Friday, January 27, 2012

A look back from overhead

The photo below is of the neighborhood I live in taken from an Army Air Corps aircraft recording the conditions of the Willamette River channel and Swan Island in 1936.One of the things I get paid for is looking at these old photographs. I'm usually looking for evidence of past landslides, or long-lost grading. But this was pure indulgence, culled from the files of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers files during a long day of researching a nearby site.

Our little house is under the orange circle. Here's the same neighborhood today:Stop for a moment and compare the two images. That's okay, I'll wait a while.

The modern image is just what you'd expect; little brick (or in our case, wood) houses for you and me, right? That's my University Park neighborhood in a sentence, no different from any other urban Portland neighborhood. The big white-roofed building to the east? That's Astor Elementary, where the kiddos go to school. Go, Astor Eagles!

But look at the top image for a bit. Here; I'll give you a little bigger view of a portion of the southwest corner of the same photo:Our house (built only about fourteen years before the photo was flown) is still under the orange circle. We understand that the little building at the corner to the west was some sort of mom-and-pop corner store, selling Coke in bottles, and penny soap to the good working-class folks of Depression-era North Portland. And note a couple of other things; the big pale farm fields down a block to the west, with some sort of long white barn or shed along McKenna Street at the southeast corner. And notice all the little footpaths and tracks that meander through the center of the blocks; in a lot of ways this part of NoPo was still pretty rural in '36 - rural enough for folks to follow the old cowpaths rather than stay on the sidewalks.

OK, now here's an enlargement of the next Corps photo flown, from 1940:One thing I picked out here was the garage - that's inside the orange box. See it? The thing is, Portland City code requires you have a garage. No shit. Seriously. If you park your car on the street more than 48 hours you can be cited for something called "in lieu of garage" and that's a fineable offense.


So back in the day all Portland houses had garages. Ours did. But at some point prior to the 1960's the thing either burnt or rotted away and fell over. I've found bits of it under the backyard sod. But there it is in 1940, keeping the summer sun off someone's 1938 Ford Twodoor.

Here's the larger 1940 image. One thing - look at the color of the streets. See how dark they are? Now look back at 1936. See the difference?The thing is that the 1936 sidewalks look about the same color as the streets, and the streets themselves look too regular to be unpaved. See that curvy line above the farm field in both 1936 and 1940? That's N. Yale Street between McKenna and Wall, dirt then and dirt now. But the regular street grid looks paved - just not paved with asphalt. Y'know what I think happened?

I think the streets were paved in the late Teens and Twenties (when this portion of U-Park was first really developed) with concrete.That's surprisingly common for Portland; in many of the older neighborhoods in the inner East side you can still find some of those old concrete pavements exposed. But they're brittle, and usually end up covered with asphalt before too long. I think by 1940 the City had decided that they weren't going to pay for any more concrete and laid down the macadam on top.The funny thing is that when I started doing this sort of overhead window-peeping in the early Nineties there really wasn't any other way to do it; the information was either in the files at places like the Corps or proprietary to private aerial photo companies. But Google Earth and similar applications have changed all that dramatically. The image above is a larger-scale view of my home from GE, circa 1952.

Note that you can barely see Astor School, the larger H-shaped dark block east of the circle that marks our house, but the long arc of Mock's (or Waud's) Bluff, the steep cut bank of the old meander of the Willamette River that encloses Swan Island is easily seen.In the old photo you can see the "island" - the rectangular peninsula that projects up to the northwest. This had been used as Portland's airport in the earlies, and was just then beginning to be developed as the industrial area it is today - here it is in 1925, probably not long after Lindbergh visited.Note that in the aerial photo the Union Pacific line running towards the long tunnel under North Portland is still an embankment surrounded by wetlands. And here is the same view today;A little busier, isn't it?

The wetlands are gone, the swans are gone, the concrete streets are gone, the old farm fields, the cowpaths, the garages...all gone but where they remain crystallized forever in silver salts and black.

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