A People’s History of Portland

Know Your City shares the stories of Portland's immigrant, working class and activist roots.

KYC A People’s History of Portland

Before Portland was known for Portlandia, bikes and brews, the foundations of the city were built by immigrant laborers. A People’s History of Portland Guide introduces Portland’s immigrant and working-class heroes, celebrating our city’s social activists and movements. In this guide you’ll meet the Chinese, Japanese, African American, Jewish and LGBTQ communities that are often left out of mainstream conversations about Portland. We want to share their stories and highlight Portland’s multicultural past.

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Early PDX history

Before Portland was a city, this area was known as “the Clearing” — it was often a stopping-off point for Native Americans traveling on the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The rivers created the biggest industries in Portland: canning, timber, farming, shipping. In the 1880s, immigrants started coming to Portland en masse to work in the shipping and timber industries. Very quickly, “the Clearing” became the busiest port on the West Coast besides San Francisco. Compare Portland’s population in 1850: 821, with 1900: 90,000. That’s a huge jump!

Most of the people coming to Portland were young, single men, hoping to earn money and return to home countries: China, Japan, Italy, England. But a lot of people did not make enough money, and so they were essentially stranded here in a bachelor society. In the 1870s–1880s the city riverfront was teeming with ships at docks, warehouses, laborers, and businesses such as mercantile stores, financial institutions, and export companies. The main exports were wheat, salmon, wool, lumber from farmlands in the surrounding valleys awaiting transport east, as well as hops.

At the time, 40% of the working population were migratory workers — sailors, loggers, agricultural workers doing seasonal work. The New Market Theater, built in 1872, used to be “the highest-class theater” north of San Francisco. A 1,200-seat theater home to the opera and symphony, it once catered to the elite few who were getting rich off Portland’s burgeoning industries. At the same time, on the ground floor was a produce market that catered to the thousands of immigrants who were coming to work in Portland in the 1870s.

Right in the middle of what was then Chinatown, this theater was also a venue for what was called the Anti-Coolie Association, a group composed mostly of white labor unions. “Coolie,” a derogatory term, referred to coerced laborers of SE Asia who were seen as servile, unable to assimilate, deviant, and degrading to the (white) labor force — this was directly targeted at Chinese immigrants. In the 1880s, labor unions helped pass a federal law that put almost a dead stop to Chinese immigration (Chinese Exclusion Act).

Chinese history

In the late 1800s, Huber’s Cafe was located in the middle of Portland’s Chinatown, a very busy Chinese district with restaurants, shops, hotels, and more: In the 1860s and ’70s, this location would have been teeming with Chinese-owned stores and apartment buildings. While enduring discrimination, the Chinese living in Portland in the 1880s and ’90s established their own businesses and communities on S.W. Second from as far north as Ash and as far south as Taylor. Over the past 100 years, the buildings of Chinatown have been lost to urban renewal and other causes. Huber’s Cafe, established in 1879, is Portland’s oldest restaurant still in operation, dating back to the days of Old Chinatown’s existence.

Huber’s Cafe also holds the distinction of being the longest-running restaurant owned by a Chinese person: In 1891, Jim Louie was hired as head chef by Frank Huber, based on the reputation of his excellent roast turkey. When Frank Huber died in 1912, he left the management of the business to Jim Louie. Huber’s was later purchased by his nephew after Louie’s death — and is still owned by the family today.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, located in the second Chinatown, was a spokesgroup for the Chinese community, formed in the late 19th century to assist Chinese individuals in their struggle with discrimination in employment, business, and citizenship.

Today, the CCBA Great Meeting Hall on the first floor acts as a space for rehearsals, performances, and large meetings. A library on the second floor holds Chinese and English materials, and classrooms take up the second and third floors, where community members have had access to Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and English classes since 1908. The museum on the fourth floor is open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m.–1 p.m.

Mary Leong is a Chinese elder who grew up on this block, and is still active in CCBA activities. She shared a couple of her childhood memories of what life was like here during the 1920s: “Going further down Fourth Avenue were mah-jongg houses and two gambling places. You could hear the mah-jonggs clacking as you pass by. Pai gow was also very popular. On the corner of N.W. Fourth & Everett was Fong Chong grocery store where vegetables were displayed in wooden boxes. Salted fish, preserved duck, and salted pork sides hung from the ceiling. There were no refrigerators. The scale was a metal bowl hanging from the ceiling and a slide rule was used to measure how much an article weighed. Then whatever you purchased was wrapped in a sheet of plain paper pulled from a rack.”

Efforts have been made by the city to bring life back into Chinatown and revitalize the neighborhood: the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Chinatown gate, painting the street lamps red, public art. And there are still some Chinese restaurants here including the Republic Cafe and Golden Horse.

Jewish history

At the same time that Chinese immigrants were setting up homes and businesses, many Jewish people immigrated to the U.S. to escape from Tsarist Russia 1880–1910. The Wax Building at N.W. Third and Burnside was a Jewish clothing store owned by Mr. Frohman Wax in the 1920s.

The Jewish community in Portland set up a lot of clothing stores and tailors. Another Jewish immigrant, possibly the most successful businessman in town, was Aaron Meier. He opened Meier and Frank, the premier department store in Oregon from 1857 to 2006.

Aaron Meier came all the way from Bavaria, in Eastern Europe, to California in his 20s, hoping to cash in on the Gold Rush. He arrived in Oregon in 1857, when it was still a territory and he was the ripe old age of 26, and sold supplies from a covered wagon along the Oregon Trail. Only about 1,300 people lived in Portland then but he opened a tiny general store. Ten years later, he traveled all the way back to Europe, met and married a local woman named Jeanette, and together they returned to Portland. Along with his partner Emil Frank, he opened a department store, Meier and Frank, that became one of the best known and fanciest department stores in the country.

The Jewish immigrants who settled in Portland established stores all over downtown and built a thriving community south of downtown, full of Jewish delis, synagogues, schools and boardinghouses. But by