Monday, October 31, 2016

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 comes 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.
  • 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.

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