Lounge Singer


documentary photography Interstate 84 Oregon | Paul Ottaviano Photography
The Vault. The Dalles, OR.

One of the things I noticed during my Interstate 84 East project, is how zoning impacts a small town. Sure, it seems boring and innocuous, particularly to people who live in a metro area.

But in small towns it can have a deep impact. Take, for example, The Dalles.

It’s a small town about a one hour drive east of Portland, OR. To the east and south, there is only tiny settlements and rural areas. To its immediate north is the Columbia River. Around 20 miles west is Hood River, a place that has the distinction of being the “Windsurfing Capital of the World” and has created a crafty, cool image for itself. Hood River is the small Gorge town that most Portlanders go to, if they want a day off by the river.

So, how does The Dalles distinguish itself among its relative isolation and competition with neighboring Hood River? Windsurfing and water sports… no, beach areas are not accessible and as convenient as Hood’s. Craft breweries? Again, Hood River. A charming Historic Old Town District? Well, it could be. In fact, everything they need for it is there. But, zoning.

There are strip malls and areas around The Dalles that are zoned for corporate chains or bland looking small business, leaving their authentic Historic Downtown area to only a daytime working population, however scant that is in places. The problem with that? Not much use and vibrancy at night. In fact, it’s dead. So why should visiting people stop there, unless they’re esoteric photogs like myself? Turns out, not many locals go there, either.

The result is a very quiet downtown area and a seemingly desperate longing for cultural identity. Economically it’s a tough ride.

So it’s with that I give props to the nice people at The Vault Bistro and Lounge. They have their own casual thing going on, but are friendly and welcoming. The crowd and staff there skewed young adult, and native. Nobody was quitting on the old town area, not yet. A few people happily reminisced about their youth and how old town used to be.

I suppose if a town like The Dalles is ever going to be known for something more, they need to create their own image, however they can. Maybe they can start their own underground style of folk or country music, in a place like The Vault? It wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, look at Bakersfield, CA and their contributions to country music. Seriously, look it up.

Most likely, however, they will have to be content with themselves and what they do have. But in a world where cynicism and giving up is becoming fashionable, wherever that may occur, at least there are some folks who do their own thing, and don’t give a shit if it’s popular.



Interstate 84 East

street photography parade La Grande Oregon
Union County Fair Parade. La Grande, OR.

In Oregon, there are two distinct regions. Some in the south will tell you the line should be north-south, mostly for political reasons. But from my outsider-in point-of-view and taking environmental factors into consideration, it’s east and west Oregon.

West of the Cascades is what most outsiders envision when thinking about Oregon. It’s green, forested, cloudy, misty, rainy, Portland. East of the Cascades it’s drier, warmer, sunnier, plain, dusty and desolate brown landscape seemingly everywhere. There is no Portland of the east, only small towns.

One is populated and fancies itself trendy, progressive, modern. The other is sparse and is traditional, common, retrospective.

But this line is only imaginary, when you get down to what makes people who they are. The dress is casual, like anywhere else. There are lemons being driven on the road everywhere, just like west Oregon. People work, if they’re employed. For some, work might be a luxury rather than a real job. But the patterns are similar. Most go home to their families, friends, pets, or nobody. There are homeless. Some go out at night, even Monday’s. Meat is consumed, or it’s not. Beer and wine is made and drunk. Marijuana is smoked, somewhere, regardless of local laws. There is a soundtrack. Kids play. Students study, maybe. Fishermen fish. Athletes compete. Parents hover, or trust. Lovers love. People have relationships, especially when they shouldn’t. Folks get married, and then divorced. Houses look similar. There are Native-American reservations. Traffic sucks. Californians pass through, or worse, settle. Democrats and Republicans argue. Crime happens. There is talk of Pride Parades. Nobody reads print newspapers. Someone with a Washington State license plate drives like an asshole.

There wasn’t a specific agenda or itinerary for this project. I knew nobody. I did not have hotel-motel reservations for the night. Just hit the road and drove east, until I felt like stopping. There was no intention with the photography subject matter, other than to shoot what is there and with either my iPhone or a 28mm lens. The pictures would communicate, and anyone who sees them will have their own takeaways from it, or not. (Why only 28mm? Because I felt like it.)

I did not want to show things and places typically included in the tourism guides or the NYT. The off-the-path Oregon, where I could find it. Or, as some would say, “the real Oregon”, in all its good-bad-ugly-beautiful. This required visiting towns and places less popular. Hood River is not an accidental omission. If anything, I wanted to know the state better. And really, I also just felt like going for a long summer drive in my MINI Cooper.

What I did encounter were generally pleasant people, albeit perhaps a bit more reserved in their daily run-arounds in public. I also saw an adventurous spirit and generosity, particularly in Cascade Locks of all places, which seemed the most spontaneous of all towns I visited. There is an appreciation for local history and culture, maybe a desperate longing for it, especially in The Dalles. Other than a relative few Latino migrant workers, I did not see much diversity. But this was not a surprise.

I cannot discern if I visited the past, the proverbial time warp, or did I visit an economically dying culture near its last rites? Or, is it like this everywhere now, that isn’t dominated by corporate influence or hype? In other words, I didn’t visit fucking Aspen.

One thing is for certain, towns must have either an identity or function. If there is no identity, then a town must reinvent itself, or slowly wither and be resigned to sentiments for the past. If there can be no function or a new one found, and if there is no identity or one created, the town is dead.

Here’s hoping the towns featured here live on or find their way back. Will they? I don’t know. Like many things now, the Old Way is ebbing and the New Way has an uncertain future.

84 East Photo Gallery