Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sewallcrest Park expedition

Sewallcrest Park
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I was rummaging through some old photos recently and realized I had a few from SE Portland's Sewallcrest Park, particularly of the community garden there. Like Irving Park, it's the sort of neighborhood park I usually don't bother with here: It has ball fields, a playground, an off-leash dog area, and so forth, and it's perfectly nice and pleasant and a great thing to have in one's neighborhood, but as far as I know there isn't anything particularly unique about it versus all the other neighborhood ball field/playground/dog parks around town.

I do have a few historical tidbits to pass along, at least. Nothing quite so exciting as Irving Park's role in early auto racing history, but hey. The land purchase for the park was announced in a brief blurb on December 8th, 1940:

32 Lots Bought In Sewall Crest

For park purposes, the city of Portland last week acquired from Edward C. Sewall 32 lots situated in Sewall Crest.

The properties include 22 lots between SE 31st and 32nd avenues and ten lots east of 32nd, all between SE Market and Harrison streets.
Sewallcrest Park

So first, a bit about who the park is named for. Edward C. Sewall (assuming I have the right one) was born and raised in Portland, and was head of the otorhinolaryngology (i.e. ear, nose and throat) department and a prominent researcher at Stanford Medical School until his 1940 retirement. His 1957 obit doesn't mention anything about Sewall Crest, so I'm not absolutely sure it's him. But his is not a very common name, and a doctor investing in a little real estate on the side would not be exactly surprising.

It seems Sewall was prominent enough that the there's a photo of him in the National Institutes of Health's "Images from the History of Medicine" archives. A few hits come up for various works of his without doing a medical literature search: He wrote a 1909 favorable book review of the new 5th edition of Politzer on the Ear, a then-standard work by the founder of modern ear medicine. A 1915 Journal of the American Medical Association mentions Sewall presenting a paper on surgery of the pituitary gland via the nose, which was apparently a hot new cutting-edge technique at the time, and modern variations on the approach are still common today. I'm sure I could dig up a lot more if I cared to try searching medical literature, but that would probably take this blog post too far afield. The Sewalls don't appear to have lived in Portland at any point after he joined Stanford, but they showed up regularly over several decades in the Oregonian's society pages when visiting friends and family here. As of 2004, there was an endowed Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor of Otorhinolaryngology position at Stanford Medical School.

In any case, apparently "Sewall Crest" (two words) was the name of the surrounding housing development. The park, and the nearby elementary school that was built later, have seemingly always been called "Sewallcrest", one word. Beats me why.

Sewallcrest Park

The park showed up in the Oregonian roughly once or twice per decade in the years after its creation. In October 1950, an article titled "City Planning Future Parks" gave a laundry list of proposed improvements, funded by a parks levy passed the previous year. The article stated that "no significant additional development" was expected in the coming year for several playgrounds around the city, including the Sewallcrest one. It's not clear from the article exactly what amenities the park had at that point.

Later, in May 1961, a citizen ballot initiative was announced which would have built several new community swimming pools around the city, including one proposed for Sewallcrest Park. The chief petitioner on the proposal just so happened to work for a contracting firm that, wait for it, built swimming pools. Which is truly an amazing coincidence, if you think about it. There seems to have been no further mention of the proposal in the paper, so it's not clear if it even made the ballot. Obviously it didn't pass since there's no such thing as a Sewallcrest Community Pool. One of the other proposed pool sites was SW Portland's Gabriel Park, which finally got a pool and fancy community center in 1999, thanks to a 1994 ballot measure.

The park expanded slightly in 1971, with the purchase of another vacant lot, this time thanks to an "open spaces" grant from the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development. In 1974 the Open Spaces program was consolidated into the present-day Community Development Block Grant program. Apparently federal HUD money can still be spent on this sort of project; it's just that there's far less money available than there was in 1971.

The community garden arrived in 1972, and apparently was the first one in the city. A young Portland Community College employee had seen something similar in England, and worked to, uh, transplant the idea here, just when the idea of living off the land and growing one's own food had become fashionable again. By 1979, there was already a long waiting list to get a community garden plot. In the present day, I've heard stories of people waiting over a decade for plots in certain parks to become available.