Portland’s unlikely rise as a postmodern manufacturing hub

Known for “keeping it weird,” Oregon’s biggest city is also fighting hard to keep it local  

It’s 2 p.m. on a typically wet winter afternoon, and the 14,000-square-foot hub of Portland’s maker movement is buzzing, quite literally, with activity. The sound of saws, grinders and welders echoes through ADX Portland’s facility on the Central Eastside as dozens of small businesses owners, artists and hobbyists beaver away on electric guitars, upholstered chairs, beer tap handles and clothing racks.

My tour guide is Matt Preston, 29, who moved to Portland from small-town Florida almost two years ago. “My father was a master carpenter and the first few years of my life were spent in his workshop, which is where I got the inclination to work with my hands,” he says as we pass by the metal shop. Following a stint in alcohol sales after college, he moved west to pursue his dream: “I wanted out of the corporate, soulless work that I had been doing for so long and to find a job that gave me a sense of purpose.” He wanted to make things.

Preston started working at ADX first as a work-trade member—putting in 10-hour weeks cleaning and doing maintenance and small construction jobs in trade for a full membership and free classes. Eventually ADX founder Kelley Roy offered him work full-time as the organization’s communications director. “I think that this place really is a great example of the community-focused mindset of Portland’s creative community,” he says. Since launching five years ago, ADX has grown its membership from 20 to 185, with about 40 of those representing small businesses—sharing space, tools and knowledge. ADX also offers teambuilding exercises for some of the region’s top corporations (“We recently had a group of Nike lawyers come in who wanted to build a custom bench for their cafeteria with a beer cooler in the middle,” says Preston).

Portland—famous for its quirky and experimental culture—has proven fertile ground for the maker movement, which shares much the same ethos of the 100 Mile Diet movement: local businesses producing on a sustainable scale for local consumers. Among the success stories are ADX graduate Portland Razor Co. (one of the few handcrafted straight razor manufacturers in the world), Jacobsen Salt Co. (whose sea salts are the first to be harvested in the Pacific Northwest in over 200 years) and Spooltown (a small-run sewing outfit that makes handbags and accessories for local designers).

While the Central Eastside represents the heart of the city’s maker culture, it’s also at the heart of a debate about urban industry’s future. The area developed as an industrial enclave in the late 1800s—connecting farmers and distributors via the warehouses bordering the rail lines—but as the city has grown, industry is coming under pressure. Most tourists will be familiar with the transformation of the Pearl District—the downtown area immediately adjacent to Powell’s Bookstore. Like the Central Eastside, it too was once home to warehouses and light industry—until the late 1990s, when the elimination of a viaduct opened up the area to redevelopment. Now it’s a pedestrian-friendly mecca of upscale restaurants, shops and condominiums.

In a more organic way, gentrification has started coming to the Central Eastside as land in the booming region becomes an increasingly hot commodity. Fast-growing tech companies, always on the bleeding edge of real estate, are now moving across the Willamette River—and the hot new restaurants, distilleries and breweries drawing that moneyed crowd are following suit (RELATED: Eating and Drinking in the Central Eastside).

While locals like Matt Preston aren’t opposed to the influx of trendy eateries and buzzy tech firms, he and others want to preserve a balance—to keep some of the gritty industrial space that speaks both to Portland’s past and its future. And in the growth of ADX and similar organizations, he sees hope. 

“In Portland, despite everything that’s happening, there’s this huge movement of makers that’s constantly popping up. We had 10 new businesses start here in the last six months. This is where people go to work—but to work for what they love.”


One of Portland’s most character-filled properties, the Sentinel Hotel combines two historic buildings–the turn-of-the-20th-century Seward Hotel and neighbouring Portland Elks Lodge–into one boutique 100-room luxury experience in the heart of downtown.