Laurelhurst Park—Today and Yesterday
By Mary Strachan Scriver
Our front room had a nice fireplace that we really used. One day when I was a child during WWII and my father had been forced off his wool buyer job by rationing, he was working at Montgomery Ward. He and my mother decided they needed something fine to hang over that fireplace. It was a realistic print of a painting of a swan on a pond. We kids wanted to know where it was, as though it were a photograph. “It’s Laurelhurst Park.”
We knew Laurelhurst Park because that’s where we had family picnics and fed the ducks on the water. It was in fact historically created as a prosperous farm with a stock pond.
“In 1909, the land that is now Laurelhurst Park was purchased from the estate of William S. Ladd, who developed Ladd’s Addition and twice was mayor of Portland. Ladd named his 486-acre parcel Hazel Fern Farm, after the name of one of the streets in the area. Here Ladd developed one of the most prestigious stock farms in the West. In fact, his purebred Jersey cattle probably laid the foundation for Oregon’s future livestock industry. As East Portland developed, Ladd’s tract of land became too valuable for agricultural use. Ladd sold his land for over $1,000,000 to the Laurelhurst Company around the turn of the century.
In the Seventies there were already people living in little hooches they invented in Forest Park, a tract so big and dense with trees that they weren’t found easily. At a certain point at the end of the day you could see them arrive on bikes and fade into the brush.
“A spring-fed pond on the property had always been a favorite watering hole for cattle, as well as a favorite swimming hole for both children and adults. In 1911, seeing the potential for a park as part of the Olmsted Plan, the City of Portland bought thirty of the acres, including the pond.
“In 1912, Emanuel Mische, Portland’s park superintendent from 1908–1914, designed the park based on his experience as the longtime horticultural expert for the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm. Inspired by the Olmstedian ‘natural’ landscaping approach, his plan included several distinct sections — the concert grove, Firwood Lake, children’s lawn, plateau and broad meadows, picnic grove, and Rhododendron Hill. Workers were hired to deepen the pond into a 3-acre lake. . .. Laurelhurst Park is a perfect example of the City Beautiful Movement in landscaping. In 1919, the park was named the most beautiful park on the west coast by the Pacific Coast Parks Association.” . . .
“For years, the Rose Festival Queen’s Coronation took place in the Laurelhurst Park pond on floating boats and decorated rafts.”
My Edwardian “Downton Abbey” heart thrills to this stuff that was our assurance that the family was safe, and that life was beautiful in spite of war.
In the Seventies, when I was an animal control officer serving SE Portland, I met with the foreman in charge of Laurelhurst Park. He asked me to drive through on the paved roads now and then because gay assignations were happening in the thick rhododendrons. “Don’t challenge them,” he asked. “Just let them know you’re there and the City knows.” He himself was gay, but quite a different kind of gay who belonged to my church and had a lasting marriage to another man who always reminded me of Oliver Sacks.
So one spring day with all my complaints answered but an hour left on my shift, I cruised into the park. And started a riot. I was raised by teetotalers and had no sense of what a crowd of tipsy folks looking for adventure might do on a hot afternoon. I was surrounded by dog lovers intent on releasing my noisy collection who thought they were defending the truck. They wrenched off the handle of the back of the pickup, which was lucky because the dogs would not have been able to find their way home.
A half-dressed overweight sweaty guy pushed into the cab after I’d gotten out and started making rude noises on the radio. He couldn’t drive off because the crowd had let all the air out of my tires. Another AC officer realized there was trouble and called a Code Zero (officer in trouble) to PPD, which was entirely different in those days. Instead of Ninja tactical gear they showed up bare-headed and laughing. They found me sitting on the truck hood with someone’s poodle in my lap, lecturing everyone.
Then came the sergeant, one of the earliest female officers at that rank, big and red-headed. The early arrivals dove for their squad cars to find their hats. In minutes, the crowd had dispersed, and I was alone in Laurelhurst Park with an undriveable truck and a lot of dizzy dogs. Soon a tow truck arrived.
After this my boss asked me to invent an education officer role. At the time I took it as recognition of something badly needed and was proud. Looking back, I suspect he was trying to get me off the street before I was killed.
In the Seventies there were already people living in little hooches they invented in Forest Park, a tract so big and dense with trees that they weren’t found easily. At a certain point at the end of the day you could see them arrive on bikes and fade into the brush. A trimmed corridor under the pylons of a major electrical feed stretched from the NW park for miles out over the Cascade range to the coast. A small band of elk lived drifting back and forth on it.
Today a homeless people’s encampment in Laurelhurst Park has just been broken up by today’s authorities.
“Advocates estimate more than 100 people were packing up their things, unsure of where they would go next.
“It’s overwhelming,” said one woman, living at the camp. “I mean we all knew it was going to happen.”
“It felt like home,” said a man who goes by Bandit. “Unfortunately not everyone was respectful of the area.”
“His point about trash, needles and waste scattered on the ground around the camp is valid. City officials have said, amid the pandemic, they’re only clearing camps that present serious health and safety risks.
“But housing advocates argue it’s the campers who are at risk.”
Oh, honey. Civilization is at risk.