Just Big Enough

Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2016 it’s an exciting and livable city.

It helps that it’s bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. “No!” they said, “No! We’re not a big city. We’re just a large town.” I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult—as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I’m sticking to it.

Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant—if constantly shifting—restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, book stores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they’re talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability for an NBA or MLS franchise.

Size also lets business sectors develop an abundance of skilled and knowledgeable workers. If the city is large enough to support a wide array of good brewpubs, it automatically has a skilled pool of brewmasters to further advance the art and craft. A flourishing electronics industry depends on the availability of computer engineers who can move from one company to another. Metal fabricators, animators, sound technicians—a large city has pools of talented people who can staff and support new ventures.

How big is big enough? As far as I’m concerned, a metropolitan area of a million people just barely makes the cut (that’s Portland in the 1970s). Two million is a whole lot better (that’s Portland today).

Here are some off the cuff comparisons: Spokane, Boise, and Fresno aren’t big enough. They’re more likely to have one or two of something than a wide variety. Salt Lake City has just edged into OK-ness in the current century, but Seattle passed the two-million mark back in the 1970s and Denver did it around 1990.

More than anything else, size brings variety of people. Cities are huge machines for making connections. You can call a city a market, a switchboard, or a search engine. Whatever the metaphor, we have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and the build new things and ideas as a result. Big is good because of simple mathematics—more people with ideas mean more possible combinations and permutations of those ideas.

More than a century and a half ago, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill had it down. In The Principles of Political Economy (1848) he wrote: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.”

J. S. Mill was a very smart guy, and as far as I’m concerned, he nailed it. We go to the country to relax. We come to the city to get ideas.

How Scanners Democratize History

How Scanners Democratize History

Upstairs at the Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café in downtown Portland, Oregon hip young adults are eating, drinking, and occasionally shooting pool. Downstairs another fifty people are eating, drinking, and listening to me lecture about the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the world’s fair staged in Portland in 1905. The audience includes a few students, some history buffs, and a meet-up group of 40ish and 50ish singles. I click away with my PowerPoint, they eat nachos and sip wine, and we all have a good time.

It’s June 21, 2011, and the first in a monthly series of Stumptown Stories sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia, an online project to create a reliable peer-reviewed reference on Oregon history. The encyclopedia’s editors are advocates of public history who see this sort of event as a way to generate ideas for entries, interest potential contributors, and inform the community. Speakers in the series have discussed topics like the Portland Longshore Strike of 1934 and lesbian communes in 1970s Oregon. The presenters have been academics, journalists, students, and history aficionados.
And that’s not all. The Oregon Historical Society sponsors a monthly History Pub lecture at McMenamins-Kennedy School, a trendy bar-restaurant-hotel-theater located in a 1920s elementary school building. McMenamins is a chain of brewpubs that likes to recycle old buildings and has its own skilled historian on staff. The Oregon Encyclopedia has its own arrangements for lectures in two other McMenamins locations in Portland and another series in the central Oregon city of Bend. Portland Monthly, a slick lifestyle magazine, sponsors a monthly discussion in another downtown club on urban design and planning with periodic invitations for local historians to provide historical context for such issues as downtown redevelopment.

Give much of the credit to the folks who developed optical scanners and yes, I hate to say so, PowerPoint for this explosion of historical activity. There has always been an appetite for local history. We might even call it a gateway drug for an interest in wider historical topics (along with the Civil War, of course). What’s new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and internet connection can access scanned documents and images—or perhaps scan their own—and join the public conversation as a blogger, lecturer, web site maven, or gadfly.

Scanners—the machines and the people who like to use them—are democratizing history, opening new opportunities for academic historians like me to reach new audiences and to interact with people producing and consuming history.

Scanners Democratize Access

Like many historians, I have somewhat fond memories of sitting in real archives on very hard wooden chairs paging through old books and opening folders stuffed with potentially fascinating letters and memos. The Newberry; the Huntington; the Library of Congress; local history rooms in public libraries in Washington, Norfolk, Denver, and other cities—they’ve all contributed to my historian persona.

But isn’t it nice to call up documents on screen? From the National Archives to university special collections departments, from state historical societies to custodians of archeological sites, keepers of historical information are scanning vast quantities of documents and images for their web sites. What historian of the United States hasn’t clicked into the American Memory site of the Library of Congress or other similar web sites to grab a map or picture for a lecture, identify documents for class assignments, or find an illustration for a book? And more to the point, what “amateur” history blogger hasn’t done the same, with exactly the same access and ability to dig up gems as someone who used to be privileged with access to academic archives?

I’ve written two studies of the development of cities in western North America, each peppered (or spiced?) with visual images.1 For the book that I wrote in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to receive a small university research grant that let me visit photo archives around the West—the University of Washington Special Collections, the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, the Los Alamos Historical Society. Fifteen years later, I sat at my computer and clicked through menus of scanned images helpfully posted by the same historical organizations and many others. It was a great road trip the first time around, but the new technology would now allow anyone to replicate my search without putting expensive miles on their car.

