Monday, October 31, 2016

SE 91st & Foster Plaza

The next sorta-park we're visiting is a relatively new one. For years now, the Portland Development Commission has been trying -- fruitlessly so far -- to gentrify the Lents neighborhood, particularly the stretch of Foster Rd. between about SE 88th & I-205. So far they've poured close to $100M into the area, and the fickle condo tower gods have yet to appear & bestow their various blessings, so the struggle continues. A recent PDC effort here was called "Lents Streetscape Improvements", which involved redesigning a few intersections and adding a couple of large gateway monuments to let drivers know that a.) they had arrived at Lents, and b.) this fact was important. One of the intersection tweaks added a bend to SE 91st Ave. at the intersection with Foster, and the original straight bit of street was transmogrified into the semi-shiny new plaza you see here. (Note: in 2016, Google Maps still can't decide whether it wants to show you the old street grid or the new one. If you don't see a bend in the embedded map above, try clicking "View Larger Map", which will take you to a map that's both larger and newer. Don't ask me why; I don't work for Google and am at least as confused as you are.)

The little plaza doesn't seem to have an official name, and a 2014 Willamette Week article dubbed it "Cockroach Plaza", due to the pest control business housed in the building next door. That's a bit unfair, considering the building is a vintage Carnegie library that just happens to house a pest control business right now. I will grant that the plaza won't win any urban design awards. It looks like it could use a weird sculpture in the middle, or a couple of food carts. Possibly they're waiting a few years to do that, so locals can get used to the new bend in the road & won't plow right through the local fruit cart or something.

SW Bertha & Donner

In the previous post, I mentioned something about one of this humble blog's more esoteric ongoing projects, tracking down a group of obscure places on a list I found in the city archives website years ago. Some of these places are actual city parks (albeit very obscure ones). Others turn out to be bits of city-owned property the parks bureau had a hand in maintaining at one point, and then there are a few cases where I can't figure out why they're on the list at all. This installment actually invents a fourth category, as you'll see in a moment.

My Evernote copy of the esoteric list said there was something at SW Bertha & Donner, a hairpin intersection of winding streets up in the West Hills. Street View wasn't promising; there was nothing obviously park-like or even green to be seen, just a somewhat wider-than-usual intersection. Still, I went and visited and took some photos, because them's the rules, and here they are.

So I checked property records and came up with a theory about the place, for anyone who's still reading & isn't utterly bored to tears by this project. At one point, PortlandMaps showed a tiny bit of the intersection as a parcel of land owned by the city transportation bureau, as opposed to counting it as part of the street right-of-way (which is what normally happens). This later changed, and the website now lists property ID #R178213 as "inactive", and the property description now includes the word "CANCEL". So, theory is that the tiny bit of land may have been a bit of landscaped median or something at one point, and it was paved over later on, and eventually the city decided to abolish it entirely, for mysterious but I'm sure very important bureaucratic reasons.

An additional fun detail from PortlandMaps is that Bertha Ave. continues west from here in the legal sense, but there's no actual road there; the physical street picks back up a couple of blocks west of here. I suppose at some point the city must've concluded the missing Bertha bit wasn't going to be built anytime soon, and tried to round off the would-be intersection into more of a hairpin corner, and whatever was here before was paved over at that point. A more adventurous and outgoing person than I might have started knocking on doors and asking people strange questions about their weird street. And this more adventurous person might have gotten definitive answers, or (more likely) doors slammed in his or her face, and a nice visit from Officer Friendly and his or her enormous K9 partner.

The exciting twist, now that you've read this far, is that then I went back and looked at the original list, and the original item actually reads "Dosch & Bertha/Beaverton". Which is an entirely different place, albeit not that far from here. So this spot is in category number four, things that seem like they ought to have been in category three (i.e. things on the list where I don't understand why they were listed), but in fact were not on the list at all. Which is a fancy way of saying I completely screwed up this time, beginning with typing the wrong thing into Evernote. With any luck, this post will be the only item in category four. I thought about just deleting this post since it's not even a genuine item from that silly list, but I figured I already had the photos and I'd done the research, and there was (slightly) more of a story to it than most of the stuff on that list, and I seem to be a big believer in chasing sunk costs, so here goes.

