Cities are created through charters and state legislatures designate names, geographic boundaries, governmental form and election procedures, and powers to make contracts and tax. But students of a city’s history usually start their inquiries elsewhere. Those who admire landscapes or architecture may focus on how its natural setting has been reshaped. Planners hoping to solve contemporary problems may trace how the platting of streets and the advent of zoning have affected traffic congestion or public health. Political leaders may examine how struggles to change election laws restored power to the individual citizen.
Portland, despite its direct access to the Pacific Ocean, is probably best understood as a river port like St. Louis or Cincinnati, with access to a vast agricultural hinterland. But Portland has also been carved out of a uniquely beautiful rain forest, whose terrain and lush foliage have dominated its image. Visitors to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, such as Walter Hines Page, were impressed by the towering trees and the dramatic vistas from Portland’s west hills that afforded a view of Mt. Hood to the east and Mt. St. Helens to the north. Page also rhapsodized about “the flour mills, the lumber mills, the trade, coastwise and across seas, the great jobbing houses, the very good hotels, the strong banks.”
To set Portland’s development within the context of the American city system, however, we must also note what it has not had. Unlike St. Louis or Chicago, Portland through World War II did not have a sufficiently large regional market to develop heavy industry. Portland never attracted a large industrial working class of east European immigrants, and only during World War II did large numbers of southern whites and blacks appear. Unlike Detroit or Chicago, Portland’s sense of class antagonism has not been highlighted by ethnic and racial divisions. Nor did Portland have a political “machine” that dispensed jobs to immigrants in exchange for the votes to dominate politics.
While Portland developed a reputation for control of politics by bankers, developers, and their legal advisors, its elite nevertheless faced occasional rebellion. During the Progressive Era spokesmen for small businessmen and skilled workers illustrated how new interest groups could create new instruments of government through which they could directly affect legislation. The innovations in government like the referendum, initiative, and recall became known nationally as “the Oregon System.” But because Portland remained a mid-sized commercial city rather than an industrial metropolis, its merchants and bankers through the 1960s continued to shape its physical growth. In the 1970s a new middle-class rebellion was triggered by neighborhood discontent with urban renewal. The resulting experiments with a new government form, the Tri-County Metropolitan government, met voter approval in 1978 because legal boundaries still did not coincide with racial and class divisions.
Portland history also needs to be understood in the context of regional history. As Portland developed sprawling eastern suburbs and a larger regional market, it seemed far less dependent. The infusion of federal investment at the Bonneville Dam and the awarding of military contracts during World War II furthered this illusion of economic autonomy. After the war, local political leaders seemed indifferent to industrial and educational innovations in other West Coast cities and Portland’s retooling lagged.
Since the 1970s, Portland has tried to coordinate a civic and architectural renaissance downtown with the expansion of high technology firms in the suburbs. These contending developments attest to its transition from a river port to an urban node on the Pacific Rim. Tightened controls over the city’s landscape, however, could not be matched by control over the economy. New sources of employment and new suburban land uses illustrate the continuing illusion of local autonomy. A history of the city reveals how these new polarities of regional cohesiveness and global interdependence have superseded the civic indifference and social insularity that prevailed at mid-century.
© William Toll, 2003