Private collections of images and letters as well as the contents of public archives can now be made readily available. I recently wrote an overview history of Portland for general readers.2 Half the pictures came from private collectors who have assembled thousands of images: One buys up the files of defunct photographic studios and newspapers. Another scours garage sales and used book stores. These collectors have digitized their photographs for quick sharing with students, bloggers, and other people with the history bug. One of them commented that he simply wouldn’t be able to inventory and share his materials so generously if they weren’t in electronic form.

One of my students, Tanya March, recently drew on these same private collectors in researching her doctoral dissertation about the construction and social life of a World War II housing project for shipyard workers in Portland. She also monitors eBay for relevant images and creatively tapped new sources by sponsoring reunions of residents—who of course were children in the early 1940s. Many of them brought out photo albums from their attics. Tanya borrowed and scanned photos, posted some on a web site that attracted more people for interviews, and thus uncovered more images to scan and post. Her scanner was an important tool of research that helped to make the former residents co-producers of the community history.

Scanners Improve Lectures

Does PowerPoint make for more engaging lectures than a carousel of 35-millimeter slides? A few years ago I was skeptical, particularly after reading Edward Tufte’s denunciation of PowerPoint as a cognitive straitjacket.3 Now I’m converted for the simple reason of ease and richness of imagery. One of my special interests is the history of the Columbia River Gorge, its development for tourism, and its regulation as a National Scenic Area. Last year when I did one of those McMenamins lectures, I put the presentation together by scanning some black and white glossy prints that have been in my files for 20 years and pulling other images from half a dozen different web sites (special appreciation to the staff historians at the Oregon Department of Transportation). The message was my own interpretation of the role of “imperial” urban centers in the development of tourism, but the medium was a PowerPoint drawn from open access websites.

We can generalize. Our local proliferation of lectures and history nights wouldn’t be possible without the wealth of images on the web. Some of the presenters have their own collections. Others pick and choose from the millions of images online. Audiences come to learn from words, but they also expect pictures—and lots of them. When I talk about Portland’s changing neighborhoods, do listeners come for the carefully gathered statistics on ethnicity from the 1900 census that I find so interesting? Or do they come for the pictures of vanished houses and turn-of-the-century trolley cars? The whole, I hope, is more than the sum of its parts, but it is the abundance of scanned images that grabs the attention.

The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches. It’s one thing for me to talk about Henri Lefebvre in a graduate seminar, another to use “before and after” images of a vanished African American neighborhood to help an audience think about Lefebvre’s “right to the city” without necessarily using those words. Moreover, audiences at the various presentations find it hard to tell the difference between university historians, public historians, and community historians if we all have decent PowerPoints.

A Website of One’s Own

Web sites and blogs are easier than old-fashioned self-publishing. If you have amassed interesting information that you couldn’t fit in your MA thesis, post it on a website. If you want more than a dozen people to read your actual thesis, post it as well—a good alternative to going through the scholarly publishing routine if you are not aiming at an academic career. This sort of posting, of course, is far more attractive if it includes lots of scanned images and documents. Graduates of Portland State’s MA program in public history sometimes supplement their thesis with a web site.4 While she works on shaping her dissertation research into publications about the history of childhood, Tanya March maintains a web site on her housing project.5

People who have never been interested in a graduate history degree can also take their collection of postcards, scan them, and put them up. If you are fascinated with old buildings or old neighborhoods, put up pictures and scan in old documents… blog about what you know… invite comments to fill in details and start a discussion. Portland has half a dozen interesting history blogs, all relying on scanned images for much of their impact. They’re not always interested in how the details fit into larger narratives, but they repeatedly teach me new things about a city I’ve been studying for three decades.6 They’re also a reminder that I need more pictures for my own web site where I’ve largely been posting op-ed columns and shorter magazine writing.

Historians All

here is even more community history going on, of course. As I write, historic preservation activists have just completed a neighborhood National Register Nomination to which I’ve contributed. Community historians have recently published several solidly documented architectural and neighborhood histories. Graduates of Portland State University’s public history program are preserving documentaries made in the 1970s and presenting them with framing commentary by architects and historians—sometimes with their own sets of scanned images. Historical walking tours are available in flavors from traditional to twenty-something hip. Residents and tourists can visit not only the Oregon Historical Society but also the Architectural Heritage Center (which has its own public programs), Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Oregon Jewish Museum (which recently cooperated on very cool programming about Mel Blanc, the Portland native who voiced Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig).

Carl Becker delivered my favorite American Historical Association presidential address eight decades ago, reminding his audience that we are all historians in the most basic sense of constructing temporal stories from the chaos of events:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.7

Becker was thinking in theoretical and political terms about the production and validation of knowledge, but the ubiquitous scanner is now helping to give concrete form to his point about the democratic basis of historical understanding. Scanners are an active technology for research and dissemination of historical information. They are also a metaphor for a changing world in which the historical enterprise is increasingly available for everyone. The result, at least in my city, has been burgeoning popular consumption and production of history. I find it exciting. Without abandoning specialized academic and monographic history, we have great opportunities to encourage, cooperate, and partner with the non-academic and community historians to help history do its work in the world.

