Friday, February 26, 2010

When lived experience expands intellectual understanding

Jennifer and I attended the History Pub event at McMenamins Kennedy School on Monday, Feb. 22. The topic on this evening was “Renewal and Removal in North/Northeast Portland.” Presenters included PSU professor Carl Abbott, Thomas Robinson of Historic Photo Archives, and long-time residents of the area Harvey Rice and Donna Maxey.

This event focused on the drastic changes in the social and built environments of the Albina area of North Portland beginning in the 1950s, particularly in the area bounded by Interstate (west), MLK (east), Alberta (north), and Broadway (south).

I knew some of the basics of this narrative before the presentation -- the general pattern of wide-scale infrastructure changes initiated by white urban planners in the 1950s and 1960s in which working-class and ethnic neighborhoods in a great many American cities were reduced and divided in the name of "urban renewal." However, this presentation has helped me see the area in a much different way, and I'll never again look at this area as I did before.

I regularly travel through the Albina area of Portland, and ride the bus almost every day up and down Broadway past the Lloyd Center and Coliseum areas. I've long avoided spending time in this area because it's a relatively generic part of town, dominated by automobiles and national shopping and food chains. The area is not as offensively garish and inhumanly-scaled as the standard American freeway interchange big-box shopping area, but it definitely lacks much of the comfortable, neighborly feel that Alberta, Hawthorne, Belmont, and even some areas of downtown and the Pearl have. Because of this, I avoid the freeway interchange areas like the plague, and I spend time in the Coliseum-Lloyd center area only when necessary.

At the History Pub event the other evening, Carl Abbott began with a general overview of urban redevelopment in Portland in the 1950s and 1960s, to set a basic framework for the times. Tom Robinson then showed a number of amazing historical photographs of the area from his unbelievably amazing image collection, providing some clear visual examples to highlight Carl's historical context. Finally, Harvey Rice and Donna Maxey provided some first-person recollections of the "redevelopment" process in their neighborhood, bringing the kind of energy and passion that can only come from lived experience.

It would be hard for me to convey in writing the full spectrum of thoughts and feelings I had at the end of this presentation. As a historian of the 20th century urban environment, I understand the ideology guiding urban planners in the 1950s and 1960s -- it was a strong belief that the work they were doing was "progress" that would benefit all city residents, coupled with an almost absolute blindness to the the racism and classism that imbued their entire world view. As a relatively new resident of Portland, I lament the loss of such a potentially valuable area of the city that could have served as another great, viable neighborhood for our great city. As a citizen committed to transparency, inclusion, and social justice, I cannot help but feel a mix of anger and deep loss that the core of a vibrant community was so willingly and persistently attacked through the large-scale destruction of the infrastructure, architecture, and social connections of that community. These decisions and actions may have happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but their repercussions resonate throughout the city to this day.

Please take a few minutes to view Tom's complete slide show of the History Pub presentation to get an idea about what we lost in the 1950s and 1960s. Three images in particular encapsulate the scale of loss in the neighborhood:

South Albina Area, Portland, Oct. 5, 1955, looking generally south. Broadway Bridge in bottom right. The Coliseum area is now to the immediate left (east) of the bridge. Note the residential nature of the blocks in this area of the neighborhood.

 South Albina Area, Portland, ca. 1960s, aerial view looking west. Broadway Bridge to the right, Memorial Coliseum & very large parking lot between this and the Steel Bridge. Diagonally in foreground one can see ground being cleared for what would be Interstate 5. When compared to the image above, one can see how many blocks of the residential area had been removed.

Freeway clearing in Abina area, Portland, June 15, 1962, looking generally southwest. Two-block wide area cleared for freeway construction can be seen from lower left of image progressing diagonally to the right, and in center of image this path turns diagonally to the left. Memorial Coliseum is the box-like structure in the upper center. Reflect a moment on how much of the residential area was razed to build I-5.

When viewing these images, consider what we gained in exchange -- the greenhouse gas-producing Interstate 5 race track, the pedestrian-starved Coliseum area, and the largely-generic Lloyd Center area.

My conclusion is that we lost far more than we could have possibly gained, and the only positive that can come of these kinds of decisions is if we learn not to do them again.
Selected online sources on the topic of Portland redevelopment in the 1950s-1960s:

Clyde Dixon, et al., "Portland: History of the Albina plan area" Portland State University Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning Comprehensive Planning Workshop, Wtr. 1990.

Craig Wollner, John Provo, and Julie Schablitsky, "Brief History of Urban Renewal in Portland Oregon," Portland, Ore., Portland Development Commission, ca. 2003.



  1. The nature of your reactions highlights why it is so very important to have broad historical representation including the voice of the community. We can be so far removed when we read or hear lectures on the ins and outs of city planning, or whatever topic is at hand, but to give the topic justice the voice of the community and those that lived it is of utmost importance. This kind of history telling shares the story with the community and acknowledges that this is not just the history of bridges, hospitals, and streets, this is a story of people. When we make those connections to real people and hear about the loss of community cohesiveness that this population suffered, we can see that this topic is much, much more than "urban renewal" and the consequences much more than a few buildings being removed.

  2. This is stupid rhetoric. I agree it can be a shame that we lost neighborhoods but had we not built a freeway to modernize this city would be useless more than it already is on a daily basis. I am for one in favor that they should have destroyed more of powell and completed the east west highway connections that we still see traces of on the bridges. It is a shame how there can be no logical compromise between the two viewpoints.
    All together nice site and it is welcome to see the past how it was too, but time does move forward, not all loss is not worth the gains.