Monday, March 19, 2007

Stanich Park expedition


Some photos of Simon G. Stanich Park, a tiny, obscure, and very weird little spot up in the Overlook neighborhood of North Portland. Never heard of it, right? I hadn't until I ran across this post over at alt.portland, which piqued my curiosity:

The [Going St.] Overpass sits in the Si Stanich Park, a tiny square commemorating Simon Stanich, an architect and neighborhood activist. The park, and the stone that commemorates it, have really seen better days. It once housed a park bench, but now only the supports for a park bench, and a lot of trash.

I have a real predilection for the tiny, the obscure, and the weird, and over time I've ended up with a semi-regular series of posts about unknown and forgotten city parks, landmarks, monuments, and such. So once I heard about this place, I had to know more.

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A quick search of the interwebs led me to a more detailed post at WalkingPortland, and another mention of the place at Pudgy Indian. But that's about it. The city itself has nothing to say about the place. The closest they've got to it is the mysteriously-named "Mocks Crest Property", which is a few blocks away and clearly a different place. Beyond that, nothing. That settled it. I had to go find the place and see for myself.

(There's a fascinating piece at CafeUnknown about the Overlook area. It doesn't mention the park or the overpass but has a photo of a "nameless park" in the area, several blocks due west of here.)

Updated: I found a couple more photos of the place on Flickr: One of the park itself, and two photos of the footbridge.

Stanich Park is actually quite easy to get to, if you know it's there. If you look at this Google Map, in the lower right-hand corner you'll see the Prescott St. MAX station. So if you get off the Yellow Line train there, and walk a couple of blocks west to Concord Avenue, you'll come to a rather beat-up looking pedestrian overpass over busy Going St.:


The park itself is lurking right beneath the spiral ramp for the overpass. Just walk past the start of the ramp, back to where you'd expect to find a tiny homeless camp or something, and you're there. Here's a grand panorama of the place, such as it is:


Yep, this is the whole thing. Lovely, isn't it? At least nobody's going to hassle me for posting tedious photos of flowers from here, because there aren't any. This place literally is "where the sun don't shine".

Here's the grand tour: An irregular-shaped brick plaza the size of a small patio. Some park bench supports, but no park bench -- but really, would you want to sit there? (If you look at the photo in the WalkingPortland piece, the bench was still there just a year ago.) Nearby, a garbage can, and some trash lying around. And finally, the stone marker giving the name of the place. The top photo shows one side of the marker, and here's the other side:

stanich park 4

Wait, what's this? The west-facing side of the marker calls it "Simon G. Stanich Park", and the east side calls it "Si Stanich Square". So which is it? Both? Neither? Maybe the brick part is the square (despite not actually being a square), which is part of the larger park (with the ramps, the scraggly fir tree, the rusty streetlight pole, etc.). But why? Who knows?

The inscription isn't too readable in this photo. It reads: "By City Council resolution 9-3-73 Dedicated 8-1-76". So it was the 70's. Maybe there's a real reason the park seems to have two names, but for now I'll just blame it on the 70's.

The bit on the other side quoting from the Gettysburg Address (...Of the People, By the People, For the People) seems kind of grandiose for this location, but maybe it was a bicentennial thing.


Here's a closeup of the portrait on this side of the stone. I'd guess this is Mr. Stanich himself, with later embellishments added by various artists.

What the stone doesn't tell us is why the city named this place after him. The WalkingPortland piece speculates he's connected to Stanich's, a popular burger place in NE and SW Portland that's been a local institution for decades. I've never been there myself. I thought about dropping by for a little "research", but I haven't gotten around to it yet. Their classic burger comes topped with a pile of ham and a fried egg, a prospect I regard with no small amount of trepidation. Here's someone's photo of a Stanich burger, so you can make up your own mind. In any case, the connection's purely speculative anyway.

The Multnomah County Library's searchable Oregonian database only goes back to 1988, well after the park was dedicated. Here's an article from May 1990 about a Si Stanich who was then running for a Metro council position. The piece describes him as a 70-year-old retired architect and neighborhood activist. Subsequent articles note that he didn't win the election. And here's his obit, from November 1996. No mention of burgers anywhere, which is kind of a shame. It'd be a good story.

