02 October 2005

[Address_Nerd] The Plan In Portland circa 1891-1930

Sorry to keep you guys waiting for so long for this. I was going to make a nifty little illustration for this but I kept putting it off and putting it off. I can always gin up an illo, and all you need to follow along is a map, so hereth goeth.

If y'all'l'recall, prior to 1891 the municipal entity we today call the city of Portland did not exist. The progenitors of Portland were three frontier towns at this bend of the river: Portland (right where downtown is today), East Portland (from the Rose Quarter area down to about what is now Hawthorne Blvd) and Albina (where the Rose Quarter/Coliseum is now, and the area just downriver from that).

In 1891 they merged, creating the City of Portland, Oregon, which for a time was the largest city (in population as well as area) on the Pacific coast of the USA. Once they did merge they had a problem; people found that there were significant duplication in street names and no citywide standard. Snyder tells us that not only did each city name its streets independently, developers were allowed to set thier own names in thier own new subdivisions without respect to whether or not a given name already existed elsewhere (this practice persisted after the merger as well).

Now, the street name system we use today came into use in about 1930, and the citywide rationalization took about three years. But from 1891 to 1930, we did not use this system. Many street names have existed since before then, of course-names like Morrison and Main and Salmon were part of the original plan-but we did not have the neat NW/SW/NE/SE/N system with 20 100-number blocks to the mile then.

The early system of the Portland name and address grid reflected the growth of the city, and most principally, the primacy of the west-side business districts. To capitulate:

The system was then, as now, based on the junction of the Willamette River and Burnside/Ankeny (what were then called A and B Streets). The address system broke along similar, but not identical lines, and each section worked out as follows:

South of Burnside, west of the river

This was the historic business center of Portland, todays downtown, and the first pioneer-settled area. Streets carried no directional prefixes of any kind. Additionally, all streets were termed "Streets"; numbered "Avenues" were an innovation of the 1930 rationalization. Today we call this area "Southwest" or SW.

North of Burnside, west of the river.

What we call today "Streets" (the Alphabet section from Burnside and up) carried no directionals. Numbered streets north of Burnside carried the suffix North (e.g. 19th Street North). For a time, instead of named streets the streets in this area were alphabetically lettered (A Street for Ankeny, B for Burnside, etc). Today we call this area "Northwest" or NW.

South of Burnside, east of the River

All numbered streets were prefixed simply "East". Named streets carried the East Prefix if and only if the street name was extended from the corresponding west side street (Morrison Street extended became East Morrison Street). What we today call SE 12th Avenue would have then been called E 12th Street. An example intersection in this are would be East Alder and E 20th Street. Today we call this area "Southeast" or SE.

North of Burnside, east of the River

This is where things start sounding a little strange, but it's actually quite logical: take the west side system and prefix it with East. Therefore, numbered streets on the east side retain the East prefix but add a North suffix. What we today would call NE 12th Avenue would, in this old system, be called East 12th Street North, or more simply, E 12th St N. If a street name was extended from the west side, it acquired the expecte East prefix (E Glisan Street, e.g.). Today we call this area "Northeast", or NE.

Going West from MLK Jr Blvd

It, of course, is still recent history that what we today call MLK Jr Blvd was called Union Avenue, and for a long time was synonymous with mean streets in Portland. Depending on your point of view, it may not have changed all that much. Snyder guesses two possible origins for the name Union Avenue: one, it was to honor its former form of differing names along its length-different streets united; two, it could have honored our Union, the United States.

Today it is known that if you go four blocks west of MLK, Williams Avenue is crossed, the directional prefix is turned to North (N), and on E-W streets the house number march commences upward as one goes west on the North Portland peninsula.

In the time before 1930, however, streets were not only named different but addresses ran differently too. Instead of 100 numbers to the standard block, there were only 20. Therefore, the zero line on the seminal north side must have been located somewhat to the west of today's Williams Avenue.

