Is the knowledge of fringe, obscure historical remnants like these traces of the former industrial past of the Central Eastside — and the stories behind them — part of the uniqueness of Portland cultural DNA?
What makes up the cultural DNA of Portland? This is a question that, as a student of cities, I constantly ask myself. It is the reason I have travelled to other cities in the region, spanning from Vancouver, B.C. to San Francisco. It is the reason I have a passion for history, a passion for photography, a passion for local food. All of these things help me to form perspective on what makes this place, this urban region, so unique.
A number of weeks ago, friend and fellow Portland blogger Dan Haneckow lead a history tour around his neighborhood, the Overlook area of Portland. Taking place on a fine, sunny, but breezy afternoon, the walk attracted around fifty people of all ages and backgrounds. Dan lead us through the streets north of the old town of Albina, as far east as Interstate 5, and as far north as Killingsworth. Along the way we learned about the filling of ravines, secret basement speakeasy bars, Polish enclaves, victims of the Japanese internment, and all sorts of other historic scraps.
At about 7 p.m., the tour wound down, and about eight of us stuck around (Dan and myself included) to have dinner and a beer at the Lucky Lab and talk history. A gaze around the table was fascinating. Old mixed with young, newcomers mixed with natives, blue collar mixed with white. And what was this diverse crowd doing over beers, in the blue-hour light, on a random Summer sunday evening?
We were discussing where, of all things, the Piggly Wiggly used to be.
Of all the things, this strange mix of backgrounds, ages, occupations, and origins all had one thing in common, and that was an intense interest — perhaps love — of place. By place I don’t mean the grandness of the bridge-hemmed river, the cast iron Gilded Age remnants of Old Town, or the postcard-stock rose gardens and parks. I mean instead the most intimate levels of location. Building by building, block by block, the finest grain of urbanity. These were people who cared who owned the house before them as well as who came before them, and before them, and so on back to the builders. These were people who wanted to know just what used to be in the coffee shop, just why the building on the corner is rounded, just why there’s a tall, odd, green metal pole that stands orphan beside the road.
This love of place is a kind of historic hyper-localism, or as Lost Oregon’s John Chilson recently described it to me, “micro-history.” I hesitate to say whether this trait is unique to Portland, but there is no question to me that this sensitivity to the most intimate levels of historical narrative is a definite part of the Portland DNA, a common element of culture that crosses generational, economic, and social lines.
Naturally, in filling in the answers about the Portland DNA, I unearth yet more questions. Is this hyper-local historicism something that only reveals itself to a person after living in a place for a certain amount of time? Is it accessible only to the native or the local, of importance and available not to the visitor? And, therefore, is it rampant everywhere, but simply unavailable to me without living in those other places? Or, conversely, is it a unique quality or character of being of or from this region that we call Portland? Do we, here, breed and mold a culture of historicism? There has, after all, always been a reflective, contemplative, and inward turning tendency here. Maybe, just maybe, we’re all just a little geeky for what came before. Not a surprise, perhaps, for the city that reintroduced the world to the streetcar.