Think Out Loud

Ankeny Alley businesses in Portland work together on series of summer events

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 30, 2023 5:36 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 30

an image of Ankeny Alley.

A series of summer events will be held between SW 2nd and 3rd avenues in Portland. Organizers hope locals and tourists alike will explore and support the area.

Elizabeth Castillo / OPB


The Ankeny Alley Festival is a series of summer events held in the Ankeny Alley area between SW 2nd and 3rd avenues in downtown Portland. The events have been organized to rally support for businesses in the neighborhood that have faced declines in revenue as visits from Portlanders and tourists alike have diminished in recent years. The next summer festival will be the July 4th Celebration from June 30 to July 3. The series of events also includes a Pride party and a Labor Day celebration featuring music, live entertainment, art and food. Joshua Ryan is the event manager for the Ankeny Alley Association. Michelle Wachsmuth is a co-owner of Dan & Louis Oyster Bar. They join us with details of the events and what they hope to see for the future of the area.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re going to start today with a summer-long effort to revitalize a business and entertainment district in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood. The Ankeny Alley Festival is a series of summer events that are being held to rally support for restaurants and bars that have been hit particularly hard since the pandemic started. The series kicked off two weeks ago. The next weekend event starts today to coincide with the Fourth of July and the Waterfront Blues Festival. Joshua Ryan helped create these festivals. He is the event manager for the Ankeny Alley Association. Michelle Wachsmuth is a co-owner of Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, which has been in business now for four generations. Welcome to you both.

Michelle Wachsmuth: Hello.

Joshua Ryan: Thank you so much.

Miller: Michelle first. Can you tell us about the Oyster Bar?

Wachsmuth: The Oyster Bar was opened in 1907 by my husband’s great grandfather, Louis C. Wachsmuth. It’s been passed down from father to son. We are generation four. We have all three of our kids working there, so generation five is in the house. We used to say, ‘in training,’ but they are now 24, 21 and 18. And they are taking over the show. They’re doing amazing down there.

Miller: And the plan is to have this be…I mean, they’re ready to be the fifth generation?

Wachsmuth: I mean, I wanna retire someday… so, yeah. [laughter] It’s not gonna happen in the next five years. But hopefully in the next 15 years, one of them will step up. It’s kind of hard to know who’s gonna be the person that will inherit it until you kind of get there, and we’re ready for retirement.

Miller: This is succession.

Wachsmuth: It is succession.

Miller: What does the location mean to you in your family?

Wachsmuth: I mean, the Oyster Bar means everything to us in our family. It’s been the center of all of our lives. As soon as I married into this family, it was the center of my husband’s family. His parents were running it at the time when I married into the family. And it’s been so good for our family, too. It’s a place where the kids work, their friends work, we hire… People who work there also, we’re generational within our workers. I have Holly Costa, who has been there since 1999. Her daughter was 12 when she started. She’s now in her mid 30s – Ashley Costa. Her son, Leon, now is sitting at the oyster table, like Ashley used to do, while his mom works. Someday I’ll have him, too.

Miller: Three generations then of employees as well.

Wachsmuth: Yes.

Miller: What was the year right before the pandemic like? 2019?

Wachsmuth: I didn’t even know how good we had it. We used to complain. ‘It’s so busy. How are we gonna get through this? Oh, my gosh.’ If we had known then what we know now, I would have never complained.

Miller: The problem then was too much business?

Wachsmuth: Too busy. Yeah. There was times that in the summer we were just way too busy, way more than we could handle. I remember being like… We would count down summer weekends. We’d start at Labor Day and be like, ‘Ok, we can get through 16 more weekends. We can do this.’ And now, we’re just happy to have any business that comes through the door because we took such a blow over the last three years.

Miller: What was the worst year of the last three?

Wachsmuth: 2022.

Miller: Last year?

Wachsmuth: Last year was the worst year of the three years.

Miller: Why?

Wachsmuth: I think it’s because people just weren’t really ready to get back out. A lot of people have still had fear with COVID, the travel… I mean, you saw it on the news, right. The airports weren’t what they once were. So people just weren’t getting out and about. Everyone was still half wearing masks. They were afraid of this and afraid of that. I’ve seen just a big change this year where people are definitely coming back, and we’re seeing numbers like we did in 2019.

Miller: Joshua, what have your experiences been like walking through or working in Old Town in recent years?

