Letter From Astoria

On a recent Monday Astoria's trolley system was stretched thin when fog delayed the arrival of the cruise ship Prinsendam. Craft merchants lined the dock under charmless white awnings while the heavily armed Port Police hauled bulky gangways around on forklifts. The Prinsendam, one of a dozen international cruise ships docking this year at Astoria, had been held for an hour off the Columbia River bar while the morning fog blew around and thinned. Pier One was crowded and silent. A hired band was idle, their singer engrossed in a volume of Nietzsche.

There is only one trolley now in a system that used to serve the whole city, and at 11:30 a.m. it went downtown to meet the Lewis and Clark Explorer at the train station. The ocean liners dock in Uniontown, a newly designated historic district that was once home to the city's considerable socialist and communist Finn population. Finns are still predominant here, though the several Finnish dailies the city once supported have all disappeared. The Red Finns themselves declined in the 1930s, after their leadership convinced scores of Astorians to repatriate to Karelia, Joseph Stalin's promised Finnish worker's utopia. It turned out to be a gulag of destitution and forced labor.

On Pier One, Bruce Connor, a travel agent who was instrumental in attracting the cruise ships this year, peered into the fog with Jennifer Martz, manager of the city's luxury hotel, the Hotel Elliott. The Elliott doesn't benefit much from the ships (they're only in port for a day), though Martz recalled one couple checking in after failing to bargain the desk clerk for an hourly rate. Cruise ship passengers are identifiable by the large adhesive sunbursts they wear on their chests, an emblem provided by the Chamber of Commerce. The sunbursts say "Visitor" and, unhappily, resemble yellow stars.

It is a bumper year for visitors in Astoria, a crop the Chamber of Commerce and political leaders have been cultivating assiduously ever since they gave up on the city's other possible futures. Port Director Peter Gearin, a tall, silver-haired man whom Martz rightly described as "very Ralph Lauren," has made it clear that "no cargo goes through this port and no cargo ever will." Speaking in his port-side office the day after the Prinsendam's visit, Gearin acknowledged that he "was hired because that dream is over." Gearin used to run a car transportation company and holds 30 patents for machinery in that field. In the 1980s his company worked with Astoria to turn the deep moorage at nearby Tongue Point into an off-loading facility for imported cars, but nothing came of it. Now the Tongue Point moorage is idle, owned by a holding company in Missoula, Montana, that is trying to lease or sell it.

Peter Huhtala, an Astoria Finn who, like his parents and grandparents, grew up in Uniontown, remembers fishing the river east of Tongue Point, where the Navy mothballed its Liberty Fleet after World War II. "I was 8 years old, sitting in this little skiff, bobbing around between these enormous gray ships when I hooked into something big. I pulled up a 6-foot sturgeon; I thought it was a prehistoric monster." I met Huhtala at his Pacific Marine Conservation Council office, on the first floor of a marina building the port will soon tear down. A conference center is planned for the site, near to three new hotels that are either permitted or already under construction. There used to be three dozen canneries and fish processors along the city's waterfront. Now there are two, but they run night and day trying to keep pace with a freakish resurgence in the sardine fishery, a resource that had all but disappeared 95 years ago. No one knows how long the sardines will last.

Huhtala balances his fond recollections of a childhood spent amidst the noise and bustle of the canneries with admiration for Gearin's vision of a pleasure-boat economy that might keep a remnant of the city's working waterfront viable. "I'd like to see what they've done up in Port Townsend happen here," Gearin told me. "They're building and repairing fine boats and keeping money moving through town." Port Townsend comes up repeatedly in conversations around Astoria, one model of a possible future. Their Wooden Boat Foundation and festival, the retroactive invention of their historic downtown and – always – the arts, comprise the magic recipe that will turn floor-scrubbing Cinderella into a beautiful princess.

Astoria's art galleries can be counted on one hand, and for the most part they sell tourist scenes competently executed in watercolors, oils or photographs. A nearby "dragon kiln" contributes an avalanche of raku and other ceramics, most of which resemble fish. Gallery 12 is atypical. This narrow storefront and studio features some wonderfully unmarketable oil paintings by Mike Strom – great wet smears of polychromatic brilliance that sometimes resemble landscapes or city scenes. Strom flirts with the kinds of abstraction that James Lavadour has mastered, but, alas, with none of Lavadour's deliberateness, method or vision. Gallery 12's small room is mostly taken up with gill netting, which Strom sells for $3.50 per fathom; he'll also repair your nets for $40 an hour.

It's a crapshoot whether Strom's prospects are better as an oil painter or as a repairer of fishnets. The question is largely out of his hands. Both arts are liable to become fine ones in Astoria's near future. Overfishing has all but shut down the gillnet fishery; the Port's overwhelming investment is in tourism; the city's history of labor-intensive resource extraction and manufacturing is seen, largely, as a relic that can be marketed to visitors in the guise of cannery hotels, renovated marinas and waterfront trolleys. Huhtala envisions the old port docks, his childhood haunt, as a new "supermuseum." "Art would abound and the museum would host regular music events," he wrote in the local tabloid newspaper, Hipfish. "Maybe we could even have one of those I-MAX theaters, like at OMSI."

At the Chamber of Commerce's annual barbecue, held in a parking lot midway between Uniontown and downtown, there was no talk of supermuseums or cargo transfer or of any future except the very near one of ribs and hot dogs. Governor Ted Kulongoski had come through town that day and ridden the trolley. He toured the Hotel Elliott and gave a cookie to a startled little girl. Kulongoski had praised everyone he talked to for transforming gritty Astoria into a tourist Mecca – an inadvertent and premature obituary for a working city that, for better or worse, is still breathing. As the barbecue began under cloudy skies, I spoke with a chamber member who expressed his broad agreement with the governor's assessment. It has been a good summer for tourists. "It's just so beautiful here," he said, gesturing toward the river. That the sight he praised was of the majestic progress of a heavily loaded cargo ship passing by the waterfront on its way upriver to another port only depressed me. One must credit Port Director Gearin with this much; at least the cruise ships, however delayed, eventually come in to port.

The food was for members and family only and so I crossed the street to the Mini Mart, followed by a pimply man who had been told he wasn't welcome at the barbecue. He was hungry. In line at the Mini Mart he couldn't choose between jojos and the deep-fried burrito; he ended up buying both, plus an Instant Lotto card that paid off $100.

Matthew Stadler is a novelist, literary editor for Nest magazineand editor and co-founder of Clear Cut Press. He lives in Portland and Astoria.

About This Story

  • Author: Matthew Stadler
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012