Notes
1. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
2. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).
3. Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2003).
4. Sarah Paulsen. ” The Oaks in the Progressive Era.”
5. Tanya Lyn March. “Guild’s Lake Courts.”
6. Examples from Portland include the very interesting blog Cafe Unknown, the extensive Historic Photo Archive, and the historic photo blog Vintage Portland.
7. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37, no.2 (January 1932): 234.
Copyright © American Historical Association

Portland the TV Star

A few months ago, a writer for Portland’s Metroscape magazine interviewed me and Karin Magaldi from the Portland State theater department. The topic was Portland’s new-found presence in television shows filmed here: Leverage, Grimm, and, of course, Portlandia. The city doesn’t yet stack up to Vancouver, BC, but it is still an interesting development in Portland’s evolution to a sophisticated metropolis.

Read the article here: http://www.pageturnpro.com/Inst-Portland-Metro-Studies,-Portland-State-University/47669-Metroscape-2013-Winter/index.html#1

The Best Thing about Portland

The Best Thing about Portland

What’s in common among East Burnside Street, Lombard ,Sandy, Belmont, Hawthorne, NW Twenty-First, SE Milwaukie? The answer: neighborhood movie theaters that have survived suburbanization, television, and Netflix.

When I arrived in 1978, neighborhood theaters were the second distinctive thing I noticed about Portland distinctive (all those bridges were the first, of course). Neighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They’re the spotted owls of urban life, an indicator species for a rich ecology of neighborhood oriented businesses and services. Local theaters that still showed family films were already extraordinary for most cities by the 1970s, but not in Portland. Many of the theaters are still here, admittedly improved by beer and pizza and augmented by cool conversions by McMenanins.

The neighborhood business districts are still here as well. They’ve changed—no surprise—starting with Southeast Hawthorne. Twenty-five years ago I told students that Portland would be “fixed” when Alberta Street was thriving. North Mississippi as a hip hotspot didn’t occur to me. Neighborhood business strips are such a strong component of the Portland economy that we’re not only recycling the streetcar era districts but creating new ones from whole cloth—North Williams, go figure.

I’ve been able to watch the transformation at NE Fifteenth and Fremont, a five minute walk from my house. This corner was up for grabs a quarter century ago–where the working class Sabin neighborhood bumped up against middle class Irvington, where African American Albina met the white world of Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby.

The corner’s retail history dates to the 1920s, when new drugstores, groceries, and barber shops served the growing streetcar neighborhoods.

Forty years later, as suburbs boomed and city leaders worried, the city helped developers clear two blocks for a suburban style strip mall. This was supposed to be a Good Thing, like a micro version of the half-assed Renaissance Center in Detroit, but the main tenant was a ghetto grocery where lettuce went to die under the watchful eyes of security guards.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the ghetto grocery is now Whole Foods. The Albina Branch Library does a thriving business. The very basic dry cleaner and Laundromat have given way to a bird seed shop, veterinarian, and computer repair. Police officers hang out at Starbucks (so much for doughnut jokes). The storefront church and the African American barber shop have been replaced by restaurants, gift stores, and a holistic counselor.

So what’s happening? Gentrification? For sure. There was a tipping point about a dozen years ago when we began to see more white people than black people along Fremont east from Fifteenth. Then there were as many white guys as black guys playing basketball at Irving Park. And a resale store aimed at 20ish people trying to furnish their apartments replaced Mrs. C’s Wig Shop at Fremont and Seventh. There’s only one black-oriented business remaining.

But commercial gentrification is also neighborhood recycling. The 1920s storefronts have different businesses, but they have also survived, and the blocks are a walking destination for two neighborhoods—a model of sorts for the post-petroleum city.

Local comment on a controversial highway project

The Oregonian, September 27, 2011

One More Columbia River Crossing Idiocy

Portland’s leaders have rejected an opportunity to save hundreds of millions of public dollars to protect a speculative private investment of $30 million.

That’s what The Oregonian reported in its front-page story on Sept. 25. A massive new Hayden Island interchange will wipe out dozens of existing businesses for the potential benefit of a long-marginal Jantzen Beach shopping district. Meanwhile, the far more economical option of zapping the new interchange and building a separate, smaller bridge for Hayden Island access is off the table because of pressure from the Jantzen Beach investor.

There are many, many things wrong with the Columbia River Crossing project (it doesn’t exactly fix Marquam Bridge congestion or Rose Quarter congestion, for example), but this latest report is one of the stupidest decisions in a long time. The region does not need Jantzen Beach shopping, as evidenced by the struggles of its stores. Washingtonians who want to duck sales taxes can easily drive to the Delta Park big-box center, where Walmart may soon appear, and to what I call the Ikea Corridor, where big-box stores have been sprouting like mushrooms (check it out if you haven’t been there in a couple of years).

I fear that City Council may not get a basic fact about retailing that even Henry Ford understood: Retail space does not create retail jobs; customer demand creates retail jobs.

When Walmart opens in a small town, it does not create new jobs — it relocates them by forcing the downsizing or closure of smaller existing stores. Business consultants have simple formulas that translate disposable income into support for retail floor space category by category (100 families can support more grocery store space than bagel shop space). I’ve been teaching about this at Portland State University for three decades in a class on “Downtown Revitalization.”

The way to get more retail jobs is to get more basic jobs. Increase employment in basic industries like manufacturing or even university graduate programs that attract students from out of the region (just to put in a plug) and there will be more consumer dollars to spend on microbrews, bicycles, food carts … and Walmart and Target and Ikea and on and on.

