2. Let the Light In - Upper Left Roasters
Let the Light In
Upper Left Roasters - Portland, OR
First, let’s get our bearings.
One of my favorite things about our city is its neat-and-tidy grid. There is a profound, comforting logic to the layout of the streets. If you appreciate order on a macro scale, look at a map of Portland, Oregon.
The Willamette River provides a clean division separating East and West Portland. Burnside St slices the North from the South. Numbered avenues neatly cross the named streets. God bless the OCD city planner who even gave us an alphabetized neighborhood. It’s really hard to get lost here.
In the midst of this perfect order, there is one glaring exception: the beautiful wheel of Ladd’s Addition.
Ladd’s is the oldest planned residential neighborhood in Portland. I could throw some stuffy facts at you about how it was named after Mayor William S. Ladd or how it was split up into the wheel-shape in 1891, features a stunning range of architectural styles, and is one of the only neighborhoods in Portland that has alleyways. But more importantly, you should know about how it feels to explore the Ladd’s neighborhood.
To get the best effect, you must roam it on foot or bicycle. The wheel-design spins stately American Elms in tall rows over the varied old houses. They create a dense green shade that protectively filter each season - the hot sun is cooled in high summer and a little less rain makes it to the sidewalk in the winter months. I grew up loving Ladd’s Addition and wished it could be my neighborhood. My parents lived there before I was born and would always point out their old house when we were nearby.
When we meet Katherine Harris in the Ladd’s neighborhood, she is so excited to speak to us. And for good reason: her beautiful new cafe just opened three days ago. Meet Upper Left Roasters, happily nestled and ready to welcome the neighborhood in the upper left corner of the Ladd’s wheel.
The building used to be the location of a notorious dive bar (carpet on the walls and ceilings! Who would have such an idea?) and this is such a changed space, you could tell me they’d helicoptered the old blue building out to sea and dropped these clean, white-washed walls in its stead and I would believe you.
Katherine and her dad/co-owner/partner Jim Harris have years of experience with making great food for Portland’s culinary community and they decided to launch a new project that combined their loves of coffee and food. Through collaborative work with the Oregon Coffee Board, Katherine met roaster Christopher Alspach. Discovering that they had compatible visions and ideas, he joined the project and they continued on a search for the perfect space.
By January 2015, they met with the landlord of the former Ladd’s Inn. By then, the plywood and carpet had been (mercifully, to all of us) ripped out, revealing high ceilings and beautiful historic windows. They signed the lease in February and began a collaboration with Fieldwork Design. Katherine really wanted the space to feel different than other coffee shops in Portland - “I wanted it to be light and bright and feminine” - and they succeeded in creating a fresh new addition to the coffee community.
The architecture is very hospitable and maintains primary elements of the original building: a broad skylight above the entryway, clear-paned windows facing North. The cafe and patio are a generous, open space. It feels like there’s room for everyone.
Katherine also collaborated with Adam Garcia, who created Upper Left’s signage and branding to round out the new identity of their new project. I ask her about her new staff and Katherine immediately gushes about her talented crew of baristas who are welcoming neighbors into the revitalized cafe.
Chris invites us over to the roasting workspace where he’s hard at work building Upper Left’s single origin coffee program. We get a sense of his excitement and pride to be a part of this coffee community. Coffee is having a moment here in town and shows no signs of stopping. “I feel like you would read about something like this about Paris in the late 1800s” he says.
I’ve found that any time a new business opens in an older, established space, neighbors come out of the woodworks with their stories. I once worked at a cafe that had previously housed a popular hot dog joint. Despite our extensive remodel, folks would earnestly step up to the coffee bar and attempt to order hot dogs. Some people would be sad that we were there, wistfully remembering their old neighborhood spot. Luckily, that has not been the case for Upper Left. The old Ladd’s Inn space was notoriously bad. (Carpet on the walls. Carpet!) Chris talks about how the community’s impression has been so positive - “it’s good that you did this,” they say, marvelling.
Construction towers for new building projects are quickly becoming a permanent fixture of our city’s skyline. Luckily, Upper Left is doing a great and necessary thing - revitalizing a space, and by extension, the beloved wheeled neighborhood. This structure has sat here on this corner for nearly one hundred years. Now, with this new energy and bright light, we can inhabit it for one hundred more.