Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chapman Square

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Our next adventure takes us to Chapman Square, one of downtown Portland's two Plaza Blocks. For much of the city's history, these two city blocks were the only downtown parks other than the Park Blocks. They also border several major civic buildings, namely the county courthouse, the Portland Building, the Justice Center, and the federal courthouse, and city hall is right next door. So you'd think they'd have a prominent role in the city, but you'd be wrong. The official holiday tree goes up in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Concerts are held there, speeches are made there, even a farmers market is held there. Large public events happen in Waterfront Park. Here, nothing. Office workers sit on the park benches and eat their lunches in good weather, and homeless people sometimes sleep in the park, and photographers wander around taking photos, but that's about it.

From the city's description:

The Plaza Blocks were lively places where orators held forth and citizens assembled. They are characterized in part by several large old elms and gingko trees. Chapman Square, originally designed for the exclusive use of women and children, features all female gingko trees. Lownsdale Square was to be the "gentlemen's gathering place." Today the Plaza Blocks are still a busy gathering place, although men and women can now safely coexist in either of them.

The gender segregation aspect is the one unusual historical detail about the two squares. A couple of vestiges of this remain: Chapman Square contains only a womens restroom, while the mens room is on the far side of Lownsdale Square. Macho-man Lownsdale Square also contains several war memorials, while Chapman has none. Other than that, the two parks are leafy, green city squares of a rather formal 19th Century design. An old chain sorta-fence around both squares tries to discourage people from hanging out on the grass, with mixed success.

To the south of Chapman Square is Terry Schrunk Plaza, which looks like a third Plaza Block but technically isn't. It's a federally-owned park on top of a federal parking garage, and it only dates to the 1970s, so it just doesn't count.

Instead of war stuff, Chapman Square is home to a silly guns-n-Bibles pioneer sculpture called The Promised Land, as well as a small Benson Bubbler in the center of the square, and a historical marker on SW 3rd commemorating the nation's first long distance electrical transmission, from the power plant at Willamette Falls to this very spot.

More recently, Chapman Square was the center of the city's Occupy Portland encampment in 2011, with a big communal kitchen built around the pioneers. That may have been the most excitement the square has seen in decades, and City Hall has been quite avid to prevent a repeat. Even now, they'll pepper spray you (or worse) if you so much as look at the Plaza Blocks while carrying a tent, or anything that vaguely resembles a tent.

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