Historical Traffic Diversion in Boise Neighborhood, Installed and Uninstalled

During the pandemic, I have been doing a lot of reading about the history of my neighborhood, Eliot. I came across a number of plans from the 1960’s and 1970’s that affected inner North Portland. Joseph Cortright put together a 3-part series on how the Oregon Department of Transportation destroyed Albina, the biggest cultural center for Black Portlanders at the time. At the same time, Emanuel Hospital was expanded intentionally into the area between N Williams and N Kerby all the way to I-5/I-405. This was presaged by a short study called the Central Albina Study which recommended most of what is now the Eliot Neighborhood be demolished for Industry. Warehouses were recommended west of MLK Jr Blvd and South of N Fremont. This was later amended to west of N Williams avenue.

The Central Albina study was very quickly ready to sacrifice most of Eliot to Industrial land zoning and demolish much of what is the largest collection of 1890-1910 homes in the City of Portland. Many of these houses were considered to be dilapidated in the 1960s even though 60 years later some of these same buildings are still standing. Partially in response to these protests, the government agencies agreed to embark on a program to ‘improve’ a different part of the Albina Neighborhood, north of Fremont St.

The Central Albina Plan Study Plate 6 showing division of land in Albina including Eliot where 123 acres of industrial property was slated to be developed. Photo courtesy Auditor’s Office City of Portland.
As determined by the 1960 Census of Housing – degree and dispersion od dilapidated dwellings.
Photo courtesy Auditor’s Office City of Portland.

This project would be called the  ‘Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project’. This project made certain infrastructure and financial improvements that benefit neighborhoods: home improvement loan assistance, improved street lighting, traffic diverters and installing a neighborhood park (a number of houses were removed for this park). The system of traffic diverters shown below were implemented to prevent through traffic from taking straight routes in the 5 by 6 block region between N Fremont St, N Mississippi Ave, N Skidmore St and N Vancouver Ave.

The large neighborhood park described in the plan (now Unthank Park) was created in part to get a large contiguous parcel for a future school (envisioning Boise and/or Humboldt Schools being relocated). At the time there was a focus on larger sites for schools to give staff more parking than they had at the time. It seems like this was not needed as the Boise School (now Boise-Eliot/Humboldt) is doing fine with a similar footprint that it had in the 1960s. While this was happening, the Eliot school – located where Tubman is now – was proposed to be sold off for industrial land. Clearing the residents out of Eliot would make it no longer necessary.

Interestingly in this same document scan, the Irvington Community Association was also able to get its own diverter at NE 16th and NE Tillamook which is still in place today. One thing I remember from the City of Portland’s Traffic and Transportation class is that the diverter at 16th and Tillamook was removed during water main construction and neighbors fought to have it rebuilt. I was digging through the City’s records to see what happened to these diverters from the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project in the Boise Neighborhood and what I found was water maintenance records in 1998. The archival satellite photos show this diverter disappearing between the 1996 and 1998 photos. This leads me to believe that the diverters were removed for construction and were never replaced. Around the same time, the Center for Self Enhancement was built at the Unthank Park site in 1997. They may have encouraged the removal of the 2 diagonal diverters bordering the park at that time. During its life, it operated for a time as a charter middle school.

Traffic diverters as part of Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project proposal – Figure 7.
Photo courtesy Multnomah County Library.

This project was so popular that residents petitioned to add large areas to the improvement district, and some were added to the north, but there was never a southward expansion which prevented homeowners south of Fremont from getting access to loan assistance and other benefits.

There is evidence as far back as the 1960s that City of Portland Planners knew how to improve a neighborhood and make it more welcoming for residents. Some of this was giving money to people to improve their properties, some of this was minor traffic diversion, some bigger plans like building a new neighborhood park.  There is also evidence that they knew how to destroy neighborhoods. Building highways through, using eminent domain to force the nicest housing to be vacated, and creating the conditions for disinvestment. Citizens are right to push to make things better by advocating for small and large projects. Politicians should be wise enough to know the difference between a project that is going to make life better and one that will make it worse.