Monday, May 30, 2011

Elizabeth Caruthers Park expedition




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Today's adventure takes us to Portland's shiny new Elizabeth Caruthers Park, in the center of the South Waterfront district. I can't really say the heart of the South Waterfront given the current state of the area. The city had such high hopes for the South Waterfront back in the condo-bubble days. It was to be a new urban Eden of steel and glass, with clean green biotech jobs for all, or something along those lines. Right now, not so much. I don't know how it manages to feel empty and oppressive at the same time, but it does. And I'm told it's worse at night, when packs of demonic zombie realtors roam the streets, desperately seeking new victims, er, investors.

But enough about the surrounding area, let's talk about the park. This is supposed to be the South Waterfront's neighborhood park, so presumably it provides facilities tailored to the needs of area residents. As far as I can tell there are no children in the South Waterfront. I'm not sure if it's technically forbidden; maybe it just hasn't ever occurred to anyone to take kids there, or in the case of residents, to have kids. In any case, there seems to be zero local demand for playground equipment, ball fields, or even a skate park.

On the other hand the area's home to countless fancy little dogs with weak bladders, and for them the new park is a godsend, or a dogsend as the case may be. So most of the park is just a flat grassy area where dogs can take care of business. Although the problem with fancy little dogs is that they can't always hold it until they reach the dog park. Ran across a couple of examples while walking around the neighborhood, with owners looking way more embarrassed than the situation called for. It's the nature of tiny dogs. Living in a condo building myself, I can tell you they can't always hold it for the full elevator ride.

Anyway, because this is an officially designated upscale area we can't just leave the whole park as an open field. No, we need to overspend on Design with a capital 'D'. The idea here, as I understand it, is that rich Californians will see all the avant-garde-ness and identify with it and plunk down a few mil for a penthouse condo, and if we're lucky they'll tip their baristas generously. You can think of it as Portland's liberal-esque flavor of trickle-down economics, basically.

So the non-canine remainder of the park offers an array of premium luxury features:
  • The north end of the park is a sort of landscaped garden area. It didn't come across as a particularly interesting or inspired garden area, but I visited in the off season, and I'm told it's really not fair to judge formal landscaping for at least a decade or so after it's been planted, to give everything a chance to settle in. That may be true, as far as I know, so the park gets a pass here.

  • There's a low hill in the middle of the park, which creates a boundary between the dog part and the artsy part without having to put up an ugly fence. It's not really much of a hill, more of a little grassy knoll, although I suppose calling it that might offend more sensitive souls among the neighborhood's aging boomers. In any case, a long post about the park at Landscape + Urbanism mentions that the hill is sort of a signature feature of Hargreaves, the design firm behind the park. (Their page about the park is here). Dogs marking territory, architects marking territory.

  • The south and west fringes of the park include an artificial wetland-like area, crisscrossed by a few boardwalk paths. It does does basically sorta-resemble a Northwest wetland area, minus the skunk cabbage, carnivorous pitcher plants, and invasive blackberries. So again, not particularly exciting, but I understand that this feature was a big contributor toward making the park so expensive. The whole South Waterfront district was industrial land prior to being redeveloped, and the original topsoil was thought to be too contaminated to let people live directly on and have long term exposure to. So new topsoil was brought from somewhere else and placed as a cap on top of the original soil. That's not an unusual solution to the problem, and it's a lot cheaper than carting away all the potentially contaminated soil and figuring out how to dispose of it. The problem comes when you need to cut into the cap you just created, and make something that resembles a wetland on top without letting the cooties leach out of your capped soil layer.

  • Scattered around the wetland area are several tall poles with what look like oversized bike wheels on them. That's exactly what they're supposed to be. This is Art, and it's supposed to reinforce the notion that the neighborhood's identity is shaped by bicycles and wind power, whether that's actually true or not. I'm not a big fan of art that tries to define the tribal mores of a neighborhood, or a city, or a country, but at least this one doesn't include any salmon. Maybe bikes are the new salmon. I dunno. I have to say these bike wheel gizmos look like something you'd see in the yard of a bipolar folk artist in rural Alabama.

  • Back at the north end there's some abstract art made with big wooden beams, which I have no real opinion about either way. The main drawback that I can see to it is that it's the closest thing the neighborhood has to a playground structure, and it's a miserable excuse for a playground structure. Aging boomers (the target audience for the South Waterfront) are going to have the grandkids over now and then, and the grandkids will try to play on this thing and be sorely disappointed, and they'll soon realize this is the least fun park they've ever been to, and they'll complain to grandma and grandpa about how bored they are, and either grandma or grandpa will start rambling on about Woodstock for no reason, or maybe about that first BMW they bought back in the 80s with the capital gains on those junk bonds, or why Howdy Doody is way better than SpongeBob, or some damn thing, and multigenerational family discord will result, and the therapy bills will be enormous.