Note the dates: Park dedicated 1976. Deceased 1996. This illustrates one of the lesser-known dangers of naming things after living people. The usual argument is that you shouldn't do this because the honoree can still do something terrible, even though he's been famous and well-regarded for years. Think OJ, or Neil Goldschmidt for example. But the party bestowing the honor can screw up too. Imagine what it must be like: The city holds a big dedication ceremony and names a city park after you. Granted, it's not a very big park, but it's an honor anyway. But soon the city completely forgets about the place and lets it fall into disrepair, while you're still alive. I don't know how Mr. Stanich felt about that, but if I was in that position I'd have to say it would rankle a bit. Ok, a lot. I'd be inclined to drop by regularly and pick up the garbage in "my" park and shoo the drug dealers away and so forth. But that would be wrong on so many levels. Nobody should have to do that.

Something to consider if anyone offers to name something after you. If it was me, I think I'd decline the honor. Especially a place like this. If the naming really was meant as a compliment, it's certainly one of the more backhanded ones I've ever seen.

Updated 3/29/11: Thanks to the library's new Oregonian historical archives, we now have some answers. An August 1, 1976 article about the park's dedication is titled "Street fighter to be honored". It seems Mr. Stanich led neighborhood opposition to the city's plan to widen Going St. from four to six lanes. (It's currently up to 5 lanes). He also helped lobby for the overpass here, which was intended to let neighborhood kids get to school safely. The article goes on to explain that everybody liked the guy, although it still isn't clear why he got a park and a one ton rock with his face on it, an honor rarely bestowed on neighborhood activists who fight city hall. Especially ones who fight city hall and win. The article includes a photo of Mr. Stanich in front of his namesake park.

A previous mention, on September 4, 1975, merely says that "In other business, the council agreed to name an area on the south side of N Going Street at Concord Avenue 'Si Stanich Square'".

An April 19, 1974 article covers the neighborhood petition against the street widening, for a little more background on that effort.

Another interesting and unrelated mention of Mr. Stanich: A November 16, 1960 article mentions him in passing in connection with a Portland Art Museum architectural exhibition titled "Form Givers At Mid-Century", with a photo of several men in bow ties posing with a model of New York's Seagram Building. I'm not sure there could be anything more quintessentially 1960 than that, not without adding an atomic monorail or something.

Stanich Park

If you took any upper-division humanities courses in college, say 10-15 years ago, you might recall your instructors had this secret, private, impenetrable language that used the words "signifier" and "signified" a lot. While I'll admit to an imperfect, non-Ph.D. understanding of the lingo, I'd suggest this is a good illustration of the basic notions involved. The monument, the name of the park, the "signifier", is the park. Other than it, there's nothing of significance here, no place, no identity. Nobody would call it a park (or a square) if the sign wasn't here. For all intents and purposes, it really is the park. There's a signifier, and no signified, which is (or was) quite the sign of cultural sophistication, apparently. If you took the sign away, poof, no more park. If you put it somewhere else, that's where the park would be. Mass-produce them in a sweatshop somewhere in China, and then all of the copies are the park. Take a photo of the sign, leave it on your kitchen counter, or put it on the interwebs, and that's the park too. Isn't this fun?

Quite honestly, I always thought the whole thing was just an intellectual parlor trick. Sure, it's interesting. Sure, it's flashy and exciting. But in the end, so what? As a practical matter, all it meant was that clueless boomers with tenure would give you an A+ every time you wrote a paper that mentioned Madonna or MTV. Suckers.

But I digress. It's a fairly decent monument, by modern standards of stonework. Ok, it kinda looks like a headstone, but that's where the money is anymore. In any case, the thing deserves a better setting than this.


Here's a closeup of the side of the monument. I think this is supposed to tell us who carved it. I can't quite make out the name, though. I think it says "Jim Mounce". I ran across one recent mention of a stonemason by that name, located out on the coast. So that's a possibility.

The other lettering above the name I can't make out at all. I didn't even notice it was there until I got the photo home and looked at it.


So this is from the middle of the square, looking up through the center of the spiral ramp. Nothing much to say about this, I just sort of liked this photo.

