While browsing the city of Portland’s auditor’s website, I recently stumbled upon a rare image with which I was previously unfamiliar. Portland’s history of halting harmful highways like the Mt. Hood Freeway and Harbor Drive is well documented. In the 1960s, bright citizens enforced the power of community organizing to radically alter the trajectory of our city, furthering a proud tradition of building livable, communal spaces connected by streets constructed for human beings.
I live for learning secret histories, hidden places, the thoughts and plans for superior spaces that used to be, or never were. Moving to Portland eight years ago compelled me to inquire why Portland was such a sought after city to reside in, as opposed to the maddening sprawl of Houston or gridlock of Atlanta. Learning the history of Harbor Drive and the Mt. Hood Freeway taught me more than just how transit dictates the kind of urban space you can enjoy. This education taught me we don’t achieve these socially positive outcomes by default – they require hard grassroots work by regular people, by activists, by mothers and fathers and children, too.
The critical mass of citizen revolt that brought about the demise of Harbor Drive and heralded the birth of Tom McCall Waterfront Park was certainly a critical chapter in Portland’s history. But the story of how the west side of the river was restored to people doesn’t start here. For that chapter, you’d have to go back to 1932.