If this happens to be your neighborhood, I like to think I'm somehow boosting your property values or raising the tone of your neighborhood by showcasing this little spot. If busloads of foreign tourists start showing up to take photos, though, I assure you I had nothing to do with it; to be honest this whole thing started because most of your neighborhood street names are German words starting with B or D, which is a lousy and confusing sort of naming convention, so frankly you only have yourselves to blame for all of this nonsense.

SW Fairmount & Sherwood

The anatomy of an ongoing blog project here looks something like this: I find or compile a list of places and things (parks, bridges, statues, murals, etc.), usually around Portland (for convenience), the more esoteric the better. I track them down, take a few photos of widely varying quality, and attempt to write something interesting, often while protesting that the subject isn't very interesting and the entire project is perhaps ill-conceived. There's one project in particular that I grumble about a lot: Many moons ago, I ran across a list of obscure places on the city archives website, all places the parks bureau had spent money on at some point between the 70s and early 90s. I thought it might be interesting to try to track them down. Some turned out to be obscure but real city parks, others random bits of road landscaping, and sometimes they weren't anything at all anymore. The city took the list down at some point, but I had the foresight(?) to include a copy in a post back in 2011, so I've sort of felt obligated to keep going for the sake of completeness, I suppose thanks to our old friend the sunk cost fallacy.

So as you might have guessed, this is another installment in that particular project. The list said there was something at the intersection of SW Fairmount Blvd. & Sherwood Place, two roads that wind around in the West Hills. What turns out to be there is a bit of vacant land, with a small gravel turnaround or parking lot and a sloping bit with some trees and blackberry bushes. PortlandMaps says it's all considered street right-of-way, so it's not really a city park, and I couldn't guess what sort of improvements the parks bureau might have made here a few decades back. Unless it's the gravel lot, maybe. Or maybe there's forgotten art or a disused fountain or rusty 70s playground equipment under the blackberries, although I rather doubt that. That's not how it usually turns out with this project. Usually I'm left scratching my head and wondering why it was included on that dumb list, and I never get a good answer. So it goes.

"A Gift For You"

Another of our ongoing occasional projects here is a public art tour around downtown Vancouver, Washington, Portland's northern suburb across the river. It's not always world-renowned cutting-edge work, exactly, but at least there are different people selecting it, so it's at least different than the usual stuff by the usual Portland suspects. In that spirit, here's A Gift For You, in Esther Short Park, near the fountain & bell tower. This was created by Jim Demetro, who also did the George Vancouver statue at the west end of the park.

Back in 2009, while snarking at an kitschy 9/11 memorial on SE Belmont, I laid out a few semi-ironclad rules for deciding whether a statue is Bad Art. This, sadly, violates three of these rules: The statues are painted, or at least were at one point; it includes multiple people interacting, which usually looks goofy; and it includes at least one child, which always looks creepy. Still, the burbs like what they like, and locals seemed to be rather fond of it in a 2012 Columbian article. So yeah.

"Doctors" (OHSU)

We still have a few items left on our tour of public art at OHSU, because doctors really like buying art. This one's actually called Doctors, in fact; it's by Bonnie Bronson, whose work has appeared here a few times before: Nepali Window downtown, and the painted panels on her husband Lee Kelly's Leland One and the untitled sculpture at NE 72nd & Fremont.

Essex Park

Ok, time for another blog post. I haven't done a city park post in a while, and honestly this probably won't be among the more memorable of them. A while ago I was out tracking down murals in SE Portland and ran across little Essex Park, on SE Center a few blocks west of 82nd. It's another of those neighborhood parks I keep saying I don't bother with; ballfields and playgrounds are fine, of course, but there's usually nothing distinctive there to justify a blog post. I took a couple of photos since I was there anyway, and eventually it occurred to me that there might be something interesting about the place in the old Oregonian newspaper database. That turned out pretty well a few years ago with Irving Park, which was previously a horse & auto racetrack where a world land speed record was set in the early 1900s.

