Portland Landscapes – Then and Now

Portland is a city with a beautifully textured landscape; it is rich with history, yet currently undergoing rapid change. Here is a look at nine unique landscapes across Portland, shedding light on what has changed, what we revere, and ultimately who we are as Portlanders.

Wilshire Park North East Portland 1955 and 2017
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The photos may or may not have been taken in the exact same spot, as the trees are difficult to match and some must have been cleared as the playground expanded. However, looking at the old photo we can see a young, recently planted broad-leaved tree to the left behind the slide. In the new photo there is a mature broad-leaved tree in the same spot, indicating that this may in fact be the exact same landscape.
These images show a playground at Portland’s Wilshire Park in 1955 and today. Both photos highlight a slide, dominant in the playground space. There are children playing in both scenes and the area is forested.

In the photo from 1955 all the mature trees are conifers, likely fir trees. In the new image, there is mix of vegetation types and far more broad-leaved trees dominate the landscape. These trees must have been planted more recently, perhaps to add to the “beauty” of the park, while also offering practical purposes like more shade. Over time, it seems that the park has shifted from more of a natural area, to more of a human modified greenspace.

Additionally, in the new picture, park benches and picnic tables can be seen in the background, and the playground equipment has expanded substantially since 1955. These amenities may indicate the formalization of the park and show how park utilization changes over time. Previously, the park seems to have been primarily a place for children to free play outdoors, but now it is a space for more activities including outdoor picnicking, and it offers more options for keeping kids entertained.

One of the most striking differences between the photos are the people. In 1955 many children were playing together, and only children were present. In the modern picture, we see an adult and a child in the landscape. Although not pictured, it is worth noting that all the children at the park in 2017 had their parents at their side.

This indicates a cultural shift around childhood. In the past, children were allowed more freedom to roam and play unsupervised, now, parents seem to monitor every move. There is increased consciousness around safety issues, and increased distrust towards other people. This might indicate that the neighborhood surrounding the park was a more closely-knit community 1955, whereas now residents do not associate with each other as frequently.

Grant Park Pool 1950 and 2017
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It is also striking to see the difference in the number of people at the facility between the two photos. Although, this is primarily a seasonal change on the landscape, rather than a temporal one. The pools in the modern picture are drained and closed for the cold season, where the pools were filled and open on a hot summer’s day in 1950.
Here we see two images of the Grant Park Pool, one from summer 1950 and the other from fall 2017. At first glance, it is obvious how little the physical structures in the landscape have changed. There is the same brick wall surrounding the pool and the same buildings of Grant High School in the background.

Other differences include a new pool house on the right, more vegetation, and pavement around the edge of the wall. Most prominently, a large fence has been erected atop the outer pool area wall accompanied by a “no trespassing” sign.

The fence and sign in the modern photo symbolize major social and political change. Why would a pool need such a large fence now but not in 1950? For one, skateboarding became huge in the 1970s and empty pools have and continue to be excellent skate spots. This, along with a modern “tough on crime” mentality, could have led the city to restrict access to the pool.

Finally, in the 1950 landscape it is interesting to see all the people gathered outside of the pool, watching patrons swim. Today, this would be an unlikely scene for several reasons. First, in modern culture it seems inappropriate for random adults to watch patrons, especially children, swimming in a pool. We live in a hyper-sexualized society, and someone might worry that an onlooker has bad intentions. Also, grownups nowadays seem to have better things to look at: their phones. It would be interesting to recreate this picture in the summer months and see how many adults are sitting around looking at technology, not their swimming children, or park surroundings.

SE Stark St and SE 80th Ave, East Portland 1939 and 2017
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These two images highlight Stark Street at 80th Ave in 1939 and today. In many ways, these two scenes are quite similar: a busy road, crosswalk, telephone poles, and commercial shops with prominent signs. In fact, of the four visible buildings in the images, three of them are the exact same buildings from 1939 to today. The building closest to the foreground is the only one that has been obviously rebuilt, yet it maintains visual similarities to the building that stood before it.

However, the landscape of the street has evolved with time. The road used to be two-way and has since been converted to a one-way. Also, the crosswalk sign used to be hanging above the street, and is now specified by painted stripes on the road. These changes indicate an expansion of infrastructure with consistent codes and planning. These improvements likely bettered the flow of traffic and increased safety as cars became even more dominant.

These two images highlight Stark Street at 80th Ave in 1939 and today. In many ways, these two scenes are quite similar: a busy road, crosswalk, telephone poles, and commercial shops with prominent signs. In fact, of the four visible buildings in the images, three of them are the exact same buildings from 1939 to today. The building closest to the foreground is the only one that has been obviously rebuilt, yet it maintains visual similarities to the building that stood before it.

