Did you know this secret about the Pearl Neighborhood?

The Neighborhood: The Pearl District

The Place: In the early ‘90s, the Pearl District (then known as the River District) was a sparsely populated neighborhood “as rugged as any in the Pacific Northwest.”

But why is it called the Pearl? What’s the real secret behind the name?

It’s been quoted many places that a gallery owner named Thomas Augustine “told a magazine writer that the neighborhood’s artists, toiling away in old, crusty buildings, were like pearls inside oysters.” We couldn’t find the magazine article. Just the quote, over and over again, all over the Internet with no sources to back it up.

But then we found an article by Margie Boule written in 2002 for . It’s an article about a woman named Pearl Marie Amhara, from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, whom Thomas Augustin met in New Orleans. 

“It was because of Pearl that I discovered Oregon,” says Thomas. “She had connected with the Sisters of the Holy Names,” which had a convent at Marylhurst. “She fell in love with Oregon.”

We won’t spoil the rest of the story, because it’s an article worth reading.

But we will tell you a little more about the Pearl District.

It began as a neighborhood of warehouses and railroad yards and other symbols of the area’s industrial roots, but the industries themselves — lumber and manufacturing — were mostly gone.

That created an economic void in the neighborhood, and while some buildings found new life as low-rent art spaces or wildly successful book shops (shout out to Powells) many others sat vacant.

It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that the Pearl District as we know it started coming to life. City officials laid plans for constructing a streetcar network and three new parks in the neighborhood, and a group of local developers agreed to build thousands of new apartments and make at least 35 percent of them affordable.

What came next was a decade of dizzying change that turned the Pearl District into one of the glitziest neighborhoods in the city.

Fun Fact: Although the developers didn’t live up to their affordability promises, they came closer than you might think. About 28 percent of the 2,000 units developed under the plan qualified as affordable housing, meaning that someone making 80 percent of the region’s median income (or about $45,000/year as an individual renter) could afford to live there.

Quotable: “It’s really a story about the evolution of a human habitat,” said Vernon “V” Vinciguerra, a documentary filmmaker who made A Visual History of the Pearl . “There were virtually no rules in the neighborhood before the ‘90s, and artists really flourished here. It’s now a vibrant but completely different neighborhood.”

Photo credit: Kevin Butz
Updated from Mar 28, 2019.