18 March 2006

[Address_Nerd] Portland Signs: MLK Jr Blvd.

(Street blade photo provided by Stan Kost, but Blogger still has its head up it's tookie, so no neat formatting. At least I get to show off Stan's work.)

In modern times, having a street named after the greatest civil rights and social justice pioneer of the last century is something of a fashion. If your town doesn't have a street named for Martin, it's the same as wearing brown shoes with your tux; it just isn't done.

This isn't to say that naming a street for MLK is trivial, though the way it's done sometimes seems to have more than the whiff of politics-for-appearances-sake about it.

Those who have lived in this area for a great long time know that, until the mid-80s, NE (and SE) Martin Luther King Jr Blvd was known as Union Avenue. Before the Great Renaming of 1891, Union Avenue was known by a number of names since, when East Portland was being first developed, it was the practice of the cities to allow developers to name the roads they were building pretty much anything they wanted (which was why the Great Renaming was necessary to begin with). Snyder has it thus:

This avenue originally had several names, on various segments along its length. in 1891, at the time of the Great Renaming, city officials decided there should be only one name on a single street, no matter how long it might be. The multiple names were deleted, and the entire length was renamed for the "Union", that is, the United States.
Therefore the first renaming of the street was of decided necessity.

The story of how Union Avenue became Martin Luther King Jr Blvd was one of percieved necessity. The following relies completely of my memory of how it was reported in The Oregonian of the day and is heavily accented by my own perceptions (I supported the idea and still think it was a good one).

By the mid-1980s the Northeast corridor along Union Avenue was in an advanced state of decline. Today various forces are attempting a commercial renaissance of the area; the jury's still out on how well it's going. But then, Union Avenue had a bad reputation as one of the meanest streets in our fair town, and if you wanted to get a wife for the night, that's principally where you went. Bad scene.

About that time, I can't clearly remember how, a groundswell of ideas began to happen on how best to rescue the troubled area. The idea of renaming Union Avenue and the median strip that currenly runs up that road were just two of them. As renaming Union to MLK gained traction, there was a great deal of arguing about it. Many of the merchants were against it, and a few well-known citizens, the most notable (some would say notorious) being Walter Huss, an archconservative populist whose name carried some weight in those days.

Eventually the pro-renaming faction (who I believe had the City's support) won the day, even despite an attempt to change it back from MLK once the name had been applied. In response to the feeling that the change had been somewhat forced down the throat of the people who didn't want it, the City drafted a set of detailed rules to bring about changes in city street names (which was then subsequently bypassed in a rush to rename SW and NW Front Avenue to Naito Parkway–but we'll be crossing the bridge, friends, when we get there), and for about five years people were treated to the sight of a very long "NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd" street blade with hapless-looking "NE Union Ave" street blades perched atop them.

Now the Union Ave blades are all gone, and virtually nobody refers to it by that name anymore. Sort of lost in all the tear-up about it is the actual nobility in naming a street for such a worthy and noble man, whose example I think of when I think of someone who endured for what is right against the status quo. And the still-late-aborning rebirth of the meanest street of NE Portland (save for the place where Alberta Street crosses it) may not be the one that the name was hoped to inspire. And the median strip has done more to kill the MLK commercial strip dead than it has done to revive it.

But there are signs of life up there these days, and maybe someday soon MLK Blvd will run through an area that gives the name its proper due. Maybe.

Nota Bene: The "Union" name still survives: a short road fronting Delta Park, across outer MLK from the Jubitz Truck Stop area, still carries the name N Union Court, a name insipred by the old name of the major street that runs alongside. The street bends over the N-NE dividing line at that place, so its official directions is N, not NE.

Geographical Trivium: MLK Blvd runs north and south. If it were a numbered street, it would be NE and SE 4th Avenue. There does happen to be a SE 4th Avenue, in the industrial area between the river and the Grand/MLK Viaduct south of Stephens Street, and since the Bridgeton area alone NE Marine Drive has been developed, there is an extremely-high-addressed one- or two-block section of NE 4th Avenue, hard up against the north Portland shore.


Alan DeWitt said...

Do you happen to recall the unauthorized overnight renaming of Front Ave. to "Malcolm X Blvd." about that time? As I remember it, the pranksters relabled the street blades, the black historic district signs, and even the freeway signs over northbound I-5. Apparently there were leaflets that went along with the signs, although I never saw them.

(I see there's a claim (http://web.reed.edu/reed_magazine/nov1998/news/2letters.html) that this was the work of a prankster from Reed.)

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Oh, yes, yes I do.

What I remember the most was that the prankster renamed the road to "Malcolm X St". I remember this particularly because, while the signs (which were glued over the extant SW Front Ave blade emulated the signs very well (except for the actual typeface, which not even I can identify), they were deficient in three ways:

1. The street type abbreviation was "st", lower case, not "ST", all uppers as it should have been;

2. It shouldn't have been "ST" anyway but "AV";

3. There were no directionals. The signs south of Burnside should have been affixed "SW"; those north, "NW".

(BTW, I'd note that if my cred as a sign-nerd (on top of the general addressery) isn't established by this, nothing will do it.)

But a prank by a Reedie? Intriguing. While the evidence seems to be limited to the claimant (NB:I haven't read it yet) the claim has the air of some credibility; Reedies don't generally seem to be credit-hounds, so if someone said that then my gut says it could have been true.

Devon said...

It was absolutely a Reedie. I was in his house the night he and his krew returned from the prank.
Same guy responsible for the Barbie Liberation Organization. Google it for a laugh.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

And, moreover, that fellow went on to become one of The Yes Men, one of the god-damndest most beautiful examples of absurdist agitprop American society knows today.

I didn't care for the accuracy of the signs, but I adored his style and still do.

Reedie? Since finding out more about it I'm not surprised at all. This has "DO IT NAKED!!!!" written all over it ... so to speak.

Mario said...

Which edition of the TriMet System Map reflects the name change from Line 6-Union Avenue to Line 6-M. L. King, Jr. Blvd.?

I know the late 1990 edition of the map, which now shows the then-new Portland Convention Center in the downtown (Fareless Square) map, still assumes the older name for Line 6.