by Karen Hery

It’s easy to bemoan growth in inner city Portland. Four story apartment buildings keep popping up almost as fast as the new residents arriving to fill them leaving both house prices and rents on an exponential rise.

For the Richmond neighborhood, it’s a challenging new rise where there was once more raze.

The Richmond raze was, in hindsight, a very beneficial one for growing up inner SE city blocks.

In 1846, a forest fire that began on the slopes of Mt. Scott burned off most of the timber as far north as the Columbia River. This had a profound effect on the settlement of the east side.

Up until that year, much of the land east of the river was heavily wooded. After the burn, the natural process of regrowth replaced the once wooded area with coarse grasses. The area was so thoroughly cleared that establishing farms was a simple matter not requiring the time-consuming and back-breaking job of clearing forest land.

When farmers started selling off to housing developers in the late 1800’s, the Richmond neighborhood boundaries hadn’t yet been established.

Division, now Richmond’s main central street, was still known then as Section Line Road so named because it began the section of SE Portland a mile away from Base Line Rd. (now Stark St.); the original public land survey system east-west line dividing north and south for Portland.

Farmers decided the size of the lot they wanted to sell for development. On either side of Section Line Road, those sections didn’t always line up. We can all thank a few unevenly divided farms for the zig zag we make across Division at 35th, 37th and 38th.

1855 Ambrotype photo - one decade after the Big Burn

1855 Ambrotype photo – one decade after
the Big Burn

Bound now by Hawthorne Blvd. and Powell St., stretching from 29th to 50th/52nd, the Richmond neighborhood of today divides right down the middle along Division St.

The pride many long time inner city Portland residents have about beating the threat of a freeway running through the SE in the 70’s is now a distant memory and a slowly fading story.

Jean Baker remembers how the looming freeway back then held back the potential growth of Richmond.

“The freeway would have gone right through where all the houses still are between Division and Clinton with Division and Clinton serving as access roads to the freeway,” Baker recalls.

“Much of the land that was slated to become the freeway had slowly been bought up over the years by ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation).  No one wanted to invest much in an area that could be going away under a freeway.”

At that time, according to Baker, there were more renters than homeowners in Richmond, especially college students from PSU and Reed looking for affordable rooms to rent.

The main corridor of businesses on Division St. looked very different than it does today.  The street was filled with furniture, flooring and appliance stores much more like the stretch of Foster just above Powell is now.

Doug Klotz, the Richmond Neighborhood Land Use Chair for over 20 years, still sees the effect of the planned-for but never executed freeway.

“Some of those ODOT held lands didn’t get sold off until the 90’s,” explained Klotz. “Others became public access lands like Piccolo Park just a few blocks west of the Richmond neighborhood.”

What the resold lands didn’t become is fast food drive ins. Klotz remembers proudly the work of a pro-bono lawyer who saved the closing Arby’s at 33rd and Hawthorne (where the building housing Dosha Salon and American Apparel now stands) from becoming an inner city McDonalds.

“Codes on the books in the 90’s prohibited building new drive-ins,” explained Klotz.  “Mc Donalds thought they could be grandfathered in at the old Arby’s site but the lawyer figured out a way to make that impossible and McDonalds went elsewhere.”

Caran Goodall is part of a quiet brigade making sure Portland Parks employees with pesticides go elsewhere as well. Sewallcrest Park is one of the very few pesticide free parks in Portland.

The push towards pesticide free, started about 10 years ago with the help of Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (pesticide.org).

Goodall and other regular and one time volunteers meet the first Sunday of every month 10 am – noon (the second Sunday in holiday months like July).

The work they do by hand with simple tools and city- provided mulch affects grassy areas that Portland Parks ride-on mowers can’t reach. Their volunteer work helps eliminate the need for the use of Roundup and other chemicals around tree trunks, trash cans, fences and other park features.

“Some of our volunteers come just once on a Sunday to get trained,” says Goodall, “and then weed on their own time whenever they are in the park.”

Goodall wishes all Portland parks were pesticide free.  Still, she’s proud of the steady volunteer work over the last decade that makes this park a neighborhood treasure.

If you’d like to be informed of future Sewallcrest work parties for a pesticide free park, email pesticidefreeparks@gmail.com.