Talking about Portland

Here is a link to a video interview in which I talk about Portland planning. it was made by a delegation of Australian planning academics. The link is http://liveplanning.net/?s=portland.

The Changing Approaches to Portland: The Stranger’s Path

Photo: Historic sign at the Crown Motel, Portland, OR

This post formerly appeared in the “Hindsight” column, Portland Spaces magazine (July/August 2008)

The Crown Motel sign, a landmark on North Interstate Avenue since 1959, has recently been removed to allow REACH Community Development to redevelop the site as affordable housing. The Atomic Age Alliance, a small group devoted to the popular culture and artifacts of the 1950s and 1960s, is hoping find it a new home for the whole assembly–the big crown that reads “CROWN” and the electrified sword that thrusts through the O in MOTEL.

The sign is an emblem of the golden age of the family vacation. In three decades from the end of World War II to the oil shocks of the 1970, Americans took to the road. “Drive your Chevrolet through the USA, America’s the greatest land of all!” sang Dinah Shore at the close of her TV variety hour from 1956 to 1963. Millions of Americans did just that. Parents packed the kids into the family Plymouth or Studebaker and hit the highways for two week road trips to visit distant relatives and check out national parks.

On the way, they stayed in motels. Before the Interstate Highway system revolutionized driving, motels lined the major highways leading into every city. Americans perfected the breed in the 1950s, replacing funky tourist cabins with shiny, low-slung motels that competed for business with special features–direct dial telephones! free television!–and exuberant signs.

If you were a first-time visitor to a city, the motel strip was like your first date with the city. You entered Denver on Colfax Avenue, Columbus on Broad Street, Seattle on Aurora Avenue. Portland’s motel rows included Southwest Barbur (Route 99W), Southeast McLoughlin (Route 99E), and Northeast Sandy (US 30). On North Interstate the Crown Motel competed for customers with the Monticello, the Westerner, the Viking, the Palms, and many others–most built on the west side of the street for the convenience of travelers driving south from Puget Sound.

North Interstate was Portland’s front entrance in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s an example of what landscape critic J. B. Jackson has called “the stranger’s path,” the routes and gateways that are the a newcomer’s first intro to a new community. These pathways change with time and technology. In the early twentieth century, foreign visitors to New York arrived by ocean liner with the fast-growing skyline of Manhattan filling their view. In the early twenty-first century, they arrive by air at JFK, struggle through baggage claim, customs, and immigration to be greeted by a cacophony of cabs, shuttles, and limousines.

In Portland’s first generation–say 1858–the stranger’s path was the Willamette River. At the end of a wave-tossed voyage from San Francisco, visitors traveled up the Columbia and then into the Willamette past an inhospitable riverscape of sloughs and marshes choked with willow, alder and vine maple and backed by dense forests on the first solid land. Then, finally, the new town came into view as a straggling settlement scarcely two blocks deep on dry stretch on the west bank. The ship tied up somewhere between the foot of Stark Street and Captain John Couch’s wharf north of Burnside. You grabbed your carpetbag and walked off onto muddy streets lined by two-story frame buildings with “Stoves,” and “Bakery” and “Livery” painted on their fronts and merchants ready to take your business.

Fifty years later–say 1908–strangers arrived by train. They stepped out of their Pullman sleeping car or unwound from hard, uncomfortable coach seats, crossed the waiting room of Union Station (opened in 1896), and walked out into the North End (now we call it “Old Town”). This was the bustling, gritty city, filled with affordable hotels for middle class tourists and business travelers intermixed with saloons and brothels for some of the same temporary Portlanders. The experience here was no different than Seattle, where newcomers who detrained at King Street and Union stations found themselves at the edge of Skid Road, or Chicago, where half a dozen railroad stations led visitors into the whirling activity of the Loop.

Today the stranger’s path is far more tame. Portland visitors to fly into PDX, getting a good but often disorienting view of the Columbia as the plane descends and circles for a landing. They’re off the plane, through the terminal, behind the wheel of a rental car and they see . . . what? Mount Hood, if the clouds part, and a huge IKEA sign in cheerful Swedish blue and yellow no matter what the weather.

Fifty years from now, will the nostalgic Petroleum Age Alliance be trying to save the IKEA sign and its big box neighbors? Will every community and shopping street have a hologram hovering in its airspace displaying its enticements? Will a great, silvery-cream, translucent orb float enticingly over the Pearl? Will holographic herons flap gracefully through the air above Sellwood? Or will the post-petroleum age allow us to travel at all? Maybe we’ll visit virtual Portland through on-line avatars, . an option that would allow us an infinite choice of entry routes . . . down an electronically restored Interstate Avenue, by canoe with a recreated William Clark, by virtual rocket glider direct from Shanghai. In the meanwhile, let’s keep our fingers crossed for atomic age architecture.

Robert Moses in Portland

Photo: Robert MosesRobert Moses, the New York planner, builder, and bureaucratic entrepreneur who reshaped the nation’s largest city spent only a handful of days in Portland, but he helped to set Portland planning agenda for the quarter century from 1945 to 1970.

