Sunday, August 24, 2014


Myself and Duncan McTavish, early Fifties

It’s been raining for a few days which always prompts memories of my first decades living in Portland, OR, 1939 to 1978.  They were defined by our house, 51XX NE 15th Av. which my father bought from my uncle, whose first real-estate job was selling bank repossessions resulting from the Great Depression.  It was a beautifully detailed house that’s still occupied and has probably had additions made.  My father’s proposal to my mother was in part based on offering a life in that house.  And a life it was!   In 1998 we carried my mother out in a body bag early in the morning after her death.  Before the mortician zipped up the bag, I laid in a big bouquet of pink Stargazer lilies.  She was 89.

I live in Montana now, the place I went after college in 1961: the Blackfeet Reservation.  I bought this house with one-third of her house.  (I have two brothers.)  I don’t think about Portland a whole lot since there’s so much to think about right here, but among my other names I claim “Stays Put Woman.”  I suppose that’s “Stays Put Woman #2.”  My father was a traveling man and I admire that life but I’d need a lot of money to do it now.  No more sleeping in the back of a pickup or van parked in some hidden spot.

Paul, Mark, Mary Strachan (mid-Fifties)

This morning I took a cruise through the Oregonian and found a series being reprinted about NE and N Portland. 

One heading is “East Portland Was Almost a City.”  In my years it was still Albina, a farm town that had developed into an immigrant community: many craftsmen and small-time manufacturers; furniture, fuel, grocery and drug stores; libraries, banks, J.C. Penneys and Fred Meyer.  We went everywhere on foot or by bus because my father used the car in his work as a field man for Pacific Supply Cooperative.  My paternal grandparents had chosen this section of Portland and originally bought a doctor’s house on 15th.  A third-degree cousin still lives on that street.  It was a calmly functioning location with undercurrents of heart break because of ties to Europe at war.

Vanport Flood (1948) no fatalities -- the water rose gradually.

Then came the Vanport flood, which revealed another internal town, this one African American from the South.  The Kaiser shipyards had brought in labor and housed them on the Columbia River flood plain.  Now they were displaced into old houses near the Willamette that they didn’t own.  Economics were literally black and white.  By the time divorce forced me back to Portland in 1973, Jefferson High School and Vernon Grade School were mostly black.  Burned out on teaching but looking for a dependable civil service job, I became the first female animal control officer.  The hiring panel included a black man with fire in his eye.  He was sympathetic to my rez stories.

Animal control is a street service job and I learned Portland all over again.  My assigned section was SE which included hippies (Hawthorne), academics (Reed College) and low income recently-country people plus felons (Errol Heights).  NE and N was black.  I discovered that Roselawn, a short and narrow street that ended behind our house, lined with small owner-built houses where my classmates had lived, was now considered one of the most dangerous in the city.  Our most effective officer in NE was a small blonde woman who took no nonsense off anyone.  We were an activist, progressive animal control operation and I became education coordinator, working with other city entities and the media.  Now I learned the political ropes.  I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when Goldschmidt turned out to confirm all his wife’s suspicions.

Pretty soon my night classes and new church membership (Unitarian Universalist) had pushed me to leave for Chicago again, this time to U of Chicago and its adjunct UU seminary.  I didn’t come back to Portland until I’d left the ministry ten years later, been “non-renewed” from Heart Butte School, and was once again broke enough to take refuge with my mother, already harboring my brother who’d suffered brain damage in a fall.

It was a good thing he was there because now the house was engulfed in gang wars and the more subtle real estate destructive corruption, both based in the expanding black community.  The first night I was back, sleeping in my van at the curb, there was a shotgun exchange back and forth across 15th a hundred feet from my head.  Gunfire was usual in the evening, close enough that my brother, former Marine MP, made us turn out all the lights and sit on the floor until it had gone by.  In the morning he took his mug of coffee out to the street, wandering back and forth to add to his collection of spent cartridges.  In a few years at least nine bodies were found next door or nearby.  I was there sleeping on a rollaway for eight months until I found another civil service job with the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings.  Yet another Portland.

My '90's apartment was the farthest to the left, main floor.

On a ridealong with one of the city building inspectors who was assigned N and NE Portland, I saw the kind of things that were common in Southside Chicago.  The city, prompted by the minister of my childhood church, Vernon Presbyterian, began a crackdown campaign on slum landlords.  I helped design the computer algorithm that identified them.  One had rented to me in the Seventies.  I’d had to pay the electric bill for his fancy big house to keep the security lights on around our apartments.  

