Amateur historian Alan Silver unofficial archivest of Portland’s MLK Jr. Bouldevard
by Anna Griffin, The Oregonian
Saturday June 06, 2009, 6:30 AM
Michael Lloyd, The Oregonian
On his blog, MLK in Motion, Alan Silver tracks changes up and down the boulevard. His interest may come from the similarities between his adopted home and the place he grew up in, southern New Jersey. Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J., have suffered their own urban decay and struggled with their own racial tensions.
Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is the kind of place most people speed past, foot on the accelerator, eyes straight ahead. It’s four lanes of concrete and faded dreams, nondescript in spots, downright ugly in others, seemingly architecturally designed to be ignored.
But when Alan Silver leads the way, each block tells a story.
Way up north, near where King meets Rosa Parks, Silver points out a little green house that once was an underground music club and weekend brunch spot, operated without any permits. Farther south, at Fremont, a pretty, new, publicly funded building with plenty of vacancies marks the spot where neighbors, angry over issues of traffic, trash and the treatment of restaurant workers, once forced McDonald’s to give up its MLK beachhead. A few blocks down from that, a squat little building that does nothing to draw the eye just happens to be on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Today, it’s home to Bardy Trophy. But 75 years ago, Van De Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery sold coffee cakes and other pastries from the shop, and a big Dutch windmill churned on the roof.
“Wouldn’t that have been a cool thing to see every day?” asks Silver, a rumpled guy with a bike messenger bag on his back and a head full of obscure local lore. “Can’t you just see the morning rush? All those immigrants who worked down at the rail yards going in for coffee and pastries on their way down the hill to work?
“This place used to be so vibrant. Most people have no idea.”
Silver, a 38-year-old blogger and amateur historian, is perhaps the least likely tour guide for what used to be the heart of first immigrant and then black Portland. He’s a burly, sweet-natured white guy from Southern New Jersey with no background in planning or research, just an instinct for storytelling and an unusual interest in his adopted hometown’s backstory.
“I tell people it’s my hobby,” he says. “Really, if I’m honest, I’m kind of in love with the place.”
The street that began as Margaretta, went a century as Union and finally was renamed to honor King has been one of Portland’s main north-south arteries since the late 1800s. It’s also always been a sort of city-within-a-city for the City of Roses’ forgotten classes.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s European immigrants made the boulevard their Main Street. They studded it with shops, saloons and small bungalows, all an easy commute by foot, horse or ferry to new and bustling rail- and shipyards along the Willamette River. African Americans were driven to the neighborhoods around the avenue by the Vanport floods in the 1940s, the construction of Memorial Coliseum in the 1950s and redlining by real-estate agents.
For most of its life, the street was a commercial hub, prosperous if segregated. That changed in the late 1960s. The opening of Interstate 5 — a faster route north — drove some business owners to the suburbs. Race riots scared away many more.
For much of the past three decades, the boulevard has suffered rising crime, dropping property values and the highest storefront vacancy rates in town. Hail Mary planning decisions — adding medians and removing on-street parking in 1980; rezoning large swaths of MLK for higher-density homes and shops in the early ’90s — added to the general sense of desolation.
“What is Union Avenue?” planners asked in an early 1970s Model Cities application. “A voice, a place left alone too long.”
That document is among several thousand pages that crowd Silver’s apartment.
“Maybe I’m fascinated with this part of Portland because it reminds me of home,” he says. “Maybe I feel at home in an area that has fallen into misuse.”
Silver grew up just outside Philadelphia, in a part of the world dominated by highways, urban decay and tight living. “A treeless cement wonder” is how he describes it. He migrated west almost two decades ago on a whim.
“I was 21 years old and had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew if I stayed there I was going to get in some kind of trouble,” he said. “Every place I could think of moving was too hot, too cold, too Southern, too big. But I didn’t know a thing about Portland — nobody did back then — so that decided it.”
The Greyhound trip out here took three days, but proved worth it when a fellow passenger offered to let Silver and a buddy crash on his floor for a while. The past has always fascinated him — he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Portland State studying the role of women in the workplace during the Great Depression — but graduate school turned out to be more of a grind than he wanted.
“I never really wanted to work very much,” he says. “So I didn’t.”
He jokingly describes himself as a dilettante, although he’s definitely not a silver spoon sort. Rather, he’s one of those Portland types who holds a job — these days, he’s a part-time church bookkeeper — to support his hobbies: reading, hanging out with friends, hosting a pirate radio show, taking pictures.
Silver lives a couple blocks east of MLK and bikes or walks everywhere. A few years ago, he was strolling through the neighborhood when he came upon a box of free stuff someone left on a corner. Inside, he found a weathered book detailing Seattle’s African American history and a pristine copy of the Oregon Mirror, a long-defunct black newspaper.
Those finds got him thinking.
