Last Call at the Know You Know
I remember when the Know opened in 2004. I was living on NE 11th and Alberta in a five-bedroom Victorian and paying $200 a month in rent. I worked the kitchen at the old Alberta Street Public House, one of three bars on NE Alberta at the time. I remember thinking it was over-saturation. We already had the Star E. Rose and the Black Cat. How could Alberta Street possibly accommodate another coffee shop?
Fast forward 12 years and the 2000 block of NE Alberta has become a kind of unintentional art installation. To the north, families in Gore-Tex jackets stand in hour-long lines for a scoop of Salt & Straw’s designer ice cream. Directly across the street, punks adorned with Subhumans patches and shabby jean jackets sip whiskey and chain smoke in between sets of visceral, anti-establishment rock at the Know.
To the casual observer, the scene is a near-perfect rendering of the culture clash inherent to gentrification. To the local historian, the image is just another story of upheaval in a neighborhood that once was the epicenter of African-American culture in Portland. Whatever side of Alberta you’re on, one thing’s for sure: a cultural landmark is closing. Concerts continue until November 27, and after that, the Know—priced out after more than a decade on Alberta—will re-open in Hollywood sometime next year.
As you know, I was wrong about the coffee shop thing. The Know morphed into a bar, then into a music venue and hosted a slew of legendary bands. I spent my formative years at the Know with acts like the Marmits, Guantanamo Baywatch and Circles into Lines. Regularly, I crammed into the dystopian teen center of the music room, while other nights I drank whiskey at the bar and watched through the tiny window beside the cash register. Once the state outlawed smoking, I’d spend hours in their skinny patio—it couldn’t have been more than two feet wide—until the state outlawed that too. And yes, I admit, as Alberta fumbled through puberty and matured into a bourgeois haven for boutique knick-knacks and gastronomic sophistication, I laughed at anyone who actually ordered food from the Know’s microwave pasta menu.
It’s a story of nostalgia but also of privilege, for this street was never mine to begin with. (The area was first settled by the Chinook Indians, after all.) Before I rode that initial wave of gentrification, the Alberta/Albina district was the only landing spot for generations of displaced African-Americans, but in the 10 years after 2000, the African-American population in Vernon alone was halved to just 23 percent of the neighborhood’s total.
It’s hard to know what emotional response is appropriate, even. Outrage? Nostalgia? Maybe indifference? Neighborhoods evolve like bad ideas, some accelerated by capital, others by neglect and opportunity. In Hollywood, the Know will revive the Blackbird Cafe, a short-lived, fabled music venue that closed its doors in 2003. Though the beat goes on, there’s no telling what will replace it—in a Willamette Week interview, co-owner Ryan Stowe flippantly suggested "a boutique salt shop"—but the haphazard bar and all its I-don’t-care-what-you-think aesthetic will most certainly be scrubbed and sanitized.
Maybe for that reason alone, you should go to the Know. I went just days ago for the Rabbits, Pushy, and Bobby Peru. Imagine a cuddle fort with Fugazi, Rush, Black Flag, GNR, party favors by Black Sabbath, and George Clinton on the turntables. That’s what it sounded like. Imagine a crowd of thirtysomethings—frayed colorful winter hats, hand-stitched punk rock letter jackets, Blazers paraphernalia, dudes with scraggly beards not born of hipsterdom but just because. Go to the bathroom and see yourself reflected in 12 years of graffiti—illegible political rants infused with punk folk wisdom like “listen to the sweatpants”—and hustle back to the cramped, sweaty side room to witness the 40 or so possessed souls absorb every hallowed riff. It's your last chance to enter the kind of time warp that is increasingly hard to find in this city. Yeah, look around the room and find not a fucking smartphone in sight.
The Know has bands slated through November 27. See the website for all upcoming shows.