Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Park

Next up we're visiting another Portland city park, this time in SW Portland a bit off Barbur. It's your basic ballfields-and-playground arrangement; I usually don't bother with these, and to be honest with you we're only visiting this one because of its name. Or rather, the lack of a name. The official city parks website just calls it "A Park". Until December 2020 the park was known as "Custer Park" after the infamous general, but then outgoing city commissioner Amanda Fritz removed the embarrassing name by executive order.

Now, naming or renaming things in Portland is a long and complex process involving public hearings and consulting everyone who could possibly count as a stakeholder. But thanks to a quirk in city ordinances it's apparently quite trivial to un-name things. The city commissioner with Parks & Recreation in their portfolio simply announces that a name has been yoinked away, and poof, it's gone. Of course the risk with doing this on your way out the door is that the next Parks Commissioner won't necessarily put the same priority on doing the harder part, coming up with a new name for the place. Thus the park has gone without any official name for the last two years.

Some local news stories about the 2020 yoinking:

This naturally showed up on the park's (non-renamed) Yelp page, and a Reddit r/Portland thread, with a few examples of the usual conservative shrieking, though this may have been more subdued than usual due to Custer's earlier work in ending the Confederacy. Still, it may please them to know Custer still has lots of stuff named after him, including a very imposing 2nd place participation trophy at the Little Bighorn battlefield itself.

Closer to home, a street nearby still goes by SW Custer Drive, and there are bits and pieces of street named SW Custer St. stretching from the river all the way west to city limits, though never more than a few blocks at a time due to the hilly terrain. None of those have been renamed yet, though the name has been preemptively removed from a future MAX station planned for the Hillsdale area, on the theory that the street will likely be renamed too before the new line opens. The first newspaper mention I found of streets named Custer was small item from 1897 about Fulton Park, so it already existed at that point. This was a brief mention in a list of recent city council actions, and the next item concerned legalizing fireworks within city limits for a couple of weeks in January for Chinese New Year. That sounds unusually progressive for 1897 Portland, so I imagine the non-Chinese population just saw it as another chance to be reckless and irresponsible with fireworks, which is always a winner here.

The lack of a name doesn't mean the city's neglecting the place, by the way; there's a proposal to give it a nature patch, one of the new commissioner's pet projects. There's also a proposed stormwater facility that would be near or possibly conflicting with the nature patch, which might explain why the stormwater project was on hold last time I checked.

So here we are at the end of 2022, and the park still doesn't have a name. Around the time of the de-naming there was a petition with a specific new name in mind, but I'm reasonably sure Portland (like most major cities) has a blanket policy of not responding to petitions. Although it will get you signed up for endless fundraising emails until the heat death of the universe, so there's that to consider.

I should point out that renaming things in Portland isn't always this hard. Around the same time this park was de-Custer-ified, a park in outer SE Portland was renamed from renamed from "Lynchview Park" to "Verdell Burdine Rutherford Park" without the park going nameless for years first. And it's not as if the park was ever actually a place to come and view lynchings; if I remember right, it was just named for some unremarkable midcentury developer or landowner named Lynch. But still, the name doesn't exactly sound good to contemporary ears. And before anyone goes on a rant about 21st century people being so oversensitive, there's a local precedent. Back in 1966, the city was about to get a couple of new city parks as part of the South Auditorium urban renewal project, and it was decided to name them after early pioneers who had staked out the original settler land claims in what's now downtown Portland. There were three of these guys: Asa Lovejoy, Francis Pettygrove, and Stephen Coffin. Let's see if you can guess which of the three isn't honored with a city park or anything else being named after him. Not because he was a notably bad person, but because "Coffin Park" just really, really doesn't sound good.

In any case, the very latest in the naming situation came back in August of ths year, when the city asked the public for suggestions, explaining that the kinds of names they were looking for should:

• reflect and inspire the community • honor Native and Indigenous communities • are symbolic or significant • create a sense of community and inclusion • are future facing and imagine a Portland for all

So it's possible there's already a new name in the works and they just haven't announced it yet. Or maybe voters approving a complete revamp of how city government works threw a wrench into the works, since city bureaus won't be under individual commissioners anymore. Maybe it seemed better to leave the renaming until after the revamp happens. Or maybe they just didn't get any good suggestions and aren't sure where to go from here.

Before they announced that process, I had taken a look at old county survey records to see if there were any interesting (and non-murdery) historical names associated with the area that might at least be inoffensive enough to make it through . There were a couple that might work, but nothing really stood out, and none of those would really "honor Native and Indigenous communities", and I really like that idea. So I kicked that research down to a footnote in case they do rename the streets someday, or maybe if the neighborhood gets a second park someday and it needs a name.

Or, I dunno, if the city can't come up with a good, appropriate name, maybe we should just leave it as "A Park" forever, like the old generic brand items stores used to carry in the 1970s and 1980s, the ones with the white label and black letters that just said "Lima Beans" or "Beer" or whatever was inside. (Apparently this practice still exists in Canada, except the labels are yellow, metric, and bilingual.) I mean, if it works for lima beans, why can't it work for a whole city park?

