Tucked away between the iconic Hippo Hardware and Old Town Music in Portland’s inner eastside is Rainbow City—an up-and-coming electronic music and events venue new to the city. It sounds cliche, but a place like this is hard to put into words—”ethereal” and “otherworldly” come to mind. Visualize a world filled with colorful, painted walls and disparate art pieces. Neon lights and large figures of a unicorn and triceratops sit in the middle of the space, beckoning prospective riders. And there are belly dancers. That’s Rainbow City.
Opening at the start of the pandemic, Rainbow City’s founder Strawberry Pickle has had to contend with fluctuating health regulations and restrictions for pretty much the entirety of the space’s existence. To adapt to this new normal, Rainbow City had to evolve beyond Pickle’s initial conception of the venue.
The space was originally conceived as something of a personal venue for Pickle when her career focus was as a DJ. As clubs and venues became unsafe, Pickle transformed the dance floor into a funky, ad-hoc dining area. Then, as eat-in establishments began to also become restricted, she further adjusted the space to meet proper health standards.
So, you might be wondering what function it serves today. The location is a quasi-collective which hosts independent businesses and artists who are contract workers or their own bosses. Pickle believes people shouldn’t rely on corporate America and they should trust in themselves to do what they love for work, rather than what is expected of them.
This passion for self-employment is exactly what inspired Rainbow City. As an army veteran and former preschool owner, Pickle said she became tired of adhering to someone else’s structure. She wanted an occupation that came with a sense of freedom, and she wanted to make up her own rules.
“I had this near death experience, during which I had this epiphany, this big spiritual awakening,” Pickle said. “That’s when I had this vision of what now is Rainbow City. I went to investors and the bank seeking loans, and tried explaining my vision with words like, ‘big fluffy clouds and lots of lights’—and they just couldn’t see it the way I did.” Pickle emphasized financing Rainbow City in those early stages was challenging, but she was adamant to get it done.
Finding an actual physical location for the space proved difficult for Pickle, as well. It was about a year and a half before the location became available—a shuttered auto shop that Pickle thought was perfect for her new workspace. Not only was the interior “perfect,” as Pickle described it, but Hippo Hardware has a rainbow wall adjacent to her space that she says was a part of her original vision.
Pickle wanted the space so much that she sold her house to cover the startup costs. She said she had “just enough to cover first, last and the current month’s rent,” but she was still ecstatic about it.
“I put everything I had into getting this place and I had just enough to do it,” Pickle said. “Total serendipity, every part of it.”
Pickle had to endure a great deal of sacrifice to create Rainbow City. “Now that it’s a reality, I see it as a gift from the universe,” she said.
Currently, Rainbow City is home to several regular, independent artists that sell a variety of products such as paintings, hand-made jewelry, vintage clothing and holistic health care boxes. Attached to the venue is a small food cart hub, and the aforementioned belly dancing troupe performs almost every Saturday night to live music.
Aside from retail, the business doubles as an exhibit for Pickle and other local artists to display their current work. The majority of the outsourced art is graffiti from local, Portland artists. The majority of the space is essentially a gallery dedicated to Pickle’s own art.
The real attraction is Rainbow City’s decor and atmosphere—a kaleidoscope of bouncing lights and neon graffiti, like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles filled with MD 20/20. In a seating area there’s a sofa with Hawaiian flowers painted over it and vintage arcade cabinets like Pac-Man and Galaga. It’s a real trip.
Everything in the studio is hand-made by Pickle herself. She puts her whole heart and imagination into keeping the area fresh and vibrant with new art pieces and installations.
As far as health regulations go, attending Rainbow City is approximately like shopping at a farmer’s market: masks are required, socially distancing is expected and try not to touch what you’re not planning to buy.
Pickle told me that Rainbow City was ”made for everyone [and] it was made for Portland.” The artist wants people to come experience the world she’s made, and to buy and sell locally made goods that further support the blue-collar independent contractors in our community. Simply put, Rainbow City’s a network of talented artists that seems to be growing with each passing day.