  • There's a small historical marker dedicated to what we're told is the site of the first pioneer cabin in the Portland area. The historical marker itself is rather old, dedicated by a Daughters of 1812 group back in the 1920s. It was 83 years between the cabin and the dedication of the historical marker, and now it's going on 86 years since the marker went in. It's worth pointing out that the marker (and presumably the cabin itself) was not originally here at this spot. Not sure why they moved it; if it's not marking the actual spot anymore, I'm not sure what the point is of having it at all. Over time people will gradually forget that the marker's in the wrong place, and future archeologists will dig in the wrong place, and they'll break through the cap into the cootie topsoil, and it'll be expensive to fix, assuming people remember that layer of soil has cooties, which they may or may not.

  • There's a new, larger monument to the Johnsons nearby. Larger in this case does not mean more informative. The Johnsons were a historical footnote, and they didn't do anything noteworthy except live nearby for a while, and they left no written account of their time here. So we have a very expensive stone monument that lets us know in the most pretentious way possible that we have no clue who these people really were or what their lives were like.

  • The markers are of debatable accuracy and historical significance. A letter to the editor in the June 28, 1920 Oregonian lays it out quite clearly: Although the Johnson cabin predates the various land claims in what's now downtown Portland, the South Waterfront area was not considered to be part of Portland until much later, and in no sense was the city founded here. Furthermore, if we consider all of 1920 Portland (or present-day Portland for that matter), Johnson was preceded in 1829 by a gentleman named Etienne Lucier (namesake of a short-lived and extremely expensive French restaurant in the Riverplace area). And what's more, there's no actual record of Johnson having served in the War of 1812, on the USS Constitution or elsewhere. In fact, he would have been about twelve years old at the time. As the letter puts it, "The presumption, though not conclusive, is that one of such tender years was not in the great naval battle.".

  • On the other hand, the 1920 letter mentions an intriguing detail: "In addition to farming he manufactured a decoction called blue ruin, which carried a knockout in every drink." So you could plausibly claim him as the founder, or at least the, uh, spiritual ancestor, of Portland's present-day microdistilling boom. Which to me is a much better claim to fame than having owned a crappy little cabin off in the woods somewhere. The letter may not have pointed this as out a compliment, however; 1920 was the year Prohibition went into effect nationwide, Oregon having gone dry four years earlier. Anyway, to all the local microdistillers out there: You aren't obligated to credit me when you name your new concoction "Johnson's Blue Ruin", but feel free to send a bottle over for, uh, review purposes. Thx. Mgmt.

  • A February 8th, 1925 article just prior to the marker's unveiling mentions a fun detail. The "Old Ironsides" tale apparently was Johnson's explanation for some unusual scars he had. Apparently everyone, or at least the Oregonian, took this at face value. The story of the unveiling, on February 15th 1925, gives a bit more detail. Johnson's surviving (and now elderly) daughter Amelia attended the dedication.

  • The park is dedicated to a different pioneer, Elizabeth Caruthers, whose big claim to fame was that a dispute over her estate (including a donation land claim to the South Waterfront area) went all the way to the Supreme Court. A John Terry column at OregonLive explores the gory details.

  • But wait, you're probably thinking, didn't we just learn all about the Johnsons being here sorta-first? You see, that's different. Johnson settled here before Oregon was legally a US territory, and was believed to have been a British subject. Later, when a formal system of land ownership was created, US citizens were grandfathered in. Everyone else had the right to continue living where they presently were, but no right to sell the land or leave it to heirs. Which meant any Johnson descendants would be out of luck. I don't have references to prove this right now, but I suspect this is the reason for all the talk about how the Johnsons were here sorta-first, and how he was a big war hero from 1812. If you could argue that your ancestor's loyalties lay with the USA, and took part in an ultra-patriotic, anti-British conflict that was still reasonably fresh in everyone's minds, perhaps you might end up as the rightful owner of a big chunk of South Waterfront land instead of those crazy Caruthers hillbillies.

  • And then, speaking of rightful owners, the city's page for the park mentions this part at the end, after covering the Caruthers legal drama in some detail:
    Prior to European contact, over 50,000 Native Americans lived in the Portland area and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans came to trade along the river. During the time of early land agreements and negotiations with local tribes, the South Waterfront area became a relocation camp for Native Americans who were removed from other parts of the city. This is one of many greenspaces within our park system that are sacred and important sites to our Native communities.


    Perhaps I'm a little biased, with a few Native American ancestors of my own back in the mists of time, but this seems like somewhat of a bigger deal than all this business with the Carutherses and Johnsons. I mean, we have a couple of memorials around town dealing with the 1942 "relocation" of Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. If the South Waterfront was the Native American equivalent, and a sacred site to boot, it seems like you ought to at least mention it on a plaque or something, and maybe not make the park quite so pioneer-centric.

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