Then and Now: Creating a Visual History of the Pearl

Vernon Vinciguerra, who goes simply by the nickname “V”, has a great story to tell. And he’s passionate about using the latest interactive technology to tell it. Since 1994, the charismatic and creative Portlander has been photographing and filming the rapid transformation of the Pearl District from a little-noticed warren of rail yards and warehouses into one of the country’s trendiest urban enclaves.

He’s currently working on a multimedia project about the neighborhood, a Visual History of the Pearl, which will comprise three distinct parts: a photography book, a documentary film, and an interactive AR (augmented reality) app. With the latter format, you could, for example, install the app on your phone or tablet, stand at a particular intersection in the neighborhood, and view historic pictures and video footage or listen to stories and re-enactments of events that took place there.

Visual History of the Pearl

V plans to shine a light on some of the true visionaries of this storied district, from artist Tom Stefopoulos and his iconic Lovejoy Columns to local musicians and filmmakers—Elliott Smith, the Dandy Warhols, Gus Sant—who’ve been directly inspired by the neighborhood’s beautiful bones. He points out that, “what drives this project visually is the architecture and the buildings, but what makes it compelling as a story are the people behind the neighborhood.”

He’s careful to point out that the Visual History of the Pearl is about much more than one albeit remarkable neighborhood. It explores, “how a single place can mean different things to different people,” he says. “It represents the creative spirit of Portland.” He plans to trace the area’s heritage all the way back to how this quintessential urban mixed-use neighborhood looked when pioneers first began settling here in the 1840s, how railroad transportation and industrialization shaped the Pearl’s evolution, how the urban growth boundary affected Portland’s density and trajectory, and how the neighborhood became a center of artistic expression and individualism in the late 20th century, as manufacturing declined and gentrification had yet to come.

Clearly captivated by how the Pearl has changed over the decades, V also intends to show how city planning and design have affected urban living. “It’s really a story about the evolution of a human habitat,” he says. “There were virtually no rules in the neighborhood before the ‘90s, and artists really flourished here. It’s now a vibrant but completely different neighborhood.”

Check out V’s current YouTube video for a preview of his efforts to document the neighborhood’s changes—it includes not only his images but also historic photos of the neighborhood. One street he’s presented in dazzling detail is 11th Avenue, from back when it was traversed by the Lovejoy Street Viaduct to its current appearance, lined with upscale loft condominiums and tony shops. Especially if you moved to Portland within the past 10 or 15 years, prepare to be amazed by just how much it’s changed, and how beautifully V has documented this metamorphosis.

This project is a labor of love, and a time-intensive and costly one at that. V is currently seeking visual input from photographers, artists, and developers to make this happen. The project will require support—he’s already received donations from such prominent Portlanders as Voodoo Doughnut founder Tres Shannon and real estate developer Homer Williams. For Visual History of the Pearl to fully succeed, V believes it will have to resonate with viewers and readers with a range of interests and backgrounds, not just locals and urban-history buffs. “If it doesn’t play in Peoria, it’s not worth doing,” he says. “It has to be of larger interest than just the Pearl, which is really just the vehicle for the story. I want to push beyond the usual conventions of how stories are told. A documentary is pretty well understood, but AR is  developing platform.”

Additionally, V would love to hear from Portlanders with stories, documents, photos, and other materials related to the neighborhood’s history. You can donate to the project via PayPal, or contact V directly with questions, comments, or other assistance. – Andrew Collins