Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Gabriel Park expedition


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So here's a photoset from Southwest Portland's Gabriel Park, a place I've been meaning to visit for a while now. At around 90 acres it's one of Portland's largest city parks, and it has a little of everything: Ball fields, tennis courts, a skate park, at least one playground, a community garden, an off-leash dog area, a large indoor rec center with a pool, and a large forested area centered around Vermont Creek, with a network of hiking trails.

The last time I was here was wayyy back in high school, in the mid-1980s. I was on the cross country team, and Gabriel Park was our home course, so I was here all the time. Thinking back, I remembered the park as a place of endless hills, and endless tree roots poking up in paths, ready to grab the ankles of the unwary, and people passing me, and my shins hurting a lot. It's possible my memories of the place are not entirely objective.

I'm still not sure how I ended up on the cross country team. High school gym class began the year with a week or two of running at various distances, which I think was a disguised tryout. The coach asked me to join the team based on my mile time. The only problem is that, looking back, it's possible I may have favorably (and accidentally) misremembered my time. I can't be sure because I have no recollection of what my time actually was. In any case, once I was on the team I wasn't very fast, and I also wasn't very tough, and I tended to either quit or finish in the bottom 25%, and I never quite made it out of "junior varsity" purgatory. But we were a small private school, with a small and barely funded team, and I guess they couldn't afford to cut me entirely. I even scored a letter out of it. I think I still have it somewhere, in fact, but I never ordered a letterman jacket to go with it. I was pretty sure at the time I hadn't earned any sort of athletic recognition, and I'm still pretty sure that's true. I suppose the main value of it to me, at the time, was convincing my parents I wasn't just a basement-dwelling computer dweeb.

In any case, a few months ago I was in the area and had a camera with me, and I thought I'd take a look around. Not because I was feeling sentimental or nostalgic or anything, but just to see what it looked like without anyone yelling at me to hurry up and run faster, dammit. Parts of the forest looked sort of familiar, and I think the usual finish line was somewhere around where the skate park is now. Contrary to what I remembered, the trails were actually quite nice, and I'm not sure where that memory about tree roots came from. The more I think about it, it's possible there may have been one single tree root that I tangled with on every lap through the forest. That sounds like something awkward teenage me would have managed to do.

A few things have changed since those days. The pool and skate park both arrived some time after 1985, and there are now substantial areas of the forest fenced off in the name of water quality and environmental restoration. The fencing is a fairly recent development. Vermont Creek has the same water quality issues as other urban streams around the area, and it's part of the Fanno Creek watershed, which gets it an additional degree of attention from the city. As a result, Gabriel Park has had a riparian zone protection project beginning in 2004 (that's the fencing-stuff-off project) and ongoing stormwater retrofitting efforts. And because this is an earnest do-gooding SW Portland neighborhood, there's a Friends of Vermont Creek connected to the local neighborhood association, with all sorts of volunteer opportunities etc.

One might expect that a city park this big would date back to the pioneer era, back before big parcels of land were subdivided and broken up. Gabriel Park is relatively new, though. It's far enough from the city center that the area was still semi-rural when the land was acquired in October 1950. The land wasn't actually within city limits at the time, but the city was planning to expand westward anyway, saw a large undeveloped parcel for sale, and jumped at the chance, so for a while the city owned a park outside city limits (similar to Elk Rock Island & the Kerr Property today). The city paid $120,000 for the land, which is about $1.1M in today's dollars, which seems like a very reasonable price for 87 acres this close to downtown Portland. As for the name, part of the site was then known as "Gabriel Acres" and owned by Margaret Gabriel. I was kind of hoping there would be an interesting story behind the name, but that doesn't seem to have been the case here.

In 1952, the city was looking around for a new location to replace the original city zoo, which was located near the reservoirs in lower Washington Park. Gabriel Park was a leading candidate to host the new zoo. The eventual winner, of course, was a location elsewhere in Washington Park, a location then known as the "West Slope golf course site". Other proposed locations included the wetlands at Oaks Bottom; a portion of the old Vanport City site; and "Camp's Butte", the old name of today's Powell Butte. At the time, Gabriel Park would have been a reasonable site for a new zoo, although the visitor traffic would have required a very different street network than what the area has today.

Anyway, here's an assortment of other links about the park from around the interwebs.