The wartime boom and postwar planning

Portland was a World War II boom city. After 1 percent growth in 1930s, Portland grew almost 20 percent in the next three years (1940-43). War industries in the four-county employed 140,000 people—that’s the rough equivalent of ten Intels (the metro area’s largest private employer in 2010).

The boom of World War I had been followed by a severe nationwide depression, and everyone worried that the same thing was going to happen when World War II came to its close.

Cities all over the country engaged in postwar planning to reduce the feared impacts.

Here the initiative lay with the Portland Area Postwar Development Committee, an organization of business leaders and public officials. A key figure was Edgar Kaiser, who oversaw 100,000 workers in three huge Kaiser shipyards. He admired the park, parkway, and bridge projects that Robert Moses had directed in New York and decided that Portland needed his advice about infrastructure needs.

Here’s how Commissioner William Bowes remembered it: “Mr. Kaiser called the postwar planning group and others into the Arlington Club and laid out the whole program before them. It was just one, two, three with him! I was amazed at the energy and push of that man.” . . . “Don’t be surprised if Moses comes with staff of about forty people,” Bowes told the planning commission. “What they will do is give us a shot in the arm. He is bringing his port engineer and six attorneys. These are the people who know the larger ones in Washington. They know where the money is available.”

The City of Portland, Multnomah County, Port of Portland, and School District together came up with $100,000.

Moses in Portland

Moses arrived in Portland in September 1943 with a team of highway, bridge, and infrastructure engineers. They set up shop in the Multnomah Hotel (now the Embassy Suites on Southwest Pine). Moses cold-shouldered Mayor Earl Riley, telling him that he’d send for the mayor if he needed him.

Robert Moses went back to New York after a week and left his team to draft a report on “Portland Improvement,” which he returned to present in November 9.

Portland Improvement

“Portland Improvement” was an infrastructure plan and an early version of a public works stimulus package.

As in New York, Moses did not force anything on an unwilling city. Rather, he gave the leadership of Portland exactly what it wanted—a blueprint for keeping the city economically competitive in the postwar world. It proposed a $60 million construction program to employ as many s 20,000 workers. It included $20 for a freeway loop around downtown, $20 for improvements to sewers, schools, public buildings, and airport, $12 million to upgrade existing parks and streets, and $8 million for highways outside the city. Newspapers and business leaders embraced the plan. So did public works commissioner William Bowes (who viewed himself as a local Moses disciple and equivalent).

We might note that Portland, all by itself, had already pushed an expressway—Harbor Drive—through the downtown. We didn’t necessarily need lessons from Robert Moses, but he legitimized a public works agenda.

Proposals and Results of Portland Improvement

We’ve done most of what Moses and his team proposed:

- An inner freeway loop around the downtown.
- A high bridge across the Willamette north of downtown (the Fremont Bridge opened in 1973) . . . although he hoped to expand the Ross Island Bridge for the southern part of the loop.
- An improved highway across the hills into Washington County (the Vista Ridge tunnels open in 1969-70)
- A river-level highway from Portland to Cascade Locks (i.e., I-84)
- Improvements to existing bridges (e.g., new Morrison Bridge and access ramps in 1958)
- Forest Park (we dedicated it in 1948)
- A civic center incorporating the City Hall and Courthouse (we’ve done this piecemeal with two federal buildings, Multnomah County Justice Center, and Portland Building)
- Sewer improvements
- New schools
- New neighborhood parks and playgrounds
- Beautification of the downtown riverfront with trees and landscaping
- A new transportation center with a new bus station and new train station (he thought Union Station was old and obsolete) . . . the new bus station opened in 1985 and MAX just started running there
- Even the East Burnside/Sandy Boulevard intersection was on his project list, now modified by the Burnside-Couch one-way couplet opened in 2010

The Moses legacy in Portland

I can’t emphasize enough that Robert Moses gave Portland’s leaders what they wanted in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The city was a happy accomplice, and it would be hard to imagine how we would function without the Sunset Highway/Vista Ridge Tunnels, the I-405/I-5 loop with its high bridges, without the schools, parks, and playgrounds developed during the postwar generation.

At the same time, Moses and his Portland disciples like Bill Bowes had no patience with dissenters and they did some drastic things in the name of progress (the Morrison Bridge ramps, for example, which required clearance of several blocks of the historic downtown waterfront).

Moses vs. the Jane Jacobs legacy

Jane Jacobs was both a political and intellectual nemesis for Robert Moses from her initial community activism in New York in the 1950s, through her great polemic The Death and Life and Great American Cities in 1961, and in New York planning battles that followed. Portlanders began to emulate Jane Jacobs about a decade after her own forays into grassroots organizing and resistance, and most Portlanders today would say that we live in a Jacobean city, not a Mosaic metropolis.

The equivalent of Jane Jacobs’s battle for Washington Square Park in the mid-1950s was the fight to remove Harbor Drive for what’s now Tom McCall Waterfront Park, begun by Waterfront for People with a picnic in the median strip in August 19, 1969.

The equivalent of the battle against the Lower Manhattan Expressway was the successful fight to block construction of the Mount Hood Freeway through Southeast Portland along the Division Street corridor.

