Portland]; they’ve been there longer than we have, so we know a lot of people, ” he said.
The cart owners who hadn’t secured a future home careened toward the end of June without a plan to haul their carts off the property or anywhere to take them.
Chef Sam Mouzon has been running carts at Alder Street for the past several years, and opened a barbecue cart two years ago. He accepted an invitation to move his cart across town, behind a martial arts studio where another cart is current parked. The change suits his eventual desire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but he worries about his neighbors, especially those who are new to the U.S.
For established citizens like Mouzon, securing loans, dealing with tow-truck companies, and signing new leases isn’t likely to be as difficult as it is for many of his neighbors. “It’s not exactly easy for several of the food cart owners here,” he said. “For a lot of them, it was a challenge just to get into [the Alder Steer pod].”
Keith Jones and the Portland Bureau of Transportation officials began meeting regularly with owners at Alder Street in the wake of the eviction notice. On June 24, exactly one week before the lot was vacated, the city announced a proposal to relocate 37 carts to a nearby city park through the end of the tourist season.
But this temporary site would not be ready in a week’s time. Money was needed. Permits were needed. Water and electrical hookups would need to be installed. The neighbors would have to agree.
Unlike food truck owners, food cart owners cannot simply drive their businesses off the lot and park in a driveway until a new pod opens. Thirty-some carts in various states of disrepair would need to be relocated multiple times. All of it would cost money, and at a time when cart owners were facing a gap in revenue.
Boping Wong, originally from Guangzhou, China, opened Asian Fusion Bowl in 2017 after years of working in Portland restaurants. When she spoke with Civil Eats in late June, she had heard about the temporary site idea, but had no confirmation that she would be allowed to park there and no plan to move her cart. Wong thought that it would be in the city’s best interest to help owners relocate to keep everyone off the unemployment rolls and food stamps.
“We live month to month, paycheck to paycheck,” said Mouzon. “No one’s getting rich out here. You can make a living, but the labor costs are going up. [Our customers don’t] want to pay more; everybody likes carts because it’s cheap food.”
There’s never a good time for a small business owner to have to close shop, but for the food carts in a city with long, rainy winters, summer offers an opportunity to make up the difference.
“These are the most important months for us. July is double the income of October, ” said Khalid Saad, who emigrated from Baghdad in 2008 and opened his first cart soon after. In its current location, Baghdad Iraqi Grill has been serving downtown workers and visitors mesquite chicken shawarma for four years. Alder Street’s legendary status and proximity to Portland’s hotels brings in a booming tourist trade over the summer.
Saad said he liked the location of the proposed nearby temporary site because his regular customers would still be able to find him. “I’ve been in downtown for nine years, I don’t want to move out, ” he said.
Anxious but hopeful, owners and their employees kept serving customers. But as time passed without any official word, rumors filled the void, as did a polyglot game of telephone. Many people held onto faith that the city would come through with a solution—some had heard that the city was paying to tow everyone to new locations.
“So far, I don’t have any information,” said Ling Chen, who began serving up her family-recipe sheng jian bao in the spring of 2018, after years as a stay-at-home mom. “I’m just waiting.” But she held on to optimism because, as she put it, “everyone knows Portland for food carts.”
Others grew cynical and worried that when summer faded, cart owners would be abandoned to their own fates. Property owners from the outskirts of town dropped off flyers offering to buy the carts or rent spaces in the culinary hinterlands. City Center Parking employees handed out warnings that any cart left on the lot come July 1 would be towed at the owner’s expense.
Richard Tran was considering to packing it in and selling the truck. He had started Rolls Plus Grill eight years ago, paying $14,000 for a seven-year-old cart after being laid off from Nike. “I like to cook,” he says. “I cooked when I was in Vietnam when I was 16 years old. I cooked for my family, my cousin’s family.”
On June 28, three days before the eviction, Prosper Portland, the city’s development agency, announced that it had donated the parking lot of a derelict post office to store carts for at least six months. Keith Jones launched a Gofundme campaign to pay for towing. Jones also arranged Mandarin, Thai, Arabic, and Spanish translators to speak with cart owners at a meeting the night before to curtail any further confusion.
