Slabtown is not a name that resonates gladly in the hearts of realtors. Today, the moniker most often refers only to a thin patch of inassimilable real estate around the I-405 freeway overpass, a frontier hodgepodge of cab barn, poker den, tow yard, dive bar and parking lot. But as condos rise at the fringe of the Northwest Industrial District, a slim picture-book history volume called Portland's Slabtown (Arcadia Publishing, 128 pages, $21.99) has appeared in grocery stores and small markets. The product of a bevy of local historians—Mike Ryerson, Tracy J. Prince and Norm Gholston, with a foreword by McMenamins historian Tim Hills—the book perhaps allows residents to claim richness for their 'hood even as it's tilled under and re-created in a frenzy of development bridging the Pearl with the boutiques of 23rd Avenue.
Slabtown—named after the piles of wood at George Weidler Lumber Mill on Northwest Northrup Street starting in the 1870s—once ranged from 11th Avenue to the edge of Forest Park. As the book describes, Slabtown's stadium on 23rd Avenue and Thurman Street was home to the Portland Beavers baseball team, titans of the Pacific Coast League, until 1956. In its turn-of-the-century heyday, the neighborhood housed a hippodrome, a 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial attended by 2.5 million visitors, and a hockey team called the Rosebuds who were later sold to become the Chicago Blackhawks, current Stanley Cup champions.
But the book's format, a brief intro followed by photographs and caption descriptions of times gone by, can make cause and effect difficult to parse. The historical period that holds the most pressing relevance to the neighborhood's sudden redevelopment—the carving of the district by Robert Moses' I-405 freeway, as well as the subsequent decline and failed attempts at urban renewal—is portrayed a bit spottily, with pictures that shotgun haphazardly around the timeline in ways that defy narrative logic.
The most interesting and best documented sections go a bit deeper. Especially valuable are the parts of the book describing long-forgotten Native American encampments in the area, which served as a neutral ground and trading post for various tribes, and the neighborhood's turn-of-the-century service as a landing pad for waves of immigrants from Croatian to Chinese to Irish.
The oldest photographs tell a story all by themselves. Johnson Creek once tore a vast gulch into Slabtown, with as many as nine rivulets crisscrossing the area and leading out to flood-prone Guild's Lake (in the Northwest Industrial District) and Couch Lake (in Old Town). We have since painstakingly filled it all in. Ease and character, it would seem, rarely coincide in a landscape. It remains to be seen whether the last interesting remnants of old Slabtown will survive or whether they, too, will be filled in to create flatter territory.
GO: The authors discuss Portland's Slabtown at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, July 10. 7:30 pm. Free.