The variations in the signage on the buildings from 1939 to now is also fascinating. Careful examination of the 1939 landscape shows signs for “drugs”, “meat”, “ice”, “shoes”, and “hardware”. These old signs are written in simple, bold, and clear text. The most prominent modern signs show a stylized image of a cat, something that says “Redwood”, and an image of an “s” inside a star next to the word “Souths”. In the modern signs, imagery, brand symbols, and catchy names dominate.

The older picture was taken during the depression era, and shops were focused on the necessities. Now, with the explosion of capitalism, consumerism, entrepreneurialism, individualism and marketing, the commercial store fronts are offering goods and services tied more to luxury and identity than to basic needs. Also, with the proliferation of the Internet, store names do not need to explicitly state what they sell as anyone can look this information up instantly.

Burnside and 32nd Ave, East Portland 1937 and 2017
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Here we see a stretch of East Burnside Street at 32nd Ave, near the historic Laurelhurst neighborhood. The street itself, the commercial brick building, and the Laurelhurst pillars in the background have remained the same over the past 80 years. Also, although difficult to see, the house across from the commercial building has remained largely unchanged.

The major differences in the landscape include: the addition of lines on the street, a traffic light, the addition of a “no parking” sign in front of the store, a change in the type of store, and a substantial increase in vegetation.

As was noted in the previous example, what was being sold at stores in the 1930s is quite different from now. At that time, shopping was not yet seen as something to be done for fun, especially when it was difficult to even get enough food to eat. Stores were more basic, like the drug store seen in this historic photo.

Now, the same building has transformed to a store called Music Millennium, which sells collectables and retro forms of music like cassette tapes and records. Purchasing items like this is certainly not an obligation but an enjoyable hobby, which reflects the general prosperity of modern times.

Finally, it is interesting to see how much the vegetation has increased over time, even taking into consideration that the pictures were taken in different seasons. The Laurelhurst neighborhood is an official historic district and is considerably more expensive and more exclusive to live in than many other parts of Portland. It has been shown that more affluent neighborhoods have more greenery than poorer neighborhoods. It is possible that over time more trees were planted here to increase the value of the neighborhood and to showcase it as a well-to-do, desirable, and ultimately economically valuable location.

Lone Fir Cemetery, Buckman Neighborhood, 1946 and 2017

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These images compare the Southeast side of Lone Fir Cemetery in 2017 and 1946. This is one of the oldest cemeteries in Portland (established in 1855) and remains an active burial ground to this day. The pictures are very similar, both showing raised headstones in a grassy and shaded natural area. In addition, the white house in the background on the left is unchanged.

While at first glance these two images may look outstandingly similar, upon closer evaluation it is evident that the landscape has changed significantly. First, in the older picture we see a street car making its way through the cemetery, headed towards downtown Portland. These street cars no longer run, and if they did most modern patrons would find it quite odd, if not frightening or disrespectful for the trolley to cruise through the cemetery. Perhaps at the time of the street car’s creation the cemetery did not stretch as far to the south. Or maybe at that time people were more exposed to death and were more comfortable with being confronted with it daily.

Another interesting difference is that the cemetery now has a large fence around it, and has sharp drop offs around the edges that seem to have been excavated and reinforced. The modern picture could not be taken at the same angle as the photo in 1946 because of the fencing and the change in topography.

Additionally, if the two trees photographed are in fact the same two trees, you can see that previously there were gravestones to the left of the leftmost tree. Now, that is where the fence is located and where excavation and reinforcement has taken place. Also, looking at the most prominent and identifiable headstones from the 1946 picture, it is impossible to find their matches in the 2017 picture. While there, I meticulously looked for the matching headstones and they could not be found.

This means that while the cemetery is historic, it has been modified many times. Perhaps due to the hilly topography and heavy precipitation in the area the ground has shifted significantly over time. It is likely that the area around the cemetery has been excavated and reinforced to suspend this movement. However, in the process of preserving the cemetery, many headstones were displaced and probably many graves were dug up and relocated. This means that what you see on the landscape, does not necessarily describe what is happening in the ground.

There are roughly 6000 plots and Lone Fir Cemetary, but an estimated 30,000 people are burried there. That equates to about 5 people per plot. And aparantly plots are still for sale!

SE Main & Union (now MLK), East Portland 1939 and 2017

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Here we see the corner of SE Main and Union (now MLK). The area still seems to be serving a similar purpose now as it did in 1939. There are large warehouses and industrial type buildings. The building to the left is still standing and functional, and the building in the background on the right has also remained the same. There is the same sidewalk, a stop sign, telephone poles, and cars parked along the street.