Though I do have a couple of (very precious) Portland maps, one from 1927 and the other from 1930 (or thereabouts), my research is still inconclusive on how street names were treated in those areas today divided by Williams. What little I've been able to ascertain suggests that the prefix West was not used, however, I know not yet for certain what was done about that. Research continues in this area.

Twenty numbers to the block

As just mentioned, there were not 100 numbers to the standard address block in those days, but merely 20. These addresses, however, were still reckoned from the baselines already mentioned. As an example, the east side of Pioneer Courthouse Square, SW 6th Avenue along the Transit Mall, between SW Morrison and Yamhill Streets, is the 700 Block of SW 6th Avenue. The notional address of the SW corner of 6th and Morrison would be 701 SW 6th Avenue. Before 1930, though, at that point, the address might properly have been 141 6th Street.

This meant that addresses on E-W streets did not neatly key to the numbered crosses. A correspoding address on Morrison Street at this point might be 121 Morrison Street, rather than in the 600s.

This also meant that addresses in the city did not attain the respectable magnitudes that they do today. A typical address on East 17th Street in Sellwood, south of Tacoma, would only be up in the 1700s, rather than the mid-to-high 8000s on SE 17th Ave as we know it now.

Address attitudes

Perhaps it's a reaction to change but even then, in Portland, one's address mattered. An address without an East prefix tended to bestow a certain social cachet. East side Portland has always been a middle class and working area, and putting the prefix East on a street was pretty much the same as donning a chambray shirt; it was blue-collar, average-Joe citizen.

Snyder mentions a plan floated during that interim that would have de-Eastified all east side streets in favor of calling them all "Avenues"; it was felt that "145 Morrison Avenue" might socially hold its own against the more affluently-percieved "145 Morrison Street".

Broadway is an interesting case. Broadway originated as a street in the Lloyd area, and was named Broadway from the first laying out. When the Broadway Bridge was constructed, it would connect Broadway on the east to what westsiders were calling Seventh Street. In the interests of continuity, it was proposed that the street on the east side be renamed to East Broadway, with Seventh Street on the west becoming simply Broadway and Broadway North.

As one can imagine, this went over like a lead tramp steamer. In the face of fairly overwhelming opposition to westsider arrogance (something that has never gone over well on the east side), Broadway east of the river was allowed to remain Broadway, whilst on the west side Seventh Street north and south of Burnside became North Broadway and South Broadway, respectively.

As one can readily see, the east side-west side rivalry goes back an awful long way.

Snyder also tells of one plan to rationalize the address system, one which met with little if any favor, during the interregnum. This plan would have renamed Burnside Street to "Central Avenue", dubbing all streets with numbers. But, in contrast to today's system, Avenues would have been the E-W run, Streets the N-S.

There were also objections to the 100-number to the block scheme; some felt that the high-magnitude addresses we take for granted in today's plan were passing strange. One wonders what they would have thought of todays SE 502nd Avenue.

This plan went nowhere. But it may explain the presence of a certain southeast section of the city which, for a time, had that exact scheme.

Woodstock, then.

For about ten or twenty years back at the beginning of the twentieth century, the area from about what would today be SE 39th Avenue east, south from about Powell or Holgate to the south city line, and east all the way to the east city line, had a complete numeric system in which numbered avenues running east to west, numbered streets running north to south, and as SE directional...but as a suffix, not a prefix. SE 52nd Avenue was known as 52nd Street SE; Today's SE Duke Street in that area was known as 65th Avenue SE. Also, as far as I know, the addresses were defined as 100 numbers to the block.

In general, the street number was based on the Burnside baseline-Duke Street is 65 blocks south of Burnside, thus 65th Avenue SE. SE Tolman Street would have been 63rd Avenue SE. I believe, however, that Woodstock Blvd was still Woodstock Blvd, though if it were numbered in this scheme, it would have of course been 60th Avenue SE.

Many of these old street names exist still in the curbstones as I've said before. One of my near term plans is to document these in pictures. Mike, I still plan on taking you up for that coffee...

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