Monday, December 23, 2013

Paul Bunyan Plaza

Here are a few photos of Portland's famous Paul Bunyan statue, and the plaza he stands in. He was created for the city's mostly-forgotten 1959 Centennial Exposition, and stood at the corner of N. Interstate & Argyle for over half a century. He was moved a block south to the present location as part of the MAX Yellow Line project, and later received a "makeover" in 2009, restoring details that had faded over time. I've always thought the statue is kind of, I dunno, derpy-looking. And strangely bashful, despite being 31 feet tall and wielding a giant axe. The expression makes his current location kind of hilarious though; he stands looking north, gazing across the street at the Dancin' Bare strip club with a shy, hopeful look on his face. At least this scenario makes a kind of sense. Someday, once the city fully gentrifies the Kenton neighborhood, there will be a condo tower across the street, and the ground floor will have a doggie day spa, an upscale yoga studio, and a hot restaurant by the indie chef du jour. And Paul Bunyan will still be standing there with the same dopey look on his face, and it just won't add up. Even if he did have a mighty hankerin' for some Icelandic fusion banh mi, he'd never make it past the building concierge, giant axe or no.

I was originally going to compare our Bunyan unfavorably with the taller one down at the Trees of Mystery in Northern California. I seemed to remember (from seeing him years ago) that he was rougher and tougher and more manly-looking than ours, but a quick image search reveals that he's actually kind of crudely put together. Derpy or not, our guy still beats their guy in the looks department. Their guy comes out ahead in height (which admittedly is a big deal in the Bunyan universe), and having an actual blue ox, and being slightly animatronic, and having a guy inside who cracks jokes and joshes with visitors, and featuring in a This American Life episode about the guys who have this unusual job. We come out ahead in the department of not wiring a bumper sticker onto your car while you're in the gift shop, although supposedly they don't do that anymore either.

The Bunyan statue was announced on February 1st, 1959, a couple of weeks before the state's official 100th birthday. On May 20th, a construction photo showed the statue nearly completed. By early July, Portland was already feuding with Bangor, Maine, which had inaugurated a Bunyan of its own earlier the same year. It seems that Portland's was (allegedly) taller by a few scant inches, but the Bangor Bunyan stood upon a six-foot pedestal, and the Bunyans' backers bickered over whether the pedestal counted toward a statue's stature. The paper dubbed this the Battle of the Bunyans. The battle was settled decisively in 1961 when the obviously taller California Bunyan came along. It seems everyone was building a backyard Bunyan; It wasn't so much a Battle of the Bunyans as a Bunyan bubble. Which inevitably went the way of all bubbles, and the Trees of Mystery one remains the world's tallest to this day.

In any event, the statue remained Kenton's big local landmark through the ups and (primarily) downs of the following decades. He showed up in a 1976 article profiling the neighborhood as it was then. A few years later he made another appearance in a 1983 article about a study of the Kenton area, which described the prospects of revitalizing the neighborhood as "bleak, but not hopeless", whatever that means. A Bunyan photo ran in a 1985 article about Oregon roadside attractions. The MAX line sped either revitalization or gentrification, whatever you prefer to call it, but it's still not a place you'd ever confuse with the Pearl District or trendier parts of Inner NE closer to downtown.

As for the little plaza where our Bunyan now stands, I've found at least one city document using the "Paul Bunyan Plaza" name, and I'm not sure what else you'd call if if not that. It's not a city park strictly speaking; PortlandMaps says it's a piece of unused street right-of-way, I suppose left over from MAX construction, meaning the city Transportation Bureau owns the land. I don't know who empties the trash cans and so forth; I imagine it would be either TriMet or possibly neighborhood volunteers.

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