I’ve lived in Portland for over twenty years and feel deeply rooted here. My sense of history about this place, however, is also only twenty years old and looks mostly like a brief series of before and after photos. Before: the struggling art galleries, auto repair shops and empty fields west of Old Town, scented by the yeast of the Weinhard Brewery. After: the Pearl District lined with high-end condos and specialty boutiques. Before: a handful of poets crowded into Cafe Lena for a reading. After: Dozens of reading series, small presses and literary events in every corner of the city. Before: protests in a downtown park in support of the Earth Liberation Front. After: protests in a downtown park against the 1%.
This week, I decided to expand that extremely limited sense of history by trying out the PDX Social History Guide mobile app provided by a very cool organization called Know Your City. While the navigation of both the app and the full site is pretty clunky, it was really fun to walk the city on a brisk winter day and learn some interesting facts about places I’ve passed hundreds of times and a city I’ve been a citizen of for two decades.
Among the most interesting tidbits:
- In 1910 over 50% of Portland’s 200,000 population was foreign born or of foreign parentage, a majority of those of Chinese descent.
- The famous “Shanghai Tunnels” that were supposedly used to kidnap men for ship crews may be a fallacy. While there’s evidence that men were, indeed, drugged and taken out to sea to work, it was probably done out in the open with no need to drag them through tunnels beneath the city.
- The Willamette flooded in 1894 and filled the streets with sewage-filled water. At least the people in the pictures seemed to take it somewhat in stride. In the late 1920’s they built the seawall that now exists along the waterfront. If not for that and the extra 4 feet of temporary seawall erected in 1996, I might have been boating in to work at my downtown job at Border’s.
- The 11th floor of the Justice Center overlooking Lownsdale and Chapman Squares was the home to the Portland Red Squad now called the Police Intelligence Unit, which has the goal of identifying and suppressing radical activity. I imagine they had a nice view of the Occupy movement from up there.
- I knew about how the city had destroyed the African American community of Albina on the east side of the river in order to build I-5 and the Memorial Coliseum. But there was also once a thriving African American community downtown near the railroad, and the Golden West Hotel (now low-income housing) sat right in the middle of it.
One of the best things about taking this tour was the excuse it gave me to wander slowly through the city, to look up, take pictures and not care that I looked like a dumb-witted tourist. I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the history lessons I still need, but I see how if you move a little slower and look a little longer, the city unfolds in a whole new way.
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