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.

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