Parking spaces in front of the Pacific Way Cafe & Bakery in Gearhart's town center sit vacant. But the restaurant brims with hungry diners, some of them waiting outside for a table. These friendly patrons have worked up quite an appetite, walking rather than driving from their homes. "That's the Gearhart way," says resident Cindy Hawkins, pointing to passersby. "This is a walking town. Even in summer, when the vacationers come, there isn't much traffic to speak of because everyone would rather go anywhere by foot than by car."
Established in 1890, this Oregon city has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with visitors, whose seasonal presence triples the population. Locals, who number 1,100 year-round, rarely hesitate to give thanks for some 2,000 additional summer people, who pump money into their economy. Most of the temporary folks flock here from busy Seattle or Portland to be near this stretch of spectacular sea. Still, Gearhart hasn't grown like Cannon Beach (10 miles south), where signs of tourism are far more obvious. Nor have small businesses been vanquished by commercialization.
The junction at Pacific Way and Cottage Avenue features specialty shops, small businesses, a corner grocery, and the café. All of these structures bear the town's signature ornament: a Fitzgerald's hanging basket, fat with flowers. The neighborhood gardening and interior decor shop provides these oversize floral arrangements that sway in the ever-present breeze. Fitzgerald's owner, Don Burdulis, says people come back each summer to see the flowers around town. He was one of those admirers before he acquired the store that started this colorful tradition.
"My wife and I came here every year from Bellevue, Washington, and we always stopped by Fitzgerald's to see the flowers and the garden art," Don says. "Then one day we heard the owner of Fitzgerald's was selling, and I think we were both surprised at how sad we were. So we played with the idea of keeping it alive. And here we are. And here we're going to stay."
Fitzgerald's wears the same weathered shingles as many of the town's houses. "We're right by the Pacific Ocean and we look like we belong in Cape Cod," says Jill Graham, owner of Gearhart Grocery. "But the weather is as Pacific Northwest as it comes: fog and drizzle and magnificent storm watching."
Six months of the year―mainly late fall, winter, and early spring―clouds hover overhead, the rains fall with regularity, and locals retreat to the comfort of their homes. "Winter is our hibernation time, our book-reading days," says Cindy, "because when summer comes, we do three times as much work, making up for whatever we lacked in the slower season. And we get to know the vacationers. The advantage is that even if we don't go anywhere, we feel like we've been on a vacation to the beach because they make us see the beauty we have here with fresh eyes."
The beach pulled Nina Kristiansen to Gearhart from San Pedro, California. "I grew up near the water, so I knew I couldn't ever live without it. I was drawn to Oregon, so I drove from Astoria down to Newport, checking out houses and rentals along the way. And then I stumbled upon Gearhart. I didn't think towns like this existed anymore. Many folks from Oregon haven't even heard of us yet. And that's part of why I love it. Our anonymity allows for this incredible spirit, where everyone does know each other, where your kids can still play outside without your worrying, where neighbors help you out if you need anything. And isn't that what a community is, after all?"