If Essex Park has ever seen that level of excitement, it somehow didn't make the paper, unfortunately. I did come across one minor mystery, at least: The city parks website says the city acquired it in 1940, but the surrounding neighborhood was developed starting around 1906, and the developers were already calling the neighborhood "Essex Park" at that point. So either the neighborhood predated its namesake park, or someone else owned the park prior to 1940, or the city's records are off. Subsequent news items peak in the 1950s & early 60s, when the neighborhood would have been full of Boomer kids, all wanting to play Little League and enjoy wholesome group activities before heading down to the malt shop. That tapers off in the late 60s & into the 70s when the kids all headed off to college and communes and whatever, and then it's mostly crime news until the current century, when hip young couples began to realize the distant lands beyond Mt. Tabor were inhabited and surprisingly affordable. So that's our story, such as it is, and here are the assorted news items I ran across:

  • Here's the first reference to "Essex Park" in 1906, which (as I mentioned) refers to an exciting new real estate development, not a city park.
  • A 1909 article about the real estate boom in Lents & Mt. Scott mentions Essex Park being near "Firland station", and today's Firland Parkway is a few blocks west and south of today's Essex Park, so that was the first clue the neighborhood and the park were in the same general area.
  • A 1920 "City News in Brief" item relates the tale of a couple who agreed to swap their Essex Park lot for 160 acres of Alberta farmland (meaning the Alberta in Canada, not the street in NE Portland), sight unseen, only to discover the land was mostly swamps and ravines. An indignant court case had been filed as the paper went to press.
  • The first mention of the park itself in the paper came in 1954, with a brief item about the parks bureau organizing events for kids in a few parks around the city. An item just below this mentions that OMSI (Portland's science museum) would be hosting a special showing of "Rhythm of Africa", a Jean Cocteau short documentary with a screenplay by Langston Hughes. I really wonder how that was received in the white-bread Republican Portland of 1954. The short was originally filmed in 1944 and released in 1947, and a 1976 review in the Journal of American Folklore (Multnomah County Library link here) suggests the film was already seen as a bit patronizing and cringey at that point, though the footage was interesting if you completely blocked out the narration. It looks like nobody has a streamable copy of it online, but I'm going to guess it hasn't exactly aged out of cringefulness in the intervening 40+ years.
  • Through the rest of the 1950s into the early 60s, the park gets mentioned a lot in connection with Little League games and wholesome organized kids activities, including one mention of the long-forgotten sport of "wicket-croquet-bowling", described as a cross between lawn bowling and cricket, played with a croquet ball.
  • These news items sort of petered out in the mid-60s, I suppose as a generation of Boomer kids grew up and headed off to Woodstock or 'Nam. The annual Essex Park Pet Show was still going as of 1975, though, according to an item with photos of a cute fuzzy dog sliding down a playground slide.
  • After that it's mostly real estate ads, with an occasional crime item, like a 1976 police chase ending at the park, and a 1980 clinic on avoiding bike theft. The clinic involved engraving a driver's license number (yours, or a parent's) on the frame of the bike for identification, which I suppose was reasonable back in the innocent days before modern identity theft was invented.
  • The city renovated the park in 1982, replacing play equipment and benches, adding lights to the tennis courts, and adding basketball courts and an irrigation system. A beloved ex-Trailblazer was on hand as the guest of honor for the park's big re-dedication celebration.
  • Less than a year later, a story in June 1983 discusses major budget cuts across the parks bureau, as Oregon's deep early-1980s recession took hold. The story mentions that the recent park improvements had come from a one-time federal grant, and at present the city couldn't afford to mow the grass in the park regularly.
  • The paper starts mentioning kids activities again in the mid-90s and early 2000s, though there are still the occasional crime items, like a 2012 carjacking, and a June 2016 multiple assault
  • The local neighborhood association runs a summer movies-in-the-park series, including a 2014 showing of The Goonies
  • The park was a test site for a Water Bureau soil moisture sensor project in 2014, I suppose because it has an underground irrigation system (thanks to the 1982 federal grant) and a lot of city parks don't. The idea is that moisture sensors can reduce water use, instead of watering automatically at a set time every day even during a downpour. The flip side of course is that this probably means putting the irrigation system on the net where script kiddies and the Russian mafia can find it. So that could be exciting someday.
  • In other assorted recent crime news, local TV news websites have alarming recent stories about discarded syringes in 2014, a prowling sex offender earlier this year, and a possibly gang-related shooting in August. I was actually working on this post literally when that shooting happened; posting it right then seemed a little crass, so I saved it to drafts & let it chill for a while. I think it's been long enough now that hopefully it won't look like I'm trying to capitalize on lurid news or anything like that.

So anyway, there's nothing really earthshaking here, but there you have it. If there's a more comprehensive history of the park (other than this post) anywhere out there on the interwebs, either Google hasn't indexed it, or my Google-fu has failed me somehow.