The area was formerly used for warehousing, light industrial purposes and a railroad yard and was known as the “Northwest Industrial Triangle”.
In the 1990s, an elevated portion of NW Lovejoy Street from the Broadway Bridge past NW 10th Avenue was demolished, opening dozens of surrounding blocks (including some brownfield sites) for development, which peaked in the 2000s. The viaduct was notable for having columns painted by a railroad watchman who worked below; two of them have been saved. The increasing density has attracted a mix of restaurants, brewpubs, shops, and art galleries, though in some cases pioneering tenants have been priced out of the area.
According to Thomas Augustine, a local gallery owner, coined the name Pearl District more than 10 years ago to suggest that its industrial buildings were like crusty oysters, and that the galleries and artists’ lofts within were like pearls. As local business people were looking to label the growing area—the “warehouse district” or the “brewery district” were two suggestions—a writer for Alaska Airlines borrowed and popularized Augustine’s phrase.
The movie Drugstore Cowboy (1989), by Gus Van Sant, has several scenes shot in the neighborhood.
The area was platted as part of Couch’s Addition in 1869, and the area around North Park Blocks was developed primarily with one and two-story houses. The North Park Blocks contained the first park block dedicated to exclusive use by women and children, and later the first supervised children’s playground. Around the turn of the century, expansion of the rail yards from the north halted the growth of park blocks and housing, leading to the neighborhood’s gradual conversion to commercial and industrial uses. By 1910, the multi-story warehouses and commercial buildings with characterize the Pearl District today had become predominant.
Pioneering developers rediscovered the area in the 1980′s beginning the conversion of many of the old buildings to residential and multiple uses.
The term “Pearl District” caught on as a way to describe a neighborhood of rough old buildings each concealing “pearls” in the form of artists’ studios and art galleries.