Saturday, October 03, 2009

Out of the Office

I'm headed out this weekend on a trip through northern Maine's "100 mile wilderness," the northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail between Monson and Katahdin.

I'll be incommunicado for the next 8 days but hope to return with lots of new blogging material about nineteenth-century logging artifacts, remote hunting camps, and moose in rut.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Future Portland, Oregon, as Envisioned by Robert Moses

The other Portland's weekly Mercury published a great article last week about that city's planned-but-unbuilt freeways. The west-coast Portland is very much in love with itself in general, but the fact that it had the foresight in the 1970s to reject millions of dollars in freeway funds, and re-appropriate the money for the first line in its growing light rail network, is something that it should legitimately be proud of. In the decades since, a number of conventional-wisdom-bucking decisions like this one have made the city what it is today, a leader in urban planning and design.

Before the city abandoned its plans for the Mount Hood Freeway or tore out its waterfront Harbor Drive expressway, though, it was gleefully subscribing to the same happy-motoring, urban-renewal fads that poisoned so many other American cities in the second half of the twentieth century. During World War II, the city commissioned an infrastructure plan from Robert Moses, the same "master builder" who bulldozed hundreds of New York City blocks in order to build new freeways to the suburbs of Connecticut and Long Island.

In a follow-up blog post, Mercury writers posted a PDF copy of the Moses report, which calls for an inner-city loop of grade-separated freeways around Portland's downtown. This loop actually did get built in a slightly modified form, as Interstates 5 and 405.

It's striking to see how the city developed in the neighborhoods where actual freeway construction deviated from Moses's plans. Moses's proposal for an East Side freeway probably would be more appealing to Portlanders than what actually got built: while Moses suggested a route through the industrial neighborhood a few blocks away from the river, the city built the freeway right on the Willamette's eastern bank instead.

Moses also proposed a "Foothill Thruway" that would hug the base of Portland's West Hills, through the neighborhoods of Goose Hollow and cutting diagonally through the city's tony NW 23rd Avenue neighborhood. Here's an illustration from the report:

The caption is vague, but by reading the report's description of the proposed route ("a crossing of Burnside Street near the intersection of King Street... crossing Jefferson Street between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Avenues") and looking at maps, this seems to be a westward-looking view of the Goose Hollow neighborhood. I think that the stadium visible at the lower edge of this drawing is today's PGE Park, next door to the Multnomah Athletic Club, a country-clubbish place where I worked through college as a lifeguard. Here's what the neighborhood looks like today:

High-rise condos and apartment buildings occupy the land that Moses had envisioned for freeway on-ramps, and the neighborhoods of Northwest Portland that would have been bulldozed now host some of the city's most valuable retail and residential properties.

Not to say that the city avoided the destruction altogether; the foothills freeway became I-405, which required the demolition and excavation of about 50 city blocks along the western edge of downtown in the mid-1960s.

In a failed bid for the 1968 Olympics, city boosters/saboteurs published a much more ambitious freeway-development plan, which included the infamous Mount Hood Freeway and many others. Oregon's Cafe Unknown blog has a history of the Olympic bid and a few images from the city's Olympic plans, which mostly consist of suburban stadia surrounded by huge parking lots. A map of the ambitious plans for the freeway network is about 2/3rds of the way down the post.

Moses's report was published in 1943, about a decade before the freeway construction binge caused by Eisenhower's interstate highway development bill. In addition to the freeway plans, Moses included a lot more mundane and uncontroversial advice for improving parks, playgrounds, and sewers.

Still, as commenter "atomic" notes in the Mercury's blog post, it's "strange to think that something so apocalyptic was going on in Europe and Asia, and dudes over here were planning how we were going to manage traffic jams when we were done with it."