I got word that the HI-Portland Hawthorne Hostel is closing for good. The pandemic has shut the hostel down since late March, yet there was some hope that things would “get back to somewhat normal” and the hostel could re-open. This of course is not the case. The parent company (Hostelling International-USA) has decided to sell the building in order to generate some revenue. With the impending sale, an era has ended. The hostel saw thousands upon thousands of travelers in its thirty-six year history. Now it will see no more.
I worked at the hostel from February of 2006 to November of 2018, with a gap in 2011-12 when I did my Cross-Continent Tour. And I had been working on a “fill-in” basis from when I left up until the shuttering in March. At twelve years, it’s the longest job I ever had. I met a lot of people there over the years (especially the bike tourists). It was a fun job for awhile and had perks, like staying at other hostels for free. It felt good working for a non-profit that cared about the environment and had bicycle touring entwined in its history. In fact, HI-USA when it was American Youth Hostels was the preeminent bike touring organization in America up until the 1970’s. The founders of Adventure Cycling Association learned most of the ropes from them!
But truth be told: I stayed way too long at that job. It should have been a sign that I was done when I first quit in 2011 to go on that big tour. But I came back to town and couldn’t find another job (not that I put that great of an effort into my search, mind you.) They had a position available and were willing to take me back. I needed the money and it was “the devil I knew”, so I added another six years to the tally. The second stint was nowhere near as fun as the first, and the toxicity and co-dependence involved in the workplace came into sharper relief. Still, I stuck around until I got the gumption to leave.
Despite my antipathy to the hostel when I finally left, I could still see the value in the place. I have run into a lot of people over the years who told me that the Hawthorne Hostel was the first place they stayed when they moved to Portland. And low-cost lodging gave budget travelers an opportunity to crash in the Rose City when prices for “conventional” lodging kept on rising.
But it’s been a hard decade for hostelling in general: First, hospitality “communities” like Couchsurfing started to grab the super-budget travelers, especially the ones who were more pulling to put up with the possible weirdness inherent in the service. Then AirBnB moved in, flaunting regulations (at first) that legit lodging facilities were beholden to. AirBnB promised cooler accommodations, often at prices not much more than what the hostel was charging. Why pay for a bunk bed in a room with seven strangers when you could have some cool over-the-garage studio to yourself, located in a “funky” and cool neighborhood, for a little more?
Now hostelling is facing a bigger, possibly insurmountable challenge, way bigger than the downturn in travel after 9/11. The whole concept of hostelling is built on being in close proximity to people you don’t know, whether it be the communal areas, dorm rooms, or bathrooms. Unlike a hotel, there’s no way for people to stay separated and self-quarantined.* And even when the pandemic ends, I’m sure folks are going to be leery of a hostel-style format for many years.** I don’t know if the concept of hostelling can survive.
And it would be a tragic loss if the pandemic kills the concept of hostelling, not just the Hawthorne Hostel. I have lots of good memories from my travels to other hostels, especially the many varied hostels in the Canadian Rockies. I got to know my fellow travelers in an convivial environment conducive to conversation. If hostelling can survive, it’s going to have to change. And I don’t know how that change is going to look.
Even though I was burnt out with the place, the Hawthorne Hostel will still hold a special place in my heart. It’s sad that it will no longer be with us. And that includes the building itself: While it’s a lovely and big house built in 1909, I can see someone buying the property to tear it down and put up a four story apartment building. So if you are in the neighborhood, take a good long look at the hostel, the building may not be with us for much longer.
*Bigger hostels tend to be a collection of small dorms and private rooms, so they could switch to a more hotel-like format for the time being and survive. The Hawthorne Hostel was primarily big dorm rooms with a couple small private rooms, so it wasn’t able to convert.
**It is true that hostelling did exist in the time of the 1918-20 Influenza Pandemic. But it was only a decade old and mostly concentrated in Germany. I don’t think there was much hostelling going on then due to World War I. The concept of Hostelling really blossomed in the 1930’s, when budget travel for young people was needed due to The Depression.