Getting to Know Your City

by Matt Blair on November 19, 2011

I’ve lived in or near downtown Portland for nearly ten years now. I spend most of my time in the city on foot, and yet I can still walk down just about any street and find some detail I haven’t noticed before: a curve in a street for no obvious reason, an ornamental feature on a storefont that doesn’t match anything else in sight, a streetcar track peeking up between brick streets, or the remnants of a sign painted directly on a brick wall decades ago.

I see these traces of the past, but I don’t understand them. Our city has a rich history, but we need some way to unlock it.

About a year and a half ago, I was in the process of brainstorming projects related to the City of Portland’s Civic Apps Challenge. At that time, a history app was at the top of my short list of projects. I could imagine what the project would look like and how I could build it, but it was missing the most essential element: history.

There were a few lists of historic places available, but they were thin on details: address, year built, and maybe the name of an architect’s name or firm.

It wouldn’t have been hard to package these lists as an app, but 600+ dots on a map without any cultural, social or historical context just didn’t seem that compelling to me. One source included architectural styles, and I thought about trying to tie that into Wikipedia, but it still didn’t seem all that appealing, especially since the related Wikipedia entries were so varied in quality and availability.

If I was going to spend the time required to build a great app, I wanted to make these locations come alive with story, context, voice and narrative. I wanted to go deeper: Who lived here? What were their lives like? Why did people leave, and who moved in after them – or displaced them? How has the neighborhood changed? What made this city what it is today? You can’t really get much of that from addresses and names alone.

As I imagined ways to build on these lists, I quickly realized that it was becoming a book-sized project. I even wrote a blog post seeking collaborators. I’m not experienced in doing historical research, and I would have been starting from almost nothing. It could take years for me to figure out how to do it well on my own.

With no obvious sources for these stories and narratives, no funding, and lots of other projects in progress, I shelved the idea. I still wanted to create apps that encouraged people to get outside, to walk and explore the streets of this city, and to notice the unnoticed (my ‘urban rambling’ series) but I chose to focus on PDX Trees and Public Art PDX.

A few months later, Max Ogden introduced me to Marc Moscato, director of the Dill Pickle Club, a non-profit which has been leading tours, hosting lectures and reprinting books about many facets of Portland’s past, present and future for the last couple of years. They have relationships with a range of experts who have a detailed knowledge of this region’s history.

Marc outlined a challenge that the DPC staff and board had been discussing: How could they preserve the experiences of their tours and lectures – most of which were only given one time – and make them available to a broader audience?

It’s been nearly a year since that dialogue began, and we’ve spent many many hours imagining and refining the project, with insightful feedback from a lot of different members of the community.

The app and mobile website we’ve planned will be far more than just another downtown guidebook. It’s not just one history of Portland – it’s about many interwoven histories – and it will highlight the diversity of the communities that have lived and worked in downtown Portland, and the neighborhoods they built over the last 150+ years.

Since working on this project, I’ve learned about the Greek community in Old Town/Chinatown, one of many communities featured on SuEnn Ho’s bronze plaques:

A photo of commemorating the Greek community

Bronze plaques in Portland's Old Town/Chinatown

(Photos by James Wilson, who also shot our Kickstarter video)

I’ve learned that Portland’s Japantown once covered a few dozen blocks north and south of Burnside, as shown by this fantastic model in the window of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center:

A photo of the model of Japantown at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center

Part of the Japantown model

I’ve learned that the New Market Block building, in addition to being one of the best remaining examples of cast-iron architecture on the West Coast, was also inspired by a building in St. Mark’s Square in Venice:

A photo of the New Market Block, built in 1872

New Market Block, built in 1872

And I’ve learned that the Golden West Hotel on the corner of NW Everett and Broadway was built more than 100 years ago to serve African-Americans who worked on the transcontinental railroad:

A photo of the Golden West Hotel

Golden West Hotel

I didn’t know any of this until we started talking to the experts who will contribute to this project. And that’s why we’re doing it.

We’re asking Elias Foley to record and edit high-quality, well-indexed interviews of these experts and historians telling the stories of their neighborhoods and cultures. We’re asking Kate Bingaman-Burt to create illustrations that will give the app a distinct visual character. And our budget includes an honorarium for each of the experts who will contribute, and everyone else who participates in the project. (For the full budget, see our Kickstarter page.)

The project is so much more than an app. In fact, the app budget is only 30% of our fund-raising goal. How can we build an app for that price? It’s simple: we can’t.

Everyone on our team is working on this at a fraction of standard industry rates because we all believe in the importance of this project. We believe that understanding more about our past is essential to the process of deciding who we want to be in the future.

And that’s where you come in: You can help us make this happen by supporting our Kickstarter campaign. All the members of our team are located in Portland, so your pledge supports local artists, working in the local economy.

Please don’t wait: the campaign ends December 5th.

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