Ryan: I have done a lot of work downtown and a lot of work with business associations specifically. I worked with the Pearl District Business Association for years. When I started getting involved with this particular group, I hadn’t really been downtown since post-pandemic. I remember the first thing that I did is, I had this idea of, let’s create a festival series. Let’s give people a reason to come back to downtown if they haven’t been there for a while. As I started to do that, you have a permit and you have to get neighborhood signatures from every business. The first time that I did it, I remember it was pouring rain. It was in early March. I wore a sweater, and it swelled up like I was a big loofah or something. [laughter] I was like, ‘Could this be worse?’ And I was shocked at how many businesses were boarded up. I was shocked – block after block that were closed in the middle of the day, in the middle of the work week. I was surprised that during lunch time, no one came out of businesses to have lunch in some of these restaurants. In some of these areas, they didn’t shop.

I work with a group of clubs that are downtown. They said, ‘We wanna have you drive traffic and build business.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s a bigger problem than just being a nightclub that has no business. No one wants to come to downtown at all, to any business. If we don’t find a way to overcome that, nothing that I can do will help your business.’

Miller: How much did you feel like it was up to you, or how much did the businesses you were talking to feel like it was up to them themselves to do this, as opposed to some kind of support or knight in shining armor from the city?

Ryan: Well, we had our first meeting and I said, ‘Here’s the reality. There is no knight in shining armor. There is no panacea. There’s no magic wand. There’s no bucket of money sitting in the city waiting to help us figure this out. At the end of the day, I’m not an expert on mental health. I’m not an expert on houselessness or the fentanyl epidemic. I don’t know those things, but I do know that if we work together as businesses… You’re here 24/7. You have a long-term lease…’ [Dan & Louis Oyster Bar] they’ve been there for four generations. Voodoo Doughnuts is in our area – they’ve been there for 20 years. Mother’s Bistro is there – she’s absolutely an iconic restaurant for downtown. We have to work together and bootstrap this ourselves because we have to figure it out. At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure it out.

Miller: Michelle, in the next segment, we’re actually gonna be revisiting a conversation or a series of conversations we had last year with people living on the street in Portland. We actually went to a couple different neighborhoods around the city, including in Old Town. That’s where we started. I’m wondering how much things have changed there in a year.

Wachsmuth: Well, they were really bad for a while. People were allowed to shelter in place during COVID. And then it was like, ‘How do we get the streets back?’ kind of thingm because we didn’t have places to put them. So, I mean, I think that… I don’t know, I think everything is changing a lot – a lot in the last six months. I’ve seen a huge change from what we had over the course of the last three years. So I think it’s on the right path. We’re definitely going towards better.


Miller: What do you think has led to that change?

Wachsmuth: Well, I think the city is now finally addressing everything. We weren’t hearing a lot about it. Like now, in the last couple of weeks, we are doing the daytime camping ban. I mean, obviously it’s not gonna be super enforced at first, but it gives us a leg to stand on. We have a way to move forward. You hear the mayor is now talking about banning open air drug use. Yes, because of Measure 110, you’re still allowed to have some on you. But you can’t do it in public. So it really feels like the city is honing in on all these problems now.

I see police back out on the beat walking the streets again. I mean, it’s just amazing. I have seen such a huge change in the last six months – and even the last two months, a really big change. But way better than... For three years, it was kind of like the wild west out there.

Miller: Do you see a connection between less visible homelessness, less open air drug use and more business?

Wachsmuth: Yes. One hundred percent.

Miller: It’s a direct connection.

Wachsmuth: It’s a direct connection. Yep. Because people don’t want to walk around if there’s somebody over there doing drugs in the corner. It makes everybody nervous. But what I have found, too – and this not maybe everyone realizes – [is] the homeless…Everyone is really nice in Portland. If you go at people, and you ask them nicely to move or to stop doing what they’re doing, nine times out of 10 people are really nice and really accommodating. I give them candy. I’m like, ‘To bother you, to help you through your troubles, here’s a little bit of candy. And just can you move over there?’ And everybody’s really nice…

Miller: So you would say, ‘Here is, here’s a lollipop, here’s a Snickers bar’…

Wachsmuth: I go out with bags of candy.

Miller: … ‘but do you mind moving a little bit away from my storefront?’

Wachsmuth: Yep. I start with candy, and I’ve got a taser in my pocket and pepper spray in the middle. It’s dealer’s choice, but I’ve never used the pepper spray and I’ve never used the taser – not one single time ever. Almost every single time the candy works. Yep. They just move and they’re really nice.

Miller: Joshua, what can people expect at these festivals, and why did you decide on this as a way to kind of revitalize the area?

Ryan: I think in general all these businesses, they’ve been in operation. But I think collectively, by creating a special event, it feels like something that’s special. It engages 26 – we have 26 different businesses that are all small and privately owned. It gives them a reason to kind of rally together and band together. I wanted to do a series of festivals because I’ve done a lot of the festivals downtown. If it rains or there’s some incident that happens, you’ve lost all the assets that you’ve poured into this one single event. You can’t have it because it rained in the Rose Parade or whatever. So we wanted to do a series.

