Friday, August 29, 2014

Piccolo Park

Photos of SE Portland's tiny Piccolo Park, just south of Division between 27th & 286h. It's a tiny place with a cameo role in one of modern Portland's creation myths, the successful fight against the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway. The freeway was supposed to branch off the Marquam Bridge near OMSI, and head east from there, first along a path between Division and Clinton Streets (i.e. right here), and then along Powell further east, continuing to I-205 and beyond to the distant new eastern suburbs the plan envisioned. Despite the name, it would not have gone anywhere near Mt. Hood. This proposal came on the heels of several other ill-conceived freeway projects (Marquam Bridge, I-5 along the eastbank waterfront and through North Portland, etc.), and this one turned out to be the last straw. There was a huge public outcry, and after years of wrangling the city and the state highway division (now ODOT) finally abandoned the idea. The federal grant money for the freeway was repurposed to build the eastside MAX Blue Line, and the rest is history, and we're still patting ourselves on the back for it close to 40 years later.

The original freeway plan was explained in a March 1972 Oregonian article "Residents of Southeast Portland to Help Plan New Freeway". The list of negative impacts is almost comical: Ugly concrete ramps to the Marquam Bridge visible from Ladd's Addition. Homes and schools bulldozed in the name of progress. Dirt. Noise. No way to cross the freeway in a lot of places. But think of all the exciting benefits: Maybe a greenspace next to the freeway or something. Maybe a bike path if they decide to build one someday. An exciting new shopping mall along the freeway out towards I-205. Oh, and maybe a pedestrian footbridge over the freeway at 28th, i.e. right here. Curiously, the article goes on to discuss mass transit options for the area, and mentions the idea of building a new transit-only bridge near the Marquam Bridge, which is precisely what's being built right now for the new MAX Orange Line. Go figure.

Anyway, by the time the freeway was canceled, the state had already started eminent domain proceedings for the freeway right-of-way. Along Powell, between about Foster Road and I-205, the little parking areas along the south side of the road are on land that was condemned and acquired for the new freeway. Closer in, Piccolo Park is one of very few leftovers of this effort. (There might be others, but this is the only one I'm aware of.) The site of Piccolo Park would have been under the westbound lanes of the freeway, I think, since it's just a few houses south of Division. There were once five houses here, before they were demolished in the name of Progress that never arrived. After the cancellation, ODOT held onto the land, which sat in limbo for about another decade.

Finally in October 1986 neighborhood activists convinced the city to take the land off the state's hands. The city had been resistant to the idea, as they had a policy at the time against adding tiny new parks. The parks bureau was persuaded to make an exception here as the neighborhood had very little greenspace of any kind, and this seemed to be the only viable chance to add a city park in the area.

At the time, and in subsequent early planning stages, everyone referred to it as "Hosford Park", and it seems to have gone by this name unofficially during the years ODOT owned and ignored it. The name changed at some point between then and 1989 when the newly funded and landscaped park officially opened to the public. A 1988 article about playground improvements at nearby Abernethy School also mentions the upcoming new park, but doesn't name it, so the name may have been in flux at that point. I haven't come across any explanation of the name change, but I imagine it would've been to avoid confusion with Hosford Middle School, a couple of blocks due north on the other side of Division. That would make sense, and I'm all in favor of avoiding naming collisions when possible. Regarding the eventual name, one theory I've seen points out that "piccolo" is simply the Italian word for "small", and it may not have anything to do with the tiny, super-annoying musical instrument. I want to emphasize this point in case anyone thinks it would be hip and ironic to show up here en masse and have a piccolo-playing Segway-riding flash mob or something. I just want to be sure people know that doing this would look unsophisticated, telling the world you had no idea it was an Italian word. Just imagine how embarrassing that would be.

Anyway, the park is just big enough for a playground, which was the whole idea when the neighborhood lobbied the city about it. There are some artsy touches here and there, some of which I only noticed in other people's photos after I was there. A small "Friends of Piccolo Park" was formed in 2012 to raise $7000 for a water fountain here. Which I suppose is an appropriately small goal, since this park only exists thanks to a revolt against massive grand plans.

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