However, a major difference comes by looking at the background. In 1939 rolling hills can be seen in the distance, but in 2017 the background is dominated by a large cityscape. This shows the huge amount of economic and social growth in the city over the past 70 years. There are many people who were born in the early 30s still alive today. Based on these images, we know that those people lived to see the construction of the modern Portland Skyline.

The comparison of these two photos also highlights how the Civil Rights Movement changed the landscape from 1939 to 2017. One major change is the street now being named Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which shows how the city chose to honor one of the major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. A subtler change, yet one that is vital for many people, is the addition of accessible curb ramps on the sidewalk near the street crossing. These became mandatory installments after the hard work of Disability Rights Activists paid off and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.

SE Division & SE 8th in SE Portland, 1939 and 2017

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These images show the corner of SE Division and SE 8th Ave in 1939 and today. The telephone poles and the wide, long, street still dominate the landscape. While difficult to make out, there are still major railroad tracks running along the left side of the scene.

In 2017, however, the world seems much faster paced. The area no longer looks like an almost-rural neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Instead, it is a busy, mixed use area filled with commercial buildings, industrial plants, and mixed housing types.

It is clear that traffic has increased since 1939, but not just in terms of vehicles. There are now bike lanes added to the street, sidewalks have expanded, and the railway predominately serves commuters. This highlights the expansion of the city and the widespread population growth that Portland has continued to experience.

Additionally, there are far more buildings in the background of the modern photo. These buildings are industrial and related to shipping, receiving, and processing, and are indicative of our modern, industrial society. This, along with the electrical boxes seen along the roadside in the new image, can be taken as evidence of our modernization and increasing dependence on technological systems.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that where the corner house once stood is now a Mexican restaurant. This may indicate how the city of Portland has become more culturally and ethnically diverse since the 1930s, and it mirrors how not only this region, but the entire country is changing.

Old Dorm Block and the South Lawn, Reed College 1917 and 2017

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These photographs show the Old Dorm Block at Reed College, as well as the grand South Lawn. The pictures were taken 100 years apart, the first in 1917 and the recent one in 2017. The Old Dorm building itself is remarkably unchanged and still houses students to this day.

Despite the similarities, there are obvious differences on the landscape. The large lawn in the modern photograph used to be a large farm, mostly growing potatoes as part of the Victory Garden initiative. When the older photo was taken in 1917, the world was in the midst of World War I and food shortages were prevalent. Victory Gardens were planted across the United States and Europe to enhance food security, and to generally increase moral amongst citizens.

Now, the area around the school is no longer agricultural, which reflects changes in priorities culturally, socially, and economically. The lawn is now used by students for recreation purposes, which is highlighted by the fenced backstop in the image.

Additionally, many more trees have been planted and the school seems to have been “beautified” by this landscaping work. How a college looks and feels is now extremely important for staying competitive and attracting the best students from around the country and the world.

Finally, the area of Portland where Reed College is located used to be highly rural and agricultural, but is now a lush, upper class, and desirable semi-urban neighborhood.

SE 28th Ave near Eastmoreland, 1923 and 2017

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These photos show the same stretch of 28th avenue near Eastmoreland in 1923 and today. The curvature of the road is the same, hills are still visible in the background, and even the old white farmhouse in the background to the left is still standing.

However, this landscape has changed significantly over the last century. There are now lines on the road, sidewalks, telephone poles, and a large increase in the number of trees and the diversity of the vegetation. This shows how the city of Portland has grown and how modern infrastructure has needed to evolve to become safer with an increasing population. Also, the addition of trees makes the area feel more desirable and likely increases the economic value of homes in the prosperous neighborhood.

The area is no longer predominately rural and agricultural, instead it has become semi-urban, upper class, and extremely residential. What once was empty and mostly wild land to the left of the image in the 1920s is now a highly maintained golf course. Golf courses themselves are a symbol of wealth, based on who usually plays golf, and having the ability to utilize time, energy, and land for recreation rather than immediate needs.

To the right on the older image there is a small stream running under the road. This stream exists today, although it is difficult to see due to the vegetation. The stream is now owned by Reed College and is protected as a “natural area”, which is heavily forested. Based on this older picture, it seems that the area was not previously forested. This raises a few interesting questions: Was the area forests before settlement and then cleared for farming? Was the area a flood plain and never fully forested before settlement? Did Reed College “restore” this area to what is used to be, or to what they imagined it should be?


Photo credits:

All historic photos from either Portland Archives, Vintage Portland website, or Reed College Archives

All modern photos by Liliana Caughman taken October 2017




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