Why do the streets angle at Burnside?

So where did the Pearl come from. What is the origin of the name? How does the land fit in the overall development process of Portland?

I decided to become a member of the Oregon Historical Society today so that I can use their library to research the history of the Pearl. The OHS research library was a great find.  You ride an elevator to the top of the building and it opens to a desk staffed by a volunteer. There are lockers here for storing your personal belongings while in the library. You may not use cameras or audio recorders since much of the material is on loan or under copyright.  At the end of a hallway, you enter the library. (Just getting to the library made me feel that I was going to a special place.)  I explained what I was interested in to a librarian, and he immediately took me to two books covering the topic and then brought me a folder of newspaper/magazine clippings of recent articles about the Pearl District. Folks around me were talking about aunts and uncles as I dived into one of the books – “Portland Names and Neighborhoods” by Eugene E. Snyder. I like this library very much.

Here is what I learned. In 1852, Captain John Couch brought his family to his property in Portland. He owned a square mile of land north of Burnside that stretched from the river to where 23rd street is now.  This includes today’s Pearl District. At the time this was virgin forest with several streams running from the west hills to the river.  He had a cabin located near where Union Station now stands and there was a lake by the cabin. Leading from the cabin was a path through the woods into town.

Around 1865, Captain Couch, subdivided some of the property and laid out streets. When laying out the initial streets for Portland, south of Burnside, the surveyor had aligned the streets with magnetic north. This made  them seem more parallel to the Willamette river. But, Captain Couch, as a mariner, had relied upon the North Star for navigation, and so he decided to orient the streets with true north. If you look north on one of the numbered streets in the Pearl, you should see Polaris, the North Star.  At the time, true north was 20 degrees off of magnetic north. So when you cross Burnside on one of the North-South streets you will notice that the street makes a 20 degree angle as it enters the Pearl District.  Now you know why!

The Pearl Makes Sense

20140807_01I like it when an address actually tells me where a place is without making me look at a map. In a general sense Portland is like that. It is divided into North and South sections by Burnside St. and into East and West sections by the Willamette River.  So a NW address is north of Burnside and west of the river. A SE address is south of Burnside and east of the river.

Avenues run north/south, parallel to the river, and are numbered in ascending order going away from the river on both sides.  Streets run east/west and are named.

Addresses on a named street indicate which numbered avenue crosses the street near that address. 325 Yamhill St. is between 3rd and 4th Avenue. 1175 Hoyt St. is between 11th and 12th Avenue.

Addresses on numbered avenues increase as you go further from Burnside.  For example, the address of Jimmy Maks, one of my favorite places, is 221 NW 10th Ave. This is in the third block north of Burnside and the tenth block west of the river. An avenue address between 700 and 800 is about 8 blocks from Burnside. Remember to pay attention to NW, SW, SE and NE designations. There could be a 221 SE 10th Ave, but that’s across the river and they don’t play jazz there.

This system is almost perfect. BUT, there is a complication. For the most part, throughout Portland there is no apparent order to the names of the streets. In the downtown area, for instance, the street order from south to north is Market, Clay, Columbia, Jefferson, Madison, Main, Salmon, Taylor, Yamhill, Morrison . . . This is not helpful. I need a map to find a street.

A solution is provided by our friend Captain Couch. In 1865, being an orderly sort of fellow, in addition to orienting the avenues to true north, Captain Couch assigned letters for names when he laid out the streets in the Pearl.  “A St.” was the name of the southern-most east/west street, with “B St.” one block to the north, then “C St.”, etc. This area was referred to as the Alphabet district.

In 1891, the alphabet streets were renamed after persons from Portland history, but the alphabetic order was preserved. Thus we have Ankeny, Burnside, Couch, Davis, Everett, Flanders, Glisan, Hoyt, Irving, Johnson, Kearney, Lovejoy, Marshall, Northrup, Overton, Pettigrove, Quimby, Raleigh, Savier, Thurman, Upshur, Vaughn, Wilson.

So, tell me an intersection or an address in the Pearl, and I know where it is.

I don’t need a map to navigate the Pearl. Captain Couch has it covered.

The Mystery of the One-Way Street

20140807_03I was driving down 12th after my little trip to see the “West Bearing” building. To tell the truth, I was in aimless exploration mode and had my eyes open for public art. One or two blocks struck me as worthy of exploring on foot and there are some welcoming courtyards/pedestrian ways between 12th and 11th that I will have to go back to visit. My plan was to drive to Lovejoy and then make a left to go under I-405 on my way home. Surprise! Lovejoy is one-way heading east. This got me thinking. Why would you change a perfectly good two-way street into a one-way street? In this case, the answer is that this makes the bigger plan work. We’re talking streetcars, public transportation, livable cities.

“The Portland Bureau of Transportation announced that NW Lovejoy Street between NW 14th and NW 13th avenues will be converted from a two-way street to a one-way eastbound street beginning on Monday, May 23, at 10 a.m. This traffic change completes the Lovejoy/Northrup couplet as originally planned by the City of Portland as part of the Portland Streetcar Loop Project.”

There used to be many streetcars running all over the city, but they became less attractive as a business when folks began using the personal car to get around. Portland began bringing streetcars back in 2001. We even manufacture streetcars here. Oregon Public Broadcasting recently presented an excellent story about the history of streetcars in Portland. If you missed it, you won’t regret taking the time to watch the show – Oregon Experience: Streetcar City.

Portland streetcars now run from the South Waterfront area to Portland State University, then up to the Pearl and on to 23rd Ave and back. The Portland Streetcar Loop Project will extend the route across the river on the Broadway Bridge to Lloyd Center and down the eastside past OMSI, then across the river again to complete a circular route at the South Waterfront.

That’s the BIG PLAN.

(See the facts and a map at the Portland Streetcar Loop Project page.)