BORN IN THE RAIN
By Mary Strachan Scriver
When I was in high school, I wrote a story imagining Portland shortly after its founding when sidewalks were board walks to keep a person out of the mud and away from the horses. In the those days the huge stumps of the original forest were still around and the nickname of Portland was “Stumptown.” West Burnside was Skid Road because logs had actually been slid down it to make rafts of them on the river for transport to sawmills.
Later, researching Portland Unitarianism, I was amused by the story of an early version of the church that had a residual bog under it. Their problem was a population of frogs down there, so noisy that the preacher could not be heard. Finally a boy showed the clergyman how to float a piece of wood on the water and attach a string that went up through a hole in the floor to a place by the pulpit. If the frogs got too loud, a few jerks on the string would swish the wood around and scare them enough to be quiet.
As a kid who explored for miles on foot, I learned the geology of the town that grew up on both sides of the Willamette. Our house was on NE 15th by Alberta, now a famous political gathering spot thanks to demonstrations. In those days Vernon was the remnant of a little previous town with European shops like a Swedish bakery and a Greek grocery. People lived over their shops. 15th was on a slope — from Alameda bluff that once overlooked an old stream bed that become the Banfield freeway — on down to the Columbia River.
NE Broadway crossed the Broadway bridge to SW Broadway where the big movie theatres were in a row. I assumed that Manhattan’s Broadway was just like it. As a primary school child, I remember attending the dedication of the Paramount, now the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, but I don’t find any record of what must have been only one of several upgrades. In the foyer was a nude marble statue of what I understood to be a dryad escaping. She was standing in the middle of a fishpond with goldfish in it and I loved her. In a few years they stopped putting new goldfish in the pond. Then the water was gone.
The last time I remember being in the Paramount was in the Seventies when I was given comp tickets to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and took my mother. Our seats were next to Neil Goldschmidt, by then in disgrace and remarried, but we liked him anyway. The show began with the fairies on swings rigged to fly right over the audience as though they might hit our heads.
The Blue Mouse was not on Broadway but ran Westerns continuously, usually three at a time. My brothers saved their trolley fare by walking downtown and using their dime for the movies. https://www.oregonlive.com/history/2017/02/film_flashback_the_golden_age.html These theatres went in and out of respectability, in and out of being stages, in and out of offering strip shows. To us this was the center of town. It was a surprise to me to discover that the town hall and county court house were blocks away.
Last night and today television news show buildings that look like sci-fi sets attacked by surreal nearly pretend-demonstrations, dozens of young white-people furors evidently funded and planned by people far away, but maybe the people are indigenous. I’m not understanding.
The black action started in the Kaiser Shipyards during WWII, was flooded out of Vanport and necessarily moved into North and NE neighborhoods. By the Seventies our house on 15th was submerged in gang shooting and night sirens until somehow all that left. I was gone then, too. Finally Alberta became an art street, but I haven’t been back since 1999.
As an animal control officer (’73-’78) my beat was SE from the freeway to Powell and sometimes as far as the Clackamas County line if the next officer were missing. Normally I didn’t go east of 82nd. This was assigned to me because it was split between hippies clustered around Hawthorne shops and the Laurelhurst big houses in decline, and the campus of Reed College with its clientele. These were styles I understood. The officer assigned to the tough black north neighborhoods was a petite blonde female who took no nonsense off anyone.
Hawthorne went over the Hawthorne bridge but on the West Side, it wasn’t Hawthorne anymore. On the east side it ran up to the top of Mount Tabor where there were several institutions, bible colleges and a mental hospital. In the days of Thomas Lamb Eliot when he was the minister of the Unitarian Church, he took a special interest in the mental hospital and went up and down Hawthorne in a horse-drawn buggy. He also supported Reed College.
A cousin of T.S. Eliot, the poet, Rev. Eliot was a phenomenon of the US split by settlement from the East Coast to the West Coast, moving people by ship before anyone was willing to walk across what we now call “flyover country.” The interior development of the US went along the Mississippi/Missouri river that formed when the mighty millennial glaciers melted. (My family history on my mother’s side includes the Oregon Trail.) Portland was named for Portland, Maine, and was nearly named Boston.
My family took visitors to see the Columbia Gorge and Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. The Cascade volcanic peaks were in our understanding of the world even before Mt. St. Helens blew up, so it was disconcerting when such a serene peak turned to devastation. Possibly it was a warning for the cultural explosion that has now overtaken a city once called a “gray lady” as though it were in rainy England. When the population was forming into patterns, Oregon and Washington were still considered part of the British Empire. Dr. McLoughlin, the White-headed Eagle, who was technically in charge, didn’t make a big fuss about it. I don’t know what he would make of people setting fires, fended off by tear gas.
My day in SE Portland was guided by complaints about animals, noted on slips of paper as they came in to the shelter by telephone. One category of people I most often contacted by accident because they were out in their yards or because I knocked on doors to find someone at home who had information about the neighborhood. I called them the “Pendleton shirt people” because in that climate a sturdy plaid wool shirt was practical, made locally, maybe from a kit sold by the company. These people were in Portland for the long haul, not intending to be “weird” or aspiring to something. They read books, raked leaves, grew roses and went to work every day unless they were retired. To me, these people are still the real Portland, still there. always there.
Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, Montana.