Unfinished business on North Williams

by Yule Heibel on April 24, 2012

An evening walk on North Williams in Portland

It’s 10pm, I leave the building I currently reside in to take my dog Jigger outside. We walk down two flights of stairs and arrive on the street – North Williams, of which 3 or so blocks are now considered trendy. I walk past Che’s food cart and Soundroots School of Music toward the next intersection.

Across the street I hear conversation and laughter coming from the sidewalk tables at Pix Patisserie (the site of yesterday’s carnage).

Why grass?

As Jigger dawdles along, sniffing for edible morsels (road sushi, we call it), I look down at the sidewalk and see the almost knee-high grass growing ragged in the muddy strips along sides of buildings and in the sad little space between paved sidewalk and paved road. It’s nearly knee-high because this is the kind of neighborhood where almost no one does any upkeep.

And suddenly, as I wonder why in hell grass is even growing here (and why does it have to look so scraggly), I’m reminded of my many midnight visits to coffeehouses in Schwabing, a neighborhood in Munich.

No matter what time I visited, the cafes were always filled with people – posers, models, artists, writers, film-makers, business jocks – you name it. At 2 in the morning, skinny city girls with high fashion allure ate luscious tortes, perhaps the only meal they consumed all day. They made a show of it, and it was worth seeing them eat.

For those beautiful girls, a song:


(And for those who don’t get the reference, The Cure set to music a Baudelaire poem about street people looking at rich people feasting in cafés, and a painter named Manet may have been inspired by that poem.)

Meanwhile, back on the sidewalk I’m standing on…

There simply wasn’t any grass, nearly knee-high or not, growing out of place on those Munich boulevards, which were sealed against the elements and designed for city shoes.

Class or race? Class and race.

Looking at North Williams, with its odd mixture of poverty, sad suburbanism, unfinished urbanism and vaguely emerging urban vibe-ness (but still trapped in all the outward signs of decrepitude and a deep and troubling history of racial strife – read, white oppression), I suddenly had to think of that bastard Édouard Manet and his paintings of the Parisian banlieues (suburbs).

The art historian T.J. Clark made a big deal of those unfinished edges of Paris in his book, The Painting of Modern Life, and rightly so. As I walked, taking in that godawful grass, the horrible admixture of muck and vegetation, rotting clapboard on an old house, bits of trash, and the “emerging” hipster vibe emanating from Pix or from The Box Social across the street, I suddenly felt like some displaced Parisian in …oh, Batignolles perhaps, strolling along the Avenue de Clichy when it was quiet – before, you know, that American got there and caused a ruckus. No doubt there was near-knee-high grass on the roadsides there, too, and, mixed in with a sparse sampling of interesting cafes, a bunch of ugly, half-falling apart buildings of relatively recent vintage. Because in neighborhoods like that, nothing is built to last – and it shows.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl April 25, 2012 at 6:44 am

While you wrote of Munich, I transported myself to Paris. I imagined myself out of sorts, and out of place- no longer one of the beautiful muses, not minding, but wishing to not just be an observer.
You are a lovely writer. Thank you.

Yule April 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Thank-you, Sheryl – your compliment on my writing means a lot to me! 🙂

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