Tuesday, October 28, 2008

East Park Blocks: Intro

Reed College Parkway

Every tourist guidebook to Portland blabs on and on about the Park Blocks downtown. As a result, they aren't really prime blog material here, photogenic as they may be. But as it turns out, the downtown Park Blocks have a number of vastly more obscure cousins scattered around Portland's east side. I've never seen any collective name used for all of them, so I thought I'd go ahead and christen them the "East Park Blocks", by analogy with downtown's North & South Park Blocks. (Although now I'll probably run across another one, on the west side this time, and it'll be back to square one again...)

Most of the East Park Blocks are in residential areas; I think the idea was that a stretch of park blocks makes an area a bit more genteel, and creates a boulevard suitable for promenading about in one's horse and buggy, wearing one's Sunday best. Which doesn't happen much anymore, and doing the equivalent from a car just isn't the same. Still, I figured since they're designed to be enjoyed from a moving vehicle, that's what I'd do. I made a big loop around town, driving up and down each stretch of these park blocks in turn. Most of these photos were taken while I was driving, which isn't exactly "safe", and Legal says I can't encourage anyone else to do it, but I think it captures the effect properly this way.

I've seen indications that at least some of these park blocks are the scattered remnants of an early 20th century master plan, a plan that for the most part went unimplemented. From the city's Recreational Trails Strategy:
The historic foundation for this trail system strategy is the 1903 plan developed for Portland by John C. Olmsted. He identified desirable sites for parks and proposed that they be connected by parkways and boulevards. Although many of the sites were eventually secured, Terwilliger Boulevard (which he helped design) is the only substantial parkway that was created. Some fragments of boulevard (Ainsworth and Reedway Blocks, Firland and Roseway Parkways) were constructed as parts of subdivisions, but most of the Olmsted vision of interconnected parks was not implemented.

I'm not totally sure this is accurate, though. Another two docs, also from the city, discuss the 1903 Olmsted plan, and the various parkways and park blocks do not appear anywhere in the text or in any included maps. I suppose they could've originated in the 1912 Bennett Plan, but I couldn't find enough detail about that to be sure one way or the other. I'd imagine the Oregon Historical Society would have copies of the original plans, which would settle the matter definitively. I haven't gotten around to doing that, though, so I'm going to have to call this a "maybe" for now.

If there was a master plan, it's hard to argue it was a realistic master plan. Now, I realize it was the early 20th century, the days of all-out civic boosterism and Teddy Roosevelt-style bravado, but two of the existing stretches of park blocks are way out on 72nd Avenue, one in NE Portland and the other in SE, separated by a few miles. If the original plan was to have a continuous Olmsted-esque parkway the whole distance, that would've been a pretty damn expensive undertaking, way out at the far edge of the city. To give you some idea, the Portland city limits only extended to roughly 82nd avenue as recently as the 1980s. (The 1980s expansion further east is still bitterly resented in some quarters, but that's a story for another time.) I'm not convinced it would've been a good idea to build out the full plan anyway (again, assuming there was a plan). If the intent was to create leafy, green, stuffy, respectable upper-middle-class neighborhoods, that idea met with mixed success, at best. These days the parkways' surrounding neighborhoods are all gentrifying to varying degrees, but most were decidedly blue-collar areas for much of the 20th century. Which is fine, of course; it's just not what the original planners intended. Given John Olmsted's comments about Milwaukie's "sordid little houses", which I mentioned in my Elk Rock Island post, I think it's fair to assume that urban planners of that era were a snobby, elitist lot, with little care for the needs of the icky toiling classes.

In the present day, the whole parkway concept has kind of fallen by the wayside. The idea of setting aside public space to look at but not actually use is deeply unfashionable now, and we don't do it anymore. (Well, with one notable exception that we'll get to later on in the tour.) The Portland Parks website has little icons on the page for each city park indicating what features are available: For "hiking", there's a couple of people hiking. For tennis, a guy with a tennis racket. For "natural area", there's a duck, a maple leaf, and a magnifying glass. They don't have pages for any of the places we're visiting on this tour, but if they did they'd need to cobble up a "genteel" icon, maybe a couple promenading in Victorian garb, the man in top hat and tails (and perhaps sporting a monocle), the woman in an elaborate period gown with an enormous hat made of endangered birds.

In any case, the list of parkways in the Recreational Trails doc isn't completely accurate. They missed a couple, and got the name wrong on another one. A doc explaining the city's 2002 Parks Levy does a better job -- understandable, I guess, since there was actual money on the line. But they still missed one, for reasons which will become clear a bit later on.

I was initially going to stuff everything into this post, but six embedded Google maps in a single post seemed excessive, so I decided to break it up into a multi-post series instead, so this post is just an intro.

Here's the list, starting at the southernmost and proceeding counterclockwise into North Portland:

Updated 2/3/21: I ran across two more of these back in 2014: The Sandstone Park Blocks in a subdivision just over the city boundary into Gresham, and the Waverleigh Blvd. Blocks in inner SE Portland north of Powell.

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