Saturday Market: A Portland Tradition Keeps on Giving,

Saturday Market: A Portland Tradition Keeps on Giving

By Vanessa Harless (Anthony)
November 22, 2007

For the last 34 years the Portland Saturday Market (PSM) has been a staple of the Portland community and one of its major tourist attractions. Started in 1974 by Sheri Teasdale and Andrea Scharf, it is the largest outdoor arts and crafts market (in continuous operation) in the United States, and it’s easy to see why it’s such a favorite.

The PSM sells everything from handmade pottery, soaps and hats to sculpture, leather goods, art and jewelry. In addition, the market comes alive with the sounds of music, performance art and the enticing smell of savory multi-cultural food offerings. We don’t have to tell you how much fun you’ll have during a weekend visit (despite the moniker, the market is open on Sunday, too), but perhaps some insight into its history and future plans will help you appreciate this uniquely Portland event all year long.

Both Teasdale and Scharf were Portland area artists who had taken their work down to the Eugene Saturday Market (founded in 1970, the Eugene Market is the oldest weekly open air crafts market in the US), and they were inspired to bring a similar market to downtown Portland. In December of 1973 Teasdale and Scharf began pounding the pavement to promote their idea and drum up support for “an open-air market of all handmade food and craft items.”

Teasdale and Scharf believed that the market would provide artists a place in which to sell their wares and for people to see their work, consumers an opportunity to gain better access to handmade and locally-produced items, and the city yet another attraction to bring in tourists to the downtown area.

After months of soliciting support for their new venture and receiving positive feedback, Scharf and Teasdale, along with Raul Soto-Seelig, Anne Hughes and George Sheldon, created a preliminary board of directors and incorporated under the name Portland Saturday Market as a non-profit mutual benefit corporation. The idea of being a non-profit was integral to the concept of the market — they wanted a place where artists would work together to support one another, sharing the cost of running the market and the profits. One grant from the Metropolitan Arts Council and a generous offer from Portland businessman, Bill Naito, to use his parking lot…and the rest is history.

Saturday Market started in what used to be affectionately called the butterfly lot (because of the huge butterfly mural that used to grace the wall next to the lot), originally opening for the season in May. Over the years, the season got pushed back to April, and now the PSM is open ten months of the year, from March through December, with several special holiday events including the Holiday Artisan Market (Dec 4 – 6 & 11 – 13, 11:00am – 6:00pm), when PSM vendors move to Pioneer Courthouse Square, and the Festival of the Last Minute, when the festival is open everyday December 17 – 21 & 24 (11:00am – 6:00pm).

“When the Market first started, it was a free-for-all in terms of how you got a spot,” said PSM Promotions and Events Coordinator Reid Decker. “There was even a chair tossing event to choose spots at one point. It was all first-come, first-served in the beginning, and then as you got more and more vendors, they begin to want a regular spot. Now it’s based a lot on seniority and points — how long you’ve been here and worked, the days that you work, if you come both days instead of just one.

“We currently have 400 members, but the market itself only has 235 spots available that are constantly rotating,” Reid continued. “Of the 400 members, half of them have been with us 20 years or more.”

In the 34 years since the market’s inception, PSM has seen some major changes and is about to gear up for yet another. The market expanded when it moved from Naito’s butterfly lot to its current location under the Burnside Bridge in the late ‘70s, and in 1986, the institution of the light rail system in downtown Portland brought people to the Market like never before. Most recently, PSM has welcomed the Skidmore Market (adjacent to the Saturday Market on the east side of the light rail tracks), which, unknown to most Portlanders, is not a part of the Saturday Market. Instead, the Skidmore Market is a for-profit, family-owned import market, unaffiliated with PSM’s non-profit artist’s organization.

The latest change for the Saturday Market will be the creation of the Waterfront Park, Ankeny Plaza and Streetscape Improvement Project by the Portland Development Commission in cooperation with Portland Parks and Recreation, as part of a Skidmore/Old Town National Historic District revitalization plan by the City of Portland. The PDC considers the Portland Saturday Market “a vital cultural and economic institution for the region and the District,” and as such, they’re prepared to expedite plans for the Waterfront Park and Ankeny Plaza improvement projects in order to sustain the market.

Several private development plans have created urgency for PSM to find a new home. Mercy Corps, University of Oregon and Bill Naito Company all have announced plans in the next six months to develop the area currently used by and surrounding the Saturday Market. Mercy Corp will begin construction on their new World Headquarters in Skidmore Fountain Building B and adjacent parking lots (currently home to PSM vendors) in March 2008, while the University of Oregon will be moving their Portland campus to the White Stag Building by January 2008. The City hopes that these development efforts will bring “the promise of new energy and vitality to this cherished historic district.”

In the meantime, the PDC and Portland Parks and Recreation are working with the Saturday Market, the community (through a Project Advisory Committee) and a Technical Advisory Group (that includes Tri-Met, various city bureaus and Multnomah County Bridge Section) to firm up plans for the $8.5 million eco-friendly “green designed” Waterfront Park, Ankeny Plaza and Streetscape Improvement Project in time for PSM’s move from it’s current location to its new home in Waterfront Park as early as March of next year.

The goal of the project is to “create vibrant public spaces that respect the characters of both the historic neighborhood and the park, are multi-purpose, sustainable and functional in nature, and create safe pedestrian and visual corridors from the waterfront to downtown,” according to the PDC’s website.

The final Waterfront Park, Ankeny Plaza and Streetscape Improvement Project plans were revealed June 13 at an open house by the PDC and PP&R. What these plans show is a beautifully laid out, open-air space and serene park setting that will house the new Portland Saturday Market.
Portland’s Saturday Market has carved a niche for itself in the hearts and minds of Portlanders, and with the care and planning taken by the city to ensure its future, you can count on one thing — that this historic, artisan market will be enjoyed by many generations to come.