The generation of young activists and politicians who took charge of Portland in the early 1970s had read Jane Jacobs (at least some of them had, as well as reading Herbert Gans and other critics of urban renewal).

The city’s neighborhood association system—a product of the early 1970s—owes something, indirectly, to Jane Jacobs.

When she visited Portland toward the end of her life, she mostly liked what she saw, for central Portland is—if not like lower Manhattan—awfully Canadian for a U.S. city.

The irony is that much of what we like about Portland was facilitated by the Moses vision, especially as applied to parks and to the close-in freeway loop that has kept the central core central. A tip of the hat to Robert Moses may be too much, but he deserves at least a historical nod.

Renewal and Removal: North/Northeast Portland in the 1950s and 1960s

This presentation was part of a “History Pub” night at McMenamin’s Kennedy School, a brewpub and community center in northeast Portland, February 21, 2010. The audience were knowledgeable local activists and residents, so it assumes some familiarity with Portland neighborhoods.

Two forces converged on American cities in the mid-1950s and radically changed their cityscape over the next two decades. Each had its own “logic” and momentum that did not have a place for old neighborhoods.

The first was Interstate Highways. In the 1950s, the United States was in the midst of an 80-year project to adapt cities to automobiles. The Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956 was the keystone of the whole effort, funding 41,000 miles of new limited access highways.

System design was controlled by state highway engineers, whose main interest was moving traffic rapidly between cities. They applied the same standards for the short stretches within cities as for the long extensions across the countryside—wide lanes, sweeping curves, long access ramps, frontage roads, wide rights of way. Because the city segments required lots of land, strong engineering pressure to pick routes through industrial areas or low income areas.

Portland got off relatively easy.

I-84 and Banfield and I-5 south were routed through relatively undeveloped land.

I-5 north was placed on the on the east bank of the Willamette and not in the river itself (which was the initial design)!

The city escaped the Mount Hood freeway, the Prescott freeway, the 50th avenue freeway and several other proposed routes.

Interstate 5 disrupted African American Albina (removing 125 residences and businesses) but interstates were never used as racial barricades as in a city like Miami.

The second factor was Urban Renewal, a program created with Congress amended the Housing Act of 1949 in 1954 and 1959 to favor business development. The assumption was that downtowns were still viable business centers, but that they needed help to compete with brand new suburban shopping center.

Everybody did it: Cities acquired and assembled tracts of land in areas surrounding the CBD, cleared “blighted” or low-density uses, put in new infrastructure, and made the land available for private development (offices, apartments) or public facilities.

Denver did it, San Francisco did it, Los Angeles did it, Philadelphia did it, Tulsa did it, Nashville did it, Tuscon did it, Tacoma did it . . . Only a handful of southwestern cities opted out because they didn’t want federal money.

The end of “South Albina”

These two forces converged in Portland at the east end of the Steel and Broadway bridges at the end of the 1950s. . . . but they weren’t supposed to!

The new freeway was supposed to go where it did (logically splitting the geographical difference between Interstate Avenue and Union Avenue (the future Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), which were the main north-south arterials that aimed at the Columbia River bridge to Vancouver, Washington. Essentially it was the straight-shot, shortest distance, lowest cost option

The Memorial Coliseum, however, was supposed to go somewhere else.

When the Portland Development Commission was created in 1958, its first goal was the South Portland/Auditorium project. The idea was that the area just south of the central business district on the west side would be ideal for the planned Memorial Coliseum.

The problem was an initiative petition and vote organized by east side business interests. In May 1956, Portlanders voted by a margin of 303 votes out of 128,423 cast to restrict any coliseum to the east side. City Council couldn’t believe it, so they sent the issue back to the voters in November, who rebuffed the downtown establishment and reaffirmed the May vote.

On the east side, there were two alternatives. One was the Expo Center area near the Columbia River. It would have had lots of parking, cheap land, and freeway access, but wouldn’t help downtown real estate. The other was between the east ends of the Steel and Broadway bridges.

So the lower end of Albina, south of Broadway, got hammered by an uncoordinated sequence of events. The result was the disruption of an area that had absorbed a substantial African American population during World War II and after (including after the Vanport flood) and also had businesses serving that community. The Coliseum project razed 476 housing units, 46 percent of them occupied by African Americans.

Further erasure of that part of Albina came from the private sector as developers replaced walkup apartments and single family houses with motels, a high rise for the elderly, and other redevelopment that slowly bridged the blocks between Lloyd Center (1960) and the Coliseum.

Emanuel Hospital and the Eliot Neighborhood

The fate of the Eliot neighborhood involved a set of bad assumptions and historical accidents.

The Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project, launched in the early 1960s, was PDC’s effort to balance its South Auditorium land clearance project (which had disrupted the remnants of the old Italian and Jewish immigrant neighborhood south of downtown) with a housing rehabilitation project.

Both PDC executive director John Kenward and chair Ira Keller believed sincerely in the effort, but it was top down. Keller and his wife spent Sunday afternoons knocking on doors to recruit participants in the target area which was bounded by Fremont on the south, Vancouver on the east, Skidmore on the north, and Mississippi on the west. The area was chosen because the population ratio was 50/50 black and white, and because the housing was in relatively good condition. Nevertheless, PDC demolished two blocks of housing in the center of the area for what became Unthank Park.

