Northwest Portland, long before the boutiquing of 23rd Avenue, had a grit to it. Many blocks had shuttered storefronts or saloons where pensioners sipped 40-cent Hamms.
In the mid-1980s, residents saw gentrification coming, but they couldn't yet see what it really meant until Phil Morford arrived.
Morford was a Lake Oswego developer, which alone made the residents of Northwest look on him as a disease-carrying colonizer. Morford saw, presciently, the potential for new homes in Northwest, even though his idea was charmless: He would buy up a string of old homes to level them and put up rowhouses in their place.
Metropolitan Homes, Morford's firm, had already built more than 70 rowhouse units in the Portland area. He told The Oregonian in 1988 his properties appealed to an "increasingly cosmopolitan attitude." His developments fit within the city's strategy of encouraging more density. But the shock in Northwest of seeing grand old houses brought down by bulldozers was too much.
Morford had bought homes along Northwest Overton and Pettygrove streets, and when renters were told to get out, they sounded the alarm. In May 1989, police arrested 23 people who tried unsuccessfully to block the demolition.
"[Morford] was perceived as having the attitude that the architectural heritage of Northwest Portland wasn't important," says Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Architectural Heritage Center. "And it was so unimportant that he was going to tear them down."
On the morning of Sept. 7, a Morford development under construction on Northwest Thurman Street burned, and the fire caused $250,000 in damage. Fire officials suspected arson, and federal agents later raided two eastside homes in an attempt to link the arson with Earth First! and other eco-terror groups. No one was ever arrested.
Morford agreed to save four houses targeted for demolition; two were moved to the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Overton Street, where they now serve as offices. His rowhouses otherwise went up as planned.
No one has torched a building lately, but the militant attitudes remain—from resisting the apartment boom along Southeast Division Street to the outrage in wealthier enclaves such as Eastmoreland or Willamette Heights, where this summer neighbors successfully shamed a Google exec to abandon his plans to level a $1.3 million mansion.