So that's about all I've got on the name front, but I did run across a few news items and historical odds and ends along the way, so there they are mostly-chronologically:

  • 1959: the city decided it maybe ought to rent some port-a-potties for this and a few other parks for Little League games, so people wouldn't have to go find a bush during the 7th inning stretch. It must have been an exceedingly slow news day. This is the first mention of the park in the newspaper, though it had existed for five years at that point.
  • 1962: the city must have installed actual restrooms shortly afterward, as local residents were annoyed, though, as in the immediate wake of the Columbus Day Storm the restrooms had power restored before their houses did.
  • A couple of sorta-vintage photos of the park from 1963 and 1975, looking about the same as now but with smaller trees and vintage cars.
  • Things got pretty exciting here in July 1969, when the park hosted a city-sponsored "Flower Children Carnival". The blurb describes it: "Featured will be booths, rides, and tennis golf, a game created by Park Bureau staffer Neil Owens.". I can't tell if it was aimed at kids or hippies, reading that.
  • A longer and snarkier item in the Journal about the same event,

    Your city has not forgotten you, flower children. Wednesday from 1 to 5 pm your very own “Flower Children Carnival” is scheduled at Custer Park, SW 21st Ave. and Capitol Hill Road. It will be sponsored by the City of Portland Bureau of Parks and Public Recreation.

    See, you ARE loved, after all!

    They’ll have booths to test your skill, to go fishing, and many others. Amusement rides will be bountiful… such as the caterpillar-covered merry-go-round, the slide tunnel and others.

    There will even be a putt-putt for those who get their jollies from tennis golf (a game created by Neil Owens of the Park Bureau staff).

    So, as the park folks say in their announcement, “all beautiful people gather and come to Custer Park” Wednesday. (Don’t take that “beautiful” part too literally — you’re all invited.)
  • A crafting for kids event in 1972
  • June 1973, in another city-sponsored event, the park hosted a performance by a traveling mime troupe, which would include their original adaptation of "The Red Balloon". Because 1973. I got to see the original in grade school a couple of times, I guess on the theory that kids love anything containing balloons. Watching it in 2022 as an adult, it just makes me think of all the marine life harmed by eating balloons that drifted out to sea and deflated, and the planet rapidly running out of helium.
  • A 1976 letter to the editor, in which a visitor from Madras, OR complained about people not cleaning up after their dogs in the park.
  • A late 1990s neighborhood conflict over a longtime unofficial right-of-way into the park from the north. It seems residents thought it was public property, but it wasn't, and the new owner closed it as part of a renovation project. A followup said he'd had a change of heart & wanted to work with the neighborhood association on restoring some sort of access, though a 2000 subdivision plat for that spot doesn't show an easement, and I didn't see a path on Street View or by walking past where I imagine it would have been if it still existed. So who knows.

    • A while back I took a look at county survey records to see if maybe there were any historical names -- of the non-murdery variety this time -- associated with the area that might work as a replacement. So the first attempted subdivision of the area was in 1891, when the land around the park was platted as "Ma Belle Park". Evidently that didn't take off, and it was vacated piece by piece starting around 1916. Still, it has "Park" right there in the name, so "Ma Belle Park" might work. The same area was later re-subdivided as "Raz Hill" starting in March 1927, expanded in December 1945 mostly south and east of the park, with a smaller "Raz Estates" to the north.

      Next to Raz Estates an "Alpine View" was platted in 1957. Portland doesn't have have an "Alpine View Park" so that might work too, though it sounds a bit generic, and someone ought to check on a sunny day and verify there's still is an alpine view from the park, as that could have changed in the last 65 years. "Raz Park" would make sense too; not only were they the previous landowners before suburbia got here, but were later involved in the creation of nearby Stephens Creek Nature Park. Though in general I think we're better served by not naming anything after people for a while. The oldest regular land survey I see for the area is from 1871, just the 10th survey registered with Multnomah County. It's just a brief handwritten note though, adn the handwriting is fairly illegible, so no luck there. A 1920 road survey, in which today's Capitol Hill Road was surveyed as County Road #876, called the area due south of here "Latourette", centered roughly on where the Barbur Safeway stands now. That may have just been the name for a streetcar stop and not a neighborhood; either way it was probably someone's name and again, name moratorium.

      Several more survey records in connection with building the new subdivision in the early 1950s. The first, in 1952, calls the area the "Raz tract", while a 1954 revision vacated a few of the roads proposed earlier, and another tweak a few months later shows a "Proposed Park", half the size of the current park. After that, my guess would be someone realized that a park just big enough for a Little League diamond is going to result in a lot of errant fly balls through windows and made the park bigger.

1 comment :

reid said...

Didn't know port-a-potties existed in 1959!