The program was popular, but when more than a thousand residents petitioned to have the program extended south of Fremont, PDC refused. It cited the Planning Commission’s recent Central Albina Study which described the area as a “disordered collection of mixed land uses and deteriorated and dilapidated buildings” suffering an “advanced stage of urban blight.”

Was “blight” a code word for “black”? Yes, but it was also a code word for low-cost land with redevelopment possibilities. South Portland had been defined as blighted even though it was largely white.

In effect, city plans in the 1960s wrote off the Eliot neighborhood as destined for transition from housing to industrial and commercial uses (of which there were already plenty) or ideas like a community college (in effect, an alternative location for what became the Cascade Campus of Portland Community College).

The planners applied the understanding of how cities grew that dated back to University of Chicago sociologists who analyzed that city in the 1920s and came up with a model of concentric rings that expand like ripples in a pond (it’s in every sociology and geography textbook). Central functions, like the Coliseum, pushed the edges of the centrtal business district outward into industrial and warehouse areas. In turn, these displaced economic functions pushed into working class housing areas like Eliot, whose displaced residents would move into newer housing a little further out . . . etc. . . . In effect, it assumed that everyone wanted to be suburban and would get there by tiny steps.

What happened instead was a slow demand for new industrial space and a mounting community resistance, both by African American residents and by white newcomers who liked the houses and the convenience. They organized first through the Model Cities program (after 1967) and then through the Eliot Neighborhood Association.

Waiting in the wings was Emanuel Hospital. Universities and hospitals have a hard time being good neighbors. They each know that they serve the public good – which is quite true – but that knowledge tends to make them insensitive to their neighbors, or even at times arrogant.

This was especially true in the 1950s and 1960s. The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and many other campuses in urban locations plunged into deep conflicts over expansion plans and efforts to maintain the “quality” of their surrounding neighborhoods.

In Portland, our own university was too small to get into big trouble in the same period, although it did clear the some remnants of South Portland, ,but hospitals were not.

The Northwest District Association got its start fighting expansion plans of Good Samaritan Hospital, for example.

In the early 1970s, PDC created an urban renewal district to clear land north of Russell Street for Emanuel Hospital expansion. The land was cleared (188 homes and the Williams/Russell business center) but nothing happened for decades! The reason is an irony: When the project started, PDC and the hospital were counting in federal funds to allow quick redevelopment, but the $$ went away in 1973 So those vacant blocks that are finally being filled are the responsibility of Emanuel, of PDC, and of Richard Nixon.

Convergence, not Conspiracy

So why did Albina get hammered between the late 1950s and early 1970s?

There was not a systematic anti-Albina plan that coordinated thirty years of action.

What there was were a set of independent factors and forces that kept finding that Albina was in the way:

  • It was in the way of I-5.
  • It was in the way for civic leaders who wanted the Coliseum as close of downtown as possible.
  • It was seen as being in the way of needed industrial expansion (I’d suggest that this was a bad prediction because the expansion of industry and warehousing on Swan Island and Mocks Bottom was the alternative for industrializing Eliot).

It had lower income residents with limited political clout. Race was secondary (unlike Miami, Birmingham, or Chicago). The Clinton Street neighborhood in very white southeast Portland almost got the same treatment, saved in part because people saw what had happened in Albina.

The PDC leaders were acting within the assumptions they had available. They thought they were serving the public good, even if they blinded by their own point of view. They were shocked—and outraged—to discover that African American Portlanders saw them as heavy handed racists—which they were. It wasn’t a message that they wanted to hear, for example, from Model Cities activists and planners (they tried to get people at PSU’s Center for Urban Studies fired for their role in Model Cities planning).

We look back and wonder “What could they have been thinking!? How could they think they were innocent!?” Forty years from now, an audience is going to gather in the newest McMenamin’s for a history program that asks exactly the same questions about us.

Portland’s Rivers in Perspective

Photo by --b-- Barge on the Willamette RiverRivers made Portland. They were the avenues of exploration, pathways for settlement, and arteries of commerce that made–and still make–Portland a commercial gateway to the American Northwest.

The “original” riverscape

Both Native Americans and the first European American visitors traveled by river and judged the landscape from the water. At the site of Portland they found low, sandy islands, separated by shallow channels from tangled bottomlands and backed by rising hills or bluffs, such as Ross Island–Oaks Bottom and Swan Island–Mock’s Bottom. Marshes fronted the banks where streams reached the Willamette through Sullivan’s Gulch, Marquam Gulch, and the creeks the flowed through what are now the Brooklyn and Hawthorne/Buckman neighborhoods. Shores were tangles of willow and vine maple..

There were two large sets of seasonally flooded lakes that dominated larger shelves of low-lying riverfront land. One was along the west shore of the Willamette starting with Couch’s Lake and continuing through Guild’s Lake, Kittredges’s Lake, and Doane’s Lake. The second along the south shore of the Columbia between the river and the slough, where Smith and Bybee lakes were multiplied 6 or 8 times.

When the Europeans arrived, thousands of Chinook speaking villagers had concentrated where it was easiest to harvest fish and waterfowl–especially Sauvie Island, the adjacent Multnomah Channel, and the mouth of the Clackamas River.

