Spring is a time of change, for better or worse; and this spring will bring the relocation of a few longstanding fixtures in Portland’s activist scene. The Back to Back Café collective and the Portland Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are leaving their home of four years on lower east Burnside, and the Laughing Horse Books collective will close its doors on Division, where it has operated since 1993.
The Back to Back Café is a worker-owned business, run by a six-person collective (of which, yes, I am one). The Industrial Workers of the World is a radical, volunteer-run union, famous during the first decade of the 20th century through the 1930s, and enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in the past ten years. The two spaces were built together, and the caf¼ collective has subleased its storefront from the IWW since then.
But the times they are a-changin’ on East Burnside. Over the past year, with the impetus of city “redevelopment” funds, new bars and boutiques have sprung up on every block of what used to be Skid Row. A heavy police presence has moved along much of the old drug and prostitution traffic, and it appears that the day laborers who wait for work on the corner of 6th and Burnside will be the next to go.
The Back to Back will close for business on Burnside May 14 and reopen in mid-summer at a new location in Northeast Portland, probably in the Killingsworth area. The IWW Hall plans to remain at its current location through June, after which it will move to a new temporary space with the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) and other organizations focused on workers’ rights. The union has plans to eventually buy a building to function as a radical library and workers’ center.
The storefront at 616 E Burnside stood vacant for ten years before the union hall and café opened there in the spring of 2002. When the building was sold, in fall of 2005, the new owners, who intend to completely renovate it, offered to buy the IWW out of its lease. Realizing that they would likely be forced to leave in any case once their lease expired in 2008, the café and IWW decided to accept the offer.
Laughing Horse has a similar story. After their building was sold, the new owner decided to remodel and notified the store that its lease would not be renewed. Had they wanted to stay, their rent would have doubled. The collective is currently looking for new spaces and trying to decide on their future direction.
“People have been really supportive,” said Laughing Horse collective member Dominic.
The bookstore plans to find another space in southeast Portland and will be holding a benefit show May 13 at Free Geek to help cover the moving costs.
Speaking for my own collective, I can say that it’s been a strange, sometimes delightful and sometimes choppy ride. Through some combination of determination and insanity, we’ve made it through. We are looking forward to starting over fresh, but it’s always a little sad when one door closes, even if another one does open. Thank you to everyone who has helped us make it this far. If you want to come pay your final respects to the Back to Back, we will be holding a grand closing party on May 14, with music and maudlin reminiscences.
Abby Sewell is a freelance writer and a member of the Back-to-Back Collective.
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Last Updated: May 22, 2006