By Ellen Spitaleri
When Rhys Scholes set out to write his first book, he decided to focus on something familiar. The Hawthorne area has been his home for decades and he has long wondered about the origins of the boulevard.
To celebrate community and share the backstory of this popular street, he’s just published Portland’s Hawthorne Boulevard.
The book’s first five chapters trace the evolution of the street from its early days through to the 21st century.
Scholes said he “started out focusing on how Hawthorne happened as a theoretical inquiry,” and the stories he learned from a few old-timers supported his hypothesis.
A sixth chapter focuses on stories that didn’t fit comfortably into the other five chronological chapters.
Researching the book took Scholes on a “fascinating adventure” through historic newspapers at the Multnomah County Library, documents from the Oregon Historical Society and Rachel Hardyman’s 1992 thesis Hawthorne Boulevard: Commercial Gentrification and the Creation of an Image.
Two men dominate the street’s early history: James B. Stephens and Dr. James C. Hawthorne.
Stephens drew the first plat of the area, then known as the City of East Portland and designated the streets alphabetically, calling the future Hawthorne Blvd., U St.
Stephens also operated the first ferry crossing the Willamette River and donated seven acres of his land claim for use as a mental hospital, run by Hawthorne, a respected physician.
The doctor brought the first industry to East Portland in 1858 when he set up a private hospital for the insane at what is now SE 11th Ave. At the time, the private hospital, known as The Asylum, was the largest employer in the old city of East Portland. That corner is now the site of a food cart pod called Hawthorne Asylum.
The street has changed names three times; from U St., it became Asylum Ave., then Hawthorne Ave. and finally Hawthorne Blvd. in 1933 when a citywide plan made addresses more consistent.
The book’s remaining chapters describe how the marshy land was filled in to build houses and establish neighborhoods at the beginning of the 20th century and how the rise of the automobile dominated the early 1920s.
Numerous historical photographs illustrate the book, including some from the collections of Norm Gholston, an important local historian.
Scholes said he was surprised to find out that the 1948 Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade came down Hawthorne Blvd.
“That was the year of the flood that submerged Vanport on Memorial Day and the parade was almost called off due to continued flooding in many parts of the city,” he said.
“At the last minute, the parade was moved to higher ground on the eastside. It started in Lents, turned onto Hawthorne at 50th Ave. and disbanded at 14th Ave.,” he added.
Fred Meyer opened his first retail outlets in the mid-30s, with the store at SE 39th Ave. and Hawthorne Blvd. opening in September 1951. Festivities included a 1,500-pound cake, a mouse circus, the Granato amateur talent show and appearances by Mr. Peanut and Kordo the human monkey.
Hawthorne sank into urban poverty in the 1960s, only to experience re-growth in the 1970s and 80s, when the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association (HBBA) was established and began working to reduce crime and revitalize commerce. HBBA also started an annual street fair.
The book ends with stories of three people whose lives illustrate the essence of the Boulevard. One such person is Martina Gangle Curl, who, along with her husband Hank, ran the John Reed Bookstore in the 1980s.
Scholes reveals a personal connection to her when he explains that he, Curl and 84 other people were arrested while blocking the gates of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant.
In 1977, when he and Curl were on trial in St. Helens, she testified that she had previously been arrested in 1939 on the Portland Docks protesting the shipment of war materials to Imperial Japan.
“I’ve been waiting 43 years to tell that story,” Scholes said.
He notes that, here in the 21st century, Hawthorne Blvd. has retained its quirky character, the result of independent business and cultural and political factors.
The street’s rich history is still in evidence today, for those who know where to look.
Scholes said his next book will tell stories of Oregonians who have since the 1840s been figuring out how to pay for the public services they wanted.
Portland’s Hawthorne Boulevard is now available at local bookstores and through Scholes’ website, hawthornebook.com.