He knew the neighborhood where he lived once was part of Albina, an independent city sucked up by Portland in 1891 and since divided into 10 separate neighborhoods. He already had a habit of taking pictures of things he saw on his daily travels along MLK. Gradually, casual interest turned into a serious pastime. He began using his days off to read old newspaper clippings at the library, then branched out into planning documents and historic maps. He grew braver about popping his head into offices and stores to ask questions: How long have you been here? What was here before? Does the building have a story?
Last year, he started a blog, “MLK in Motion”, mostly just to have a place to collect his photos. It’s evolved to include updates on construction projects such as the new Planned Parenthood building, plugs or pans of the boulevard’s increasing roster of restaurants, funny asides and miniature history lessons. It barely scratches the surface of his interest, or his research.
There aren’t a lot of people left, for example, who can tell you about the time Portland State professor and antiwar activist Frank Giese firebombed a military recruiting station at the northeast corner of MLK and Shaver, now a church.
Less than a block away, no plaque marks the spot where, in 1981, two off-duty cops tossed dead possums in front of the old Burger Barn. Nor does anything indicate the outrage among many African Americans when an investigator described the incident as an “ill-advised prank” rather than racial harassment.
Few of the more than 25,000 people who drive MLK each day have ever looked closely enough to see the scars on the sides of the few remaining pre-1920s buildings, the marks left when business owners simply lopped off the fronts in response to a city street-widening.
Silver has both the curiosity and the time to investigate such things. Like the time he couldn’t stand the intrigue anymore and opened an overdue water bill that had been sticking out of an abandoned auto shop’s front fence for weeks.
“They owed $24,000,” he says. “So I’m guessing they didn’t move voluntarily.”
Silver points out the former home of Fernando’s Auto Shop as an example of what MLK looked like in between its heyday as a business hub and the current redevelopment. “Garage after garage,” he says. “Functional, not pretty.”
Similarly, when asked to point out his least favorite stretch of MLK, he heads to the intersection with Ainsworth Street. A Walgreens, a Safeway and a Starbucks sit on three of the four corners, ugly examples of urban renewal done wrong. In addition to being decidedly mundane and unfriendly architecturally — urban renewal that satisfies the wallet but not the eye — each business sports a sign out front welcoming guests to a different neighborhood. “King? Woodlawn? Piedmont? Where are we exactly?” he says, holding up his hands in mock befuddlement.
He’s thinking about writing a book but doesn’t know where to begin. There’s a definite need: In most city reports, the street’s history starts in the 1980s. He’s certainly got the attention span. Silver once spent a year reading everything he could find about ancient Greek drama. Even if he never finds the will to put his Albina research down for posterity, at least this obsession gets him out of the house and talking to other people.
“The blog is more about posing questions than finding answers,” he says. “How did this place get this way? Why was it so ignored for so long? What did it look like before we all just sort of gave up?”
His travels turn up mysteries: He knows the taggers who use the boulevard as their personal, oversized canvasses by name — “Paulrus,” are you out there? — but rarely by face. He wonders who has been slapping stickers showing sepia-toned photographs of Native Americans on telephone poles, and what message they’re trying to send.
He also finds humor in the oddest places: the smiley face someone crafted in a vacant lot out of dirt and flowers, gone a day after it appeared. Or the corner lot — now vacant, of course — that at various points in history housed both a church and a porn shop. The guy hosting a yard sale one weekend who explained that he calls the boulevard “MLK-TV” because he can sit out on his front porch and always find something entertaining to watch on the street.
Some of Silver’s work is amateurish. Much is incomplete. But his blog and collection of old papers and planning reports represent one of the most comprehensive efforts undertaken to document this important area’s past. Silver is practicing citizen journalism and, beyond that, even citizen anthropology. He’s filling in the gaps and pulling in closer than any professional journalist or scholar would likely ever have the time, patience or interest in doing.
“Most people out here want to talk about what they’re doing. They’re excited,” Silver says. “They may look at me a little oddly, but they answer my questions.”
That’s because these days good things are happening on MLK. Although the recession has slowed the change, taxpayers are finally seeing some payback for the tens of millions in public money pumped into MLK, with new stores, new restaurants, a plethora of affordable housing and even a few offices. Private development is slowly following, although the street is still a long way from attracting a national chain or offering residents all the basic services they need.
Police statistics say crime has dropped dramatically from the gang warfare days of the 1980s and early ’90s. Silver’s own experience — he sees more people out at night and receives fewer solicitations from prostitutes — confirm that.
Many old-time residents of the neighborhoods around MLK are dying off or being driven from their homes by gentrification, so the history is disappearing. Few of the area’s new homeowners and investors have the time or inclination to think about how the street became a place to ignore. They’re too busy working to make it more vibrant and make their investments pay off.
“Maybe it’s something about Portland that people don’t want to figure out this stuff, they don’t want to talk about the past,” Silver says. “It’s certainly different from a lot of places that celebrate their histories or learn from them or — what’s the word I’m looking for? — at least acknowledge them.”
Anna Griffin: 503-412-7053; firstname.lastname@example.org