Thursday, September 04, 2008

Alexandra Avenue Bridge

Alexandra Avenue Bridge

Alexandra Avenue Bridge

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So today's unusual adventure takes us to an obscure corner of Forest Park to what you might call Portland's own "Bridge to Nowhere". The Alexandra Avenue Bridge is a fairly long and substantial (although narrow) bridge over a deep forested ravine, with a creek somewhere far below. It seems like you've wandered into the back of beyond, although you're actually just a few blocks off NW Thurman St. As you go uphill on Thurman, turn right onto Gordon St., and follow it to where it turns right again and becomes Alexandra Avenue. The bridge is right there. But strangely, Alexandra Avenue dead-ends into Forest Park just a few blocks past the bridge, and doesn't connect to any other streets. The city clearly went to a lot of trouble and expense to build a bridge here, but it doesn't really go anywhere, and basically nobody uses it. So the obvious question is "Why?"

Alexandra Avenue Bridge

I haven't been able to find a definitive answer, but I have a couple of competing theories:

  1. The bridge was supposed to spur residential development further north, and it just sort of didn't work out. Forest Park wasn't created until the late 1940s, and prior to that the whole area was platted out for more upscale West Hills houses stretching off to the horizon. Leif Erickson Drive was supposed to be the main drag through the future ritzy suburb, but there were problems with mudslides, and then the Depression came along, and eventually the city ended up with all the land due to unpaid property taxes. The bridge was built in 1922, which would be the right timeframe for this.
  2. It's really more of a "Bridge to Almost Nowhere". There are two things at the far end of the bridge, and perhaps the bridge was always intended just for them. There's a huge Water Bureau tank on the far side, and if you look at the photos above you can see what looks like a large water main under the deck of the bridge. So possibly the water's the main thing, so to speak, and they just figured, hey, if we're building a bridge we might as well let cars use it too. So that's one possibility.

Water Tank, Alexandra Avenue Bridge

The second thing on the far side of the bridge is the Salvation Army's White Shield Center, which they describe as:

The Salvation Army White Shield Center has been located in Northwest Portland since 1917. The center began as a maternity home and hospital. We continue to serve the needs of pregnant and parenting clients between the ages of 12 and 18 but have added an additional program to serve the needs of adolescent girls who need a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. Clients are referred to the programs by state social service agencies or the juvenile justice system.

North End, Alexandra Avenue Bridge

The term "maternity home and hospital" in this case meant it was the place where young girls who'd "gotten in trouble" would go to live for a few months until the baby was born and given up for adoption. The whole idea was to be quiet and discreet about it, given the extreme social stigma attached to unwed mothers back then. There'd be the usual cover story about the girl going off to visit Aunt Edna for a few months, and afterward everyone would act -- outwardly -- as if nothing had happened, and society could go on pretending this sort of thing didn't happen, at least not in our fair city. It was a very different time, I'll say that, all about keeping up appearances and "respectability" and false facades. I suppose at the time a "maternity home and hospital" was a way to treat the issue compassionately, while also helping to hide it, so that society could go on not facing facts as they really are.

So because of all that, you don't really want your maternity home to be located on a busy neighborhood street, with nosy neighbors and Model T's whizzing by constantly. If the dates are right, the center was here first, and then the bridge a few years later. So it's possible the bridge was built to serve this place, and Alexandra Avenue was never meant to extend any further than it does.

While researching, I came across the White Shield Project, a site dedicated to collecting memories and accounts about life at White Shield over the years. Here's a forum thread on the same topic, with a few responses discussing the place.

A bit more info via the Oregonian: November 2006 article, and this rather sad Margie Boule story from September '03.

Dedication Plaque, Alexandra Avenue Bridge

So, in short, I still don't know why the bridge is here. At least I can try to explain how I came across the bridge. If you've read any of my recent posts here, you might have noticed I've been doing a local bridge thing for a couple of months now, on and off. It seems there are a couple of sites on the net that are just big databases of bridges and other structures from around the world. So naturally once I was done looking at the page for the McLoughlin Bridge, or whichever one took me there, I thought, hey, let's see the list of what they've got for the Portland area. From there, went (as I tend to do) hey, I've never heard of that one, what's the deal there? Looked at the photos on the site, decided it looked interesting. Then found it on Google Maps and figured it was reasonably nearby. And thus, a new TODO item was born.

Alexandra Avenue Bridge

So here are the bridge pages at Structurae, Bridgehunter, and Brueckenweb. You might notice that two of the three sites are out of Germany, for some reason. Also, they all seem to be working off the same master list. The bridge shows up almost nowhere else on the interwebs, but it does show up on the City Bridge Inventory, where we learn it has a "sufficiency rating" of 51.70 out of 100. Which is not great by any means, and it may rank as high as it does because it gets almost no traffic. One component of the sufficiency rating is whether the bridge has enough capacity to handle current & projected vehicle traffic. And on that count, at least, it seems to suffice quite well. The inventory also describes the bridge as in "POOR" condition, and also calls it "Functionally Obsolete" (along with a lot of other bridges in town). The bridge also appears on this list of bridges eligible for repair or replacement. In which we learn that rehab costs were estimated at ~$900k, compared to ~$1.2M to replace the bridge, so rehab it probably is, whenever they get around to it. We also learn that the stream it crosses is simply called "Unnamed Creek". One other little bit of trivia to pass along: According to PortlandMaps, if a neighborhood had sprung up around the bridge, it would have been known as "Blythswood", at least according to the tax rolls (example). If history had turned out a little differently, if the Depression hadn't come along, and possibly if there hadn't been a La Niña year at just the wrong time, (with the accompanying heavy rains and mudslides), right now we might be muttering and shaking our fists at the rich twits up in Blythswood, careening around the narrow streets in their monstrous luxury SUVs. Most likely there would be a "Friends of the Alexandra Avenue Bridge" organization, with big gala fundraisers every so often, and there'd be nature walks and assorted family-friendly activities. The creek below would have a name, and there'd be all sorts of public handwringing about watersheds and native fish species. I can safely say all this based on how the locals get worked up over Tryon Creek and Balch Creek, further south. In any case, as always I've got a few more photos in my Flickr photoset about the place. Updated 9/09: We have linkage from here, on a wiki page about White Shield. I haven't read much of the site, but the person/group/organization behind it appears to be very skeptical about teen programs such as this.

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