Tuesday, November 21, 2006

cedar & cactus

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A couple of photos of the cool stairway between Cedar St. & Cactus Drive, two tiny streets just outside the main entrance to Washington Park, in downtown Portland. This is one of my favorite sets of public stairs in the city. I really haven't visited that many of those, but this has to be a standout. It has flair, somehow, and it's much fancier than you'd expect for something that connects two very obscure dead-end streets.

Cedar - Cactus Stairs (2)

I'm not the only person who likes 'em: Here's a walking tour of the Washington Park area that includes the Cedar/Cactus stairs, with a couple of photos. I recall that the ever-elusive Little Red Book of Stairs also mentions them, but as usual I don't have a copy handy to quote from.

Here's a Google Map of the area, though I doubt it's going to be very useful. You can barely see the little streets, and you can't really see the stairs even on the highest zoom setting. But it may give a somewhat better idea of the area I'm talking about, since the street names themselves aren't likely to ring a bell with anyone except people who live there. The map is roughly centered on the stairs.

A fun historical note about the area: Many years ago, this was the location of the childhood home of John Reed, the prominent early 20th century writer and communist. That page, part of a larger Portland Radical History Tour, mentions the stairs briefly:

Today, only the elaborate concrete steps that connect SW Cedar Lane with Cactus Drive survive but nearby SW Green Street is named for his capitalist grandfather.

The main page adds

The only remains of the home are concrete steps (which probably led to the stables) at the end of Cedar, where it meets Cactus Drive.

This planning doc [PDF] from city hall regarding the King's Hill Historic District (which for some reason includes all of Cactus Drive except for the stairs, and none of Cedar Street) has slightly more info:

The Green residence, complete with large hot-houses for growing exotic plants, was located on Cactus Drive where it joins Cedar Street at the edge of Washington Park. S.W. Cedar Street, a narrow, winding road, was the original drive to the Green estate, and S.W. Green Avenue is named for the family. The Greens were known for throwing lavish parties. Their grandson, John Reed, was an early Northwest "radical".

That document goes on to indicate that the immediate vicinity is platted as the "Cedar Hill Addition", and is occasionally referred to as "Cedar Hill", not to be confused with "Cedar Hills", which is way out in the westside 'burbs. Prior to being subdivided, the Green house itself was named "Cedar Hill", apparently. The name is exceedingly obscure, and using it when asking people for directions will only end in tears, or in Beaverton, which is essentially the same thing.

I'm skeptical about the suggestion the stairs were once part of a house. To me they look like they were always meant to connect two streets; the curvature you see at the top is the cul-de-sac at the end of Cedar St. I haven't seen photos of whatever used to be here in the old days, so I could be wrong. The house theory would certainly help to explain why these stairs are so much more elaborate than the other examples you see around town. Although in the absence of proof, I prefer to think it was all just a lark on someone's part. Throughout most of the city's history, there was a desperate shortage of eccentric people doing odd things for inexplicable reasons, which means most of the city's history is pretty damn yawn-inducing. If you read anything John Reed wrote about the city in the early 1900s, it's clear he absolutely hated the place.

We like to think we've mellowed out and gotten a bit more free-spirited over the last hundred years or so. Per my usual inclinations, I've been sitting here trying to think of a way to be cynical and pessimistic about that notion, with extra points awarded for using the words "poseur" and or "dilettante". But it just isn't working. It's freakin' true, already. The place really has improved over the years, and even I have to admit it. Bojack probably wouldn't agree, but I have it on good authority that Jack was already a notorious cranky old guy a full century ago, churning out endless broadsheets and handbills, ranting on about how them newfangled horseless carriages and moving pictures would be the death of us all.

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