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.

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