01 April 2008

[Address_Nerd] Eugene E. Snyder and The Bible for Portland Address Geeks

1458. In the O! section of The Sunday Big O, columnist John Terry penned a very interesting column (which can be read here for 14 days before it goes behind the wall) about downtown Portland's doglegs as the Avenues and Broadway cross Burnside and had some apt words about why that was (Executive Summary: Captain Couch preferred to lay out his streets aligning with the North Star; Lovejoy and Pettygrove's platter preferred to use Magnetic North).

Even I, as studied as I was on the subject, relearned something; the downtown trend of blocks aligned on the river actually just so happened. The river itself was too vague to align to; Magnetic North was close enough (at the time, the point-which varies from year to year-was very nearly 20 degrees off true north).

We digress. The thing that really touched us about this column was the way Terry referred to a book which is, like this blog, very important but entirely underrated.

Eugene E. Snyder's books can be found at Powells and on Amazon.com. He's a local writer of about which little is on the record, even in these days of Googlocity. His biographical information, as far as I can discern, is limited to a short paragraph on the back of many of his books:

Eugene E. Snyder is a Portlander who was originally a newspaperman, later taking graduate degrees in economics and teaching that subject in university. He has been an economist in Washington DC and in regional and local planning. He is now devoting full time to history writing.

His beaming, Tom Peterson-esque visage graces the back cover of most all of his Binford & Mort-published books. But outside of this, he remains something of an enigma. This is all I'm able to find out about the fellow.

When looking for mass-market books about Portland history, there are two names to know. One, E. Kimbark MacColl – also known as Kim, also a prominent local legal eagle and an incredibly smart person – has authored titanic works on Portland history and is deservedly a towering authority on the evolution of the city. His works, The Growth of a City, The Shaping of a City, and Merchants, Money and Power, document the power, politics, and growth of Portland from its childhood thorough its early adulthood, going though all the nooks and crannies of Portland's passage of time. MacColl's works add up to an academic force of nature.

The only flaw in MacColl's works ... if we can use the double-edged-sword-version of the work flaw ... is the size of these books. These are meaty, manly, huge books – my favorite on, The Growth of a City, weighs in at a brobdingnagian 717 pages all in all. This can make them somewhat unapproachable to the merely curious.

Snyder's books, however, have a different character. No less intelligent than the former, with more modest lengths (around 200pp each) larger type, and more chatty style, they are more accessible for the common joe than MacColl's works are. He's kind of like an E. Kimbark MacColl for the rest of us.

Now, the reason I've gone on about Snyder is really because I like talking about one of his books. It's one of my favorites (and apparently one of Mr Terry's favorites as well). Portland Names and Neighborhoods: Their Historic Origins is The Book that no local self-made historian can, I think, say their shelves are complete without a copy. It's a warm and friendly recounting of how Portland's streets got thier names and how the modern address system came to be. It was Snyder's book that introduced us modern Address Nerds to the term Great Renaming (referring to the time in ca. 1930 when the Portland street name system, until then the result of evolution out of a crazy-quilt, was finally rationalized into the form we see today) and the book that documented that the crosswork of Ladd's Addition was inspired by the layout of Washington DC.

It seems to be out of print, but it still can be found. Amazon has several copies, Powells can usually can be found to have a copy or two.

Snyder's other books are worth reading too, because just like this one, they are warm, friendly, accessable introductions to Portland history.

Then, after you've been through the Snyder books, move on to MacColl. Between the two authors everything that needs to be said about 19th-20th century Portland history gets said.

(Illustrations scanned from the book in the Address Nerd's collection)

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Anonymous said...

If I might add, Jewel Lansing's recall of Portland politics using the history of the mayorship is another don't miss title.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

That's a good call. I've seen Jewel Lansing's book but haven't picked it up yet. Maybe, with the passing of Kim MacColl, now is the time.