Astoria has a garish and dramatic history, its fraught founding meticulously chronicled in Peter Stark’s award-winning book—a book with a title as long as the city’s renovated river walk: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire—A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. It is the story of John Jacob Astor’s venal and ultimately failed dream of establishing an international trading post on the Pacific coast to sell fancy fur like sea otter (aka “soft gold”) to the Chinese. Fragments of this history and of the later more pertinent histories of the city as a fishing and timber center are easy to find today. What is also easy to find today is a vibrant arts and cultural scene.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON
Mixed in with timber terminals, working canneries, and barking sea lions are a handful of busy galleries—galleries like the eclectic RiverSea; the intimate Imogen; the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery at Clatsop Community College; and the Lightbox Photographic Gallery, one of the best photographic galleries not just in Oregon, but on the whole West Coast. There is the refurbished Liberty Theatre, a general performance venue extraordinaire; Godfather’s Books, a Luddite’s summer-of-love sanctuary; and, of course, Vintage Hardware, a de facto museum which, in spite of some recent gentrification, remains a fascinating place, a capacious cabinet of curiosities.
It is a city with an unconventional beauty all its own, an authentic time-worn quality—a city that nurtures a strong sense of connection to its working-class past.
It is also a city that offers plenty of tourist-friendly programing. There is the Crab, Seafood, and Wine Festival in April; the Astoria Music Festival and the Scandinavian Festival in June; and the Astoria Regatta in August. But its most inspired annual offering is, I think, the FisherPoets Gathering in February—”a celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose, and song.” It is a weekend-long extravaganza with a hundred fisher poets—deckhands, skippers, cannery workers, and shipwrights from the East and West Coast—descending on the city to read for each other and for growing crowds in Astoria’s pubs, restaurants, and galleries. This coming year’s will be the 22nd such gathering.
FLAVEL HOUSE, 2013
PIER 11, 2018
FISHER BROS. COMPANY, 2014
RAIL CAR, 2015
CARGO SHIP, 2014
VOODOO ROOM, 2016
COLUMBIAN CAFÉ, 2011
JESUS BUS, 2013
LIBERTY THEATRE, 2016
CANNERY PIER HOTEL, 2017
VINTAGE HARDWARE, 2016
- See Down to the Sea in Ships, Lori Tobias’s ArtsWatch preview of the 125th annual Astoria Regatta, which runs Aug. 7-10, and the now-past Pacific City Dory Days.
- K.B. Dixon’s latest book Too True: Essays on Photography has been selected as a Finalist for the Best Book Award, the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and a National Indie Excellence Award.