Just a few miles north and across the Willamette River from downtown Portland lies the Swan Island Industrial Area. Rich with history, it’s now filled with office buildings, heavy industry, and warehouses that few people think of when they think of Portland. At the northern tip of what is now technically a peninsula (it was dredged in 1927) is the headquarters of the seven companies in the Vigor Industrial family. It’s a 56-acre industrial park where — quite unexpectedly — the preferred mode of transport is a bicycle.
I first saw the heavy-duty, industrial cruiser bikes ridden by scores of ship builders, ship painters, and other tradespeople when I first visited the area last October for a bike fashion show. Ever since then I’ve wanted to go back and last Friday I finally did.
Alan Sprott is the VP of Development for Vigor. After setting me up with a hard-hat and safety glasses (something everyone in the shipyard must wear), he told me bikes have been a mainstay in the yards since World War II. “It’s just such a big place, pretty much everyone down here owns one.” With about 850 employees, that adds up to a lot of bikes.
There wasn’t a lot of bike traffic during the hour or so spent being whisked around in a golf cart, but I hear during shift changes and during busier times (things are slow with the economy), it can get quite congested with bikes.
What I did see were big and tough guys piloting just-as-tough cruisers to lunch and in between work sites. I love the utilitarian bikes, with that rusted patina and banged up character. Many of the bikes have also been given names like “Pipe Shop” and “Brian Jones.” What I think I like best about these bikes is that I work in a world where “bicyclists” are maligned for being elitist-hipster-righteous-scofflaws, yet for the folks down in the yards, it’s just about getting from A to B in simplest, most efficient way possible.