Now, in the Nineties, the apartment building where I rented had a major hole in the roof and I tried to get one of the building inspectors to cite it, but he was afraid to be too aggressive and the renter was afraid he’d have to pay more.  It came to nothing.  There was a coke dealer living under me and another one across the hall.  I liked the one across the hall.  He was Japanese, a gentleman, no furniture at all except a bedroll, and when he came home at 3AM, he knocked on my door because my cat came into the building with him and sat at my door, waiting.

Elementary school students in Portland memorize the bridges.

During this time attention was being given to earthquakes, which might take out the many bridges across the Willamette, and to the rising problem of the homeless and the many Hispanic drug peddlers.  On the bus going home I could see them -- mostly youngsters -- running through the downtown and sometimes shooting.  Several people were killed in cross-fire.

Once the bus was caught in a confrontation and one of the men was backed up under my window at PPD gunpoint.  I should have moved away, but I was hypnotized by the three-carat diamond stud in his ear.  Another time I was waiting for my own bus when the bus that served my old nabe came by.  The door opened and everyone on board began to rap on the windows and yell at me, "Get on the bus!"  My mother was on the bus and she had said loudly,  “Oh, there’s my daughter!”  I got on the bus and bowed to the seated crowd, all of us laughing and applauding.

West Hills slide destruction

Then I transferred to the Site Development team, all soils engineers, geologists, and one landscaper.  Now I learned about the slowly sliding West Hills, the unpredictable Johnson Creek drainage, and flood plain mitigation rules that enraged everyone.  Newcomers moved to Portland, lived there ten years, saw no floods and assumed this was the way it would always be.  

Developers were constantly after the empty land where Vanport had been.  My boss, a particularly intelligent and principled man, was called on to say why it wasn’t a great place to build a new prison.  He pointed out that the people would be locked in, unable to escape a flood which was inevitable.  His questioners said, “Who cares?  They’d just be convicts anyway!”  And Bill said quietly, “My brother is a prison guard.  I take a different view.”

Portland as it was once, Mt. St. Helens intact.

My basic view of Portland is as a river-bound location in a valley among volcanoes.  The people and the patterning of their residence has changed from the original native American settlement to trader cabins to homesteaders, on and on.  Same here in Montana on the East Slope.  Fortunes go well, then collapse, then give way to a new order.  It’s personal.  But then it’s NOT personal.  It’s not even human.

Mt. St. Helens erupting.


artemesia said...

Mary, your old home on NE 15th Avenue is the same graceful home it always has been! No additions. Lots of demolition and new construction going on. Some of it is beautiful and some (like the enormous box of a new home kitty corner from our back yard) is not. You can get around a lot faster riding a bike in the neighborhood than driving a car. The old church down the street on NE Prescott west of me here is now home to an excellent theater group. A river runs through this town and another alongside it. I think of the rivers as something like a nervous system of roots. They connect us to the high mountains, to the sea, and for me, the loved topography of my childhood, the arid grasslands and high mountains of central Washington.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

It's Zillow that claims there are now 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms at 5103. I expect the plumbing has needed work anyway.

There was once a vigorous stream where the Banfield freeway is now (I think it's underground still) and Johnson Creek can be a regular rampager. We share our love of prairie with a mountain backdrop, though different ones.

I hoped you'd comment!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I was very dismayed when I found out that the house in which I lived throughout my adolescence, until I got a place of my own in my mid-20's, is now abandoned and deteriorating. It's an odd outcome in that the neighborhood, while hardly upscale, has very few foreclosures or abandonments. From what I understand, either the woman who bought the house from my mother in 2005 or a subsequent owner wanted to open a home daycare center, failed to get zoning approval, and while not losing it to foreclosure moved out and let it deteriorate. Given my history in the house I think of these actions as almost a personal affront.


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I know what you mean. By now I've seen several of the houses to which I had emotional attachments fall apart for no good reason except that the owners would neither maintain nor sell. Even Bob Scriver's little studio house that I helped to build is pretty deteriorated now with a gang tag on it in the alley.

But no house is eternal. Some day the Taj Mahal will be in ruins. Even the White House was burned down -- about a 100 years ago, I think.

Prairie Mary