Spiral Ramp, Stanich Park

I feel really sorry for the poor, spindly, light-starved fir tree in the center of the spiral ramp. But perhaps the tree was a really horrible person in a past life, and we're watching bad karma in action. I guess there'd really be no way to prove that, would there?


Looking north across the Going St. overpass. It's amazing how rusty everything is here. You'd think they'd have taken our climate into account when choosing their materials, but no.

There's something about most pedestrian overpasses that screams "urban blight". The surrounding neighborhoods are perfectly decent and respectable and all that, it's just this bridge that looks dodgy. Not falling-down dodgy, it just looks like it'd attract criminals from miles around, just to come and hang out on it and wait to mug you. Actually nobody was there except me, and I survived the experience just fine. The rusty chain-link cage around the thing just puts the idea in your mind, is all, and once it's there you can't shake it.

There's a compelling argument that pedestrian overpasses over roads are a sign of poor urban planning. The road was designed in such a way that it can't accommodate pedestrians safely, or at all. The overpasses are typically added to the construction plan solely to appease unhappy neighbors, and are built with a minimum of money and design effort, often ending up as scary eyesores.

I wonder if the "park" itself was another goodie thrown in to appease the neighbors? I suspect it went in around the same time as the overpass, along with Going St. in its current semi-freeway form. Perhaps Stanich fought against the plan, or for the overpass. The true story surely exists somewhere in dead tree format, but I don't know where to find it.


This is Going St., looking west. No sidewalk on the south side of the street, and an unused trash-strewn one on the north. The road is this wide because it's the primary corridor connecting I-5 and the Swan Island industrial area. So you could make a reasonable counterpoint to the planning argument I just mentioned, and argue that the road is critical to the regional economy, and simply has to be laid out this way, regardless of any fuzzy-wuzzy aesthetic concerns. I dunno. I still think they could've done a better job with the bridge.

So why did I bother with the bridge in the first place? Check this out:


For some unknown reason, the chain-link cage around the bridge has attracted a small colony of padlocks. Nobody knows who put them here, or why. Nobody knows how long they've been here, but it's obviously been a long time. And in all that time, nobody's come by to remove them. Is it someone's trophy collection, for all the locks they've picked, or bikes they've swiped, or something? Or is it Art, officially sanctioned or otherwise? It's all so mysterious...

Locks, Concord Ave. Overpass

Updated 5/1/07: This parks levy document from the city mentions something called Roy Beach Park, at Concord Ave. and Going Ct., which would be at the north end of the skybridge, across the bridge from Stanich Park. This seems to be the only mention in existence of this park, making it even more obscure than Stanich Park. Unlike Stanich Park, there isn't even a monument marking the spot. So although I was there briefly, I didn't realize it until a few minutes ago. Mysterious, indeed...

Updated: Said mysterious park is now run by the Water Bureau, which prefers to call it "Pittman Addition" for some reason. One would hope that Mr. Roy Beach isn't around to witness his name being yanked off the thing, at least.


I was born in pdx, I'll die here too! said...

great piece- a friend of mine and myself found this obscure little footnote to the late si stanich few months ago and were instantly agog with its - you nailed it- homeless refuge/criminal magnet qualities.

one interesting note is that the bridge has a ramp rather than a stair case, indicating that it was designed with a post going street speedway contingent of ADA lobbyists.

I cant help but wonder how many tens of thousands of wheelchairs have made it up an over that ramp....

Scott Mizee for npGREENWAY said...

This is a great little gem about the obscurity of the park, going street, and its footbridge. Thanks for posting it.

I found it intriguing that thousands of people got to experience this space in a much different context during Sunday Parkways a few weeks back.

I would like to make one small note about the previous comment:one interesting note is that the bridge has a ramp rather than a stair case, indicating that it was designed with a post going street speedway contingent of ADA lobbyists.
This ramp most likely gained its foothold before the ADA legislation from the early 1990's. Had it been constructed to comply with ADA, it would have covered MUCH more space to accommodate the 1:12 slope required on such ramps. Just a few blocks away at I-5, the Failing Street Pedestrian Bridge exhibits this trait. One can also see ADA compliant ramps at the Eastbank esplanade with its low slope and level landings every 50 feet or so.