Tow trucks arrived to begin clearing the tightly packed parking lot the next day, and a game of reverse Tetris ensued. Many carts had been at Alder Street for years, neglected by successive owners. Tires were flat and axles were busted. The towering Boom Crêpes slipped off its cinderblock foundation while being jacked up for new wheels, rattling the two employees still inside serving customers.
There was relief, but also sadness. A man dismantling the awning of Aybla Grill said that he’d been there for 16 years. Young Kim of 1 Bento Korean BBQ had spent the past 13 years selling kalbi short ribs done in his grandmother’s style alongside his wife and one longtime employee. By Sunday night, the last day before eviction, carts had been towed by two companies at a cost of $7,500.
“It’s great that we have a safe place to store our cart,” Lily Chen, a full-time student whose father Qing worked at their Hua Li House, wrote in an email. “Before, we were not sure how we were going to tow it, and where to store it. Our last resort was towing it home to our driveway. It’s generous of Prosper Portland to help us with this!”
Cart owners like Chen were uncertain how long they could wait before finding another way to make a living. “My dad has been cooking for a long time, and he loves it. He loves being able to interact with our customers, even though there may be a communication barrier,” she writes. “He also does it because both my sister and I are in school, and tuition is costly.”
Jones says he’s hoping to put together a group of volunteers to help repair the carts. “So when they do move they’ve got a fresh coat of paint and they’re ready to get started from scratch.”
While the carts have idled outside the vacant post office, Jones, Qing Chen, and others began addressing a long-ignored problem. Alder Street had become a pod organically, without the modern infrastructure that later pods had built in. Many vendors had been allowed to operate in open violation of many city codes, from unlicensed awnings hanging over sidewalks to wastewater running along the ground to open storm drains. When the carts opened again they would have to be street legal from all four sides.
But it still remained to be seen when the carts would reopen. The temporary site around two blocks of city park fell through on July 10, which Jones said city officials attributed to neighbors. Jones was concerned that too much infrastructure would be required for a short-term location. Two carts left storage within the first week of July to re-open in other existing pods, and as a last resort, Jones was prepared to begin placing carts individually or in small groups on whatever property he could find.
Last week, the city announced that a new pod would be constructed at Ankeny Square, a disused public park three blocks from Alder Street. Individual carts will sit on city streets, with potential seating in the square. The new location came about through the collaboration of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, and the Friends of the Green Loop. The latter group secured permits from both bureaus and will serve as a landlord to the cart owners. The Gofundme campaign Jones started is collecting funds to pay for infrastructure, and the business association Travel Portland contributed a lump sum of $25,000 to get things started.
But this solution won’t solve the city’s larger problems. As Portland’s population swells, many more of the parking lots these carts began populating in hodgepodge fashion decades ago will most likely be developed. Lot after lot will eventually close and those carts will need new homes. The other pods around the city can’t absorb them all. And some of those have already become imperiled by land sales.
But the forthcoming Ankeny Square pod may be the first phase of the long-discussed “Culinary Corridor.” Keith Jones originally began working with food cart owners when early plans for the corridor included stretches of Portland’s proposed Green Loop, a six-mile, car-free urban trail plotted along both sides of the Willamette River, which separates downtown from most of the residential neighborhoods.
Time will tell how quickly the Ankeny Square pod will be up and running. Many of the remaining carts may have to move elsewhere just to make a living while the details get worked out.
At the heart of the change are big questions about the city’s priorities. How important are small businesses to Portland’s leaders? Are low-barrier opportunities for new immigrants a priority? Is Portland, a city that has long trafficked in its own quirkiness, becoming too slick to make space for the kinds of operations that put it on the map? What will remain?
“I got involved with Culinary Corridor and that’s my angle here,” said Jones. “But then I realized that there are so many players involved in this, on the private side and the public side. No one was talking to each other. I thought, ‘These are people’s lives and businesses, so we’ve got to get organized.’”
All photos © Brendan Seibel.
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