From handmade dinosaur dioramas and mini-community art galleries to little free libraries filled with nostalgic VHS tapes and colorful skeins of yarn, Southeast Portland neighborhoods are rich with fun sidewalk surprises built by the very people who live there.
Little Free Landmarks Explained
Little Free Libraries have been a familiar sidewalk attraction in Portland for many years. Free libraries might look like big birdhouses or mailboxes from afar but you’ll find them stacked with books looking for a new home. While the Little Free Library originated in St. Paul, Minnesota, it’s a perfect fit for crafty, book-loving Portland. When I moved to Portland more than a decade ago, I found new-to-me writers from Little Free Libraries and fell in love with their work.
In recent years, a new wave of “Little Free” landmarks has arisen out of creativity, fun and that trademark “Keep Portland Weird” energy. Although these sidewalk attractions appear all around the city, below, I share some of my favorites in Southeast Portland. With so many of these popping up, they’re a perfect sightseeing glimpse into each community. Take a walking, biking or rolling tour to check them all out.
Just northeast of Mount Tabor, in the cozy Montavilla neighborhood, Rachael Harm Mahlandt stages a tiny dinosaur wonderland in the corner of her front yard. Mahlandt was first inspired by a neighbor who created a diorama in their yard just to amuse Mahlandt’s two small kids on their daily walks. Her PDX Dinorama + Dino Exchange features dinosaurs on bikes, roasting marshmallows and other fun reimaginings with a constant fresh rotation of dinos that visitors leave or take away. “My long-term, long-term goal will be that someday somebody tells me that they grew up with the Dinorama,” said Mahlandt. “My heart will explode thinking that this was part of someone’s childhood memory and that this seemed maybe normal to them.”
Poetry Pottery Box is a must-see for travelers who admire beautifully lyrical ceramic pieces. Dan Peccia is a potter who inscribes his pottery with poetry and song lyrics. If you have some time, you can leave your own poem and contact information in the box and Peccia will create a piece just for you. Nothing says Portland more than an artist ready to place your poetry on their art, and many of the pieces are for sale (and the perfect size for a carry-on!)
While many sidewalk attractions are exchanges based on the Little Free Library model, Portland has no shortage of art for art’s sake. The Morrison Street Minigallery, one of the oldest little free landmarks, features a new artist every month. Recent installations include works by Joel Conroy from Lil’ Planets and Ellis Chaney with Hilary Nichols from the Lavender Astronaut.
A short bike ride in the shadow of Mount Tabor Park is the Lantern Diorama, maintained by a 10-year-old, showing a mini world set within a glass lantern.
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Community connections are at the heart of all the little free landmarks. “I think of it as an offering,” said Grant Brady, the creator behind Free Little Art Gallery PDX in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. The Free Little Art Gallery is an adorable exhibition of community art, postcard-sized watercolors and crayon sketches from neighborhood kids, fitted with tiny plastic people viewing paintings and drawing — all to scale. Visitors can take a piece of art or leave something for someone else. “A lot of the regular art is from neighbors within a few blocks,” said Brady. “I think that’s so cool, that you’re seeing literally neighborhood art.”
Visitors and locals alike can pick up unique souvenirs like a small plant from the Free Tiny Greenhouse. “The greenhouse is my attempt to share my love of plants to hopefully spark interest in folks who want to try to maintain a plant but don’t want to pay for them; make them more accessible; and create community,” said owner Josh Rossetti. Recently, I dropped off a few jade, haworthia and aloe pups. They had been picked up days later and I understood what Rossetti meant about sharing the love.
For those looking for a year-round display of friendly neighborhood skeletons, the SkeleKrewe yard near Woodstock Park hosts a vibrant display of colorful (and occasionally creepy) costumes and props.
Little free landmarks are passion projects that provide peeks into the different interests of Portlanders. Liz Middleton and her husband built the Be Kind VHS Depot off Southeast 45th Avenue to share their throw-back interest in VHS tapes and films during the pandemic. “How do we kind of connect with folks but do it in a safe way and do it around something that we’re passionate about?” asked Middleton. They landed on a free movie library, where passersby can browse movie titles and discover something new — bringing back the joy and happy memories of stumbling across a new film at Blockbuster. VHS tapes are a physical medium that has become more obsolete and are often tossed away. “It’s something that has value that you’re saving from just being thrown out,” said Middleton. “So there’s that aspect of recycling it in a sense.” There’s also the nostalgia for many of us who grew up with the “Be Kind, Rewind” slogan stuck in our heads.
Find Little Free Landmarks
It’s All Mapped Out
Mahlandt and Brady (of Dinorama and Free Little Art Gallery fame) created the PDX Sidewalk Joy map as a way to share all the sidewalk attractions across Portland. “Different neighborhoods have different vibes and things that they have going on,” said Mahlandt, pointing out how visitors can see the unique character of each neighborhood through its little free landmarks. “So you get to stroll around and come across some unexpected delight.” The map is frequently updated with new sidewalk discoveries and is a great tool to plan a day of neighborhood hopping.
If you’re taking yourself on a sightseeing tour of all the amazing little landmarks, download Travel Portland’s Near Me Now app to find nearby restaurants and shops so you can make a whole day out of it. The Near Me Now app includes little free landmarks and lets you easily discover other interesting places to check out, from food cart pods to lush parks.
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