For Lewis and Clark, the riverscape was low enough and tangled enough that they missed the mouth of the Willamette on their way to the Pacific. On the way back, they got as far as the Quicksand River before Clark doubled back past Image Canoe Island and found the channel to follow upstream to roughly the site of the University of Portland.

Picking the dry land

Initial European-American settlement had to squeeze onto places where firm land sloped down to the rivers (neither the marshes nor high bluffs).

The future heart of Portland, for example, had already been picked out as Oregon’s first highway rest area. Native Americans and fur trappers had cleared a dry, sloping bank on the west side of the Willamette roughly halfway between Fort Vancouver and Oregon City. It was a good spot to cook a meal or repair equipment. Jesse Applegate later remembered that “We landed on the west shore, and we went into camp on the high bank where there was little underbrush . . . No one lived there and the place had no name; there was nothing to show that the place had ever been visited except for a small log hut near the river, and a broken mast of a ship . . . there was no prophet to tell of the beautiful city that was to take the place of the gloomy forest.”

The commercial/industrial landscape

As the California gold rush created a booming San Francisco market for Oregon wheat and lumber in the 1850s, newly settled Portland struggled to establish itself as the head of ocean-going navigation on the Willamette River, beating out the rival claims of Milwaukee and St. Helens. In particular, it benefited from the Ross Island sand bar that restricted access to Milwaukee and Oregon City.

In the rest of the nineteenth century, commerce paralleled the Willamette. Ocean-going vessels connected Portland to the world. Smaller river steamers ranged upstream to Corvallis and Harrisburg. Riverboats even reached up the saffron-colored Yamhill River to Lafayette and McMinnville. Columbia River steamers and railroads made the young city the bustling entrepot for the vast Columbia Basin. Lumber and grain schooners crowded the banks of the Willamette to take on cargos for California markets. Lumber mills, flour mills, furniture factories, and packing plants soon followed.

There were major factory nodes at Fulton (now the Johns Landing/Macadam area), at the Poulson lumber mill in what’s now the Brooklyn neighborhood, in Albina around the developing railyards, and in northwest (again between rail and river).

Then as now, seasonal floods reminded Portlanders of the power of the natural environment. They built the city’s wharves in two levels–one for low water and one for high–and the great flood of 1894 helped to push downtown way uphill to 4th, 5th and 6th streets.

Landscape manipulation

The Northern Pacific Railroad filled Couch’s Lake for rail yards, and now for the housing of the River District.

Guild’s Lake was utilized for the Lewis and Clark Exposition, then filled for industrial use, adapted for WWII housing, and then returned to industrial development. .

Dredging and fill also extended the Willamette River shoreline on the east side and turned wetlands into real estate. Southeast Union Avenue (MLK) originally ran on pilings over mud flats, leaving Grand the first dry business street. That’s why the warehouses of the Central East Side Industrial District date from the early 20th century rather than the 19th c.

The Port of Portland straightened the Willamette River at Swan Island in the 1920s, shifting the channel from the east side of the island to the west and attaching the island itself to the east bank.

In turn, Rivergate was raised into dry land with the filling of Ramsey Lake..

The shipbuilding eras

World War I brought a large shipbuilding industry, 12,000 workers building steel-hulled ships and 17,000 building wooden-hulled cargo carriers. The Grant-Smith-Porter yard at the foot of Baltimore Street in St. Johns, with 6000 workers, was the largest of nearly a score of shipyards that specialized in wooden vessels, buying their material from booming Portland sawmills and drawing workers from the large pool of men with woodworking skills

In World War II, Tycoon Henry Kaiser, fresh from helping to build Boulder and Grand Coulee dams, opened the huge shipyards at St. Johns, Swan Island, and Vancouver. At the peak in 1943-44, metropolitan Portland counted 140,000 defense workers who built more than 1000 ocean going combat craft and Liberty ships.

The renewal of Portland as an international port since the 1970s has continued land use trends first identified in the 1910s. Modern ports are great consumers of land for container yards and automobile processing, while larger and larger ships require deeper channels. As a result, the marine terminals and docks of river ports have tended to move steadily downstream. We can see this with London, Antwerp, and Hamburg . . . and also with Portland.

The grain elevators at the east ends of the Steel and Broadway bridges are the last remnants of the old “downtown” harbor (there’s also a plaque on the East Bank Esplanade marking the site of Municipal Terminal Two that stretched between Washington and Oak). Terminal One has given way to redevelopment, so the action is now around Terminal 4 and the Rivergate complex at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers with Terminal 5 and Terminal 6.

The shipyards are largely gone, but the river remains our economic focus. Portland is still the regional transportation hub and trading post for Oregon and much of Idaho and Washington. Downtown Portland is part of a vast riverside employment corridor. Within one mile of the Willamette River in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties are rough 200,000 jobs.

There are two key questions for the next decade. First, how will the deepening of the Columbia River channel to 43 feet affect Portland and other Columbia ports (Longview, Kalama, and Vancouver, Washington) as the global economy recovers? Second, will the recovery of Port of Portland commerce be enough to trigger terminal expansion on the west end of Hayden Island, opposite Terminal 6?