The city was open enough to allow us to pull one permit for six events. The footprint is the same, so technically they’re very, very similar. But they all have a different theme. We started with Explore Ankeny; [it] was our first event. This is really our partnership with the 4th of July to bring people down. The 14th through 16th of July is our first Pride event. What’s great is we’ve actually partnered with Pride Northwest, so we’re an official event outside of the waterfront. In August, we have a Summer Luau, where we’re actually trucking in sand, and we’re gonna have Tahitian dancers and the whole Hawaiian kind of a theme. Then we have an event on Labor Day and early parts of September as well.

Miller: Michelle, how did the first event go? This was two weeks ago. What did you see in terms of business?

Wachsmuth: Oh, it was so fun. It was great. I mean, we saw tons of business for sure. It definitely drove business into downtown. But it was just so much fun with the DJ playing out on the stage, people all over the place, everyone stopping for a drink. It was an amazing weekend, and I really hope this weekend is gonna be twice as good.

Ryan: We also said, ‘Well, let’s start small. We don’t have to have 100,000 people down there at once. We can do this small. We just wanna have engagement. We want people to explore, not just come into one building and come right back out to their car – that they actually spend some time in the area.’ I think the more that you have regular folks coming down to this kind of event, some of the undesirable elements get pushed out.

Wachsmuth: So true.

Ryan: It’s just being present. People say to me, ‘How do we support you?’ We don’t need to have anything special that you do. Just come patronize the business. Just be present, and just go to more than one.

Miller: And is the basic idea that if people come down for the special event on some Saturday afternoon, they will think to come back on some random Tuesday evening? I mean, is that the mechanism that you’re hoping for? Because obviously I don’t think you just care about four weekends in the summer. You’re thinking more about the future.

Ryan: Well, I’ll tell you that the first event we had a rain forecast, 92 percent rain forecast on Sunday. So we didn’t do a lot outside because we don’t want to have cords running across a plaza where there’s rain. But all the businesses still were busy on Sunday, even though we didn’t have some of the outdoor programming. To have people like Meet Fresh, which is a Taiwanese dessert company, say, ‘We ran out of boba.’ But running out of boba at a bubble tea place is like running out of coffee at Starbucks. I mean, it’s their thing. Or to have longer waits in line or have people run out of certain things on their menu or to have– I had several businesses tell me it was the best day of the year. Those are transformative things. I think once somebody goes to your business and explores it and enjoys it, you have the potential to build a customer for life.

Wachsmuth: Well, and it’s not just that. To add on that though, too, I think it was a great way to get people downtown to realize that it isn’t what the news is saying. It isn’t what you see on the news every day. It really isn’t. They just like to report every bad thing that happens in downtown with a little sprinkling of some of the events. But really, I feel like the sprinkling is now more the focus, right? I feel like there’s more events and more positive things happening downtown than negative. So this gives people a reason to come downtown while it’s busy, hit Saturday market, come check us out, maybe stop for lunch somewhere and you’ll see that downtown really is recovering. It really is.

Miller: Michelle, what are your hopes for the district going forward for the future?

Wachsmuth: Well, I think we just have to keep on this path. I think that the city needs to keep doing what it’s doing. We need to keep building more places to house people, coming up with more programs to help people in recovery and things like that. Then we just need to keep plugging forward. The more people that we can draw downtown, the more downtown is gonna flourish like it once did. And we need to get people back to work downtown, too. Everyone, come work at the offices again.

Miller: Don’t work at home.

Wachsmuth: Don’t work from home.

Miller: We just have about a minute left. But I’m wondering if the challenges over the last three-plus years have changed your relationship with fellow business owners in the area.

Wachsmuth: Oh, my God. I’ve never known as many business owners as I do right now. We have banded together downtown. It’s amazing. We all talk to each other.

Ryan: And I can say there are businesses that are true competitive businesses. We have seven bars and nightclubs that are down in that area, and they all pull together because what’s good for one is really good for all. The sense that we’ve knit a fabric together of our businesses in this community feels more like a community than ever before.

Wachsmuth: Really does. Really does.

Miller: Joshua Ryan and Michelle Wachsmuth, thanks very much.

Wachsmuth: Hey, thank you.

Ryan: Thank you.

Miller: Joshua Ryan is the event manager for the Ankeny Alley Association. They’re putting together a whole series of street festivals intended to revitalize the area around Portland’s Old Town neighborhood this summer. Michelle Wachsmuth is one of the co-owners of the Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, which has been in business for four generations. Now, the fifth generation is currently working there as well.

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