If you were to chart Portland, Oregon’s history, as if it were a person would it look something like this?
- Birth – 1843 (officially) 1804 (unofficially). Depending on if you consider Lewis & Clark’s exploration of the area or the original claim and settlement of both William Overton and Asa Lovejoy as the city’s founding.
- Infancy – 1843 – 1859. This is when Portland population first began to grow. In part thanks to Westward Expansion and the Oregon Trail, rugged individualists/dreamers/outsiders and opportunists.
- Childhood – 1859 – 1890. When shipping into and out of Seattle blew up and surpassed Oregon and Portland, it has yet to fully recover being outshone as it were. Even long before this date, the city of Milwaukie and Oregon City surpassed Portland with regard to its shipping business. In fact, Oregon city was the capital of Oregon for some time, but both Milwaukie and Oregon City’s growth was stunted when they discovered that the floor of the river was generally far too shallow to keep up with the growing size of shipping boats that needed to navigate its waters.
- Young teen years – 1890 – 1930’s. In 1905, Portland celebrated the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, a World Fair, in marshland that is now much of Northwest Portland. This event also caused the population to double showcasing the city in a positive light. By the 1930’s Portland was a city of industrial workers, which included women – many of whom (workers and women) were striking for equal pay, proper hours and other factors we might take for granted today. These strikes caused many a conflict between the public and the police. We were finding our own voice as a city.
- Young adult (older teen) years – 1940’s -1970’s. When Portland really boomed in the twentieth century, it was both a city of vice and economic opportunity. While being “Shanghai’d” was likely at its highest at the turn of the nineteenth century, the vice only continued into the twentieth century as the city became a boat building hub during World War II. It was during the early part of the twentieth century that Portland was known as a city on the take with both the police and city officials both participating! Furthermore, redlining was highly practiced even though Oregon had long ago established itself as a neutral state with regard to race relations, officially. Portland was even something of a “sundown town“, where blacks really could only live in the downtown – that is, until whites found a way of pushing them out, while still keeping them segregated well into the 1940’s.
During the war, the city built a small town between the cities of Portland and Vancouver, mainly to help house Kaiser Shipbuilding company employees. After the war, it became a place for black Americans to live mainly out of site from the city proper. The total population of the new town was 40,000 with 40% black. In 1948, the Columbia River flooded. The inhabitants of Vanport, who were only a train dyke away from the high waters, were told everything was fine and that they were safe. However, by 4:00 pm the dyke breached and flooded the town, trapping many. Perhaps the only fortunate event to come out of this tragedy was the Vanport Extension Center, originally an extension of Oregon State University, as a location that returning servicemen could cash in on the GI Bill without leaving Portland. The Vanport Extension Center refused to close, finding a new home in downtown Portland. In 1951, the Extension Center moved to the old Lincoln High School (now Lincoln Hall, part of the Portland State University campus) and changed its name to Portland Extension Center. Then a few years later, thanks in part to student advocates, in 1955 it became the Portland State College and then Portland State University in 1969.By the 1980’s Portland’s black population could be found mainly in North and Northeast Portland. My father, who grew up in SE Portland does not have fond memories of his formative years from the 1960’s & 1970’s, having to sometimes work in those parts of town often either getting harassed or robbed, unfortunately. Unfortunately, we have a history of being an accepting city if you can look, at least somewhat, like the rest of us. This is not a point I am proud of.
- Young adult years– 1970’s – 2000. Perhaps the city was beginning to come to terms with its past at this time and sought to seek out a new way. In the fifties the National Highway Commission was allocating money for freeways, you know, they were considered the “future” at the time. Oregon received money for the Mount Hood Freeway, which was to connect many of the existing freeways in Portland to a wider thoroughfare from the river to Mount Hood, replacing what is now Highway 26/Powell Boulevard. Serious talk about this project began in the 1970’s, causing many of the people living in the way of the freeway, or along side it moaning in protest at the noise and cost of relocating. By 1974, the project had been canceled leaving both the ramps from existing freeways leading to nowhere and the city with a lot of extra money to put toward transportation. Thanks in part to Neil Goldschmidt and others in the city, instead of a freeway, we were given a revitalized city center with transit blocks, expanded bus services and eventually light rail. Much of the money for the expanded transit option did not actually run out until the early 1990’s.Another defining event of the 1970’s was Vortex I, which was the brainchild of Tom McCall. In the late 60’s , there was a large, vicious Vietnam War protest/riot in the South Park Blocks and Portland State University. At this protest, many were attacked and arrested leaving a stain on the cities police. In September of 1970, Portland was set to host both the American Legion with President Richard Nixon rumored to be speaking at the event. Furthermore, an anti-war group the People’s Army Jamboree planned to protest the convention, whose numbers were purposely blown out of proportion by the FBI. McCall needed to get people out of the city, so from a joke about having a Woodstock-type festival grew an actual Woodstock-type music festival in McIver Park along the Clackamas River near Oregon City. The festival was strategically planned to attract young anti-Vietnam war protestor, drawing a total of 35,000 people by its third day. The event was a success as only two small protests broke out that weekend, both with no more than 1000 people and Nixon canceled his appearance at the convention.By the 1990’s people were not afraid to go downtown to shop and hangout, laying the foundation for what presently exists in both SW and NW Portland. Portland was still knee deep in misfits and hippies at that point though and they seemed much more distinct than they are today.
- Adulthood (?) – 2000 -? So, here we are now, but where does that really leave us? The city is still full of vice, but it has been pushed out mainly to the outskirts or the underbelly. These days the area that is so familiar in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho no longer exist, thanks to the Pearl District redevelopment. Gone are many of my most favorite (and slightly gritty) nightclubs for a glossier and more refined looking landscape. Even the Asians that were once a part of Chinatown have relocated to SE/NE 82nd Avenue. We have Portlandia, Leverage, and Grimm all being produced in Portland, showing off the city. Not to mention the countless bands that either relocated to Portland or sprouted up from the cultural stew that is Portland. Rent and housing costs have increased while unemployment hasn’t really changed for the better, but people still flock to Portland to join the cult.
Hey, I have waxed time and again about how much my husband and I still love the place and are terribly nostalgic for it. Perhaps it is better that we have left, so that we aren’t further tainted by how much it has grown. My husband has said that it is so very Portland of us anyway for migrating from the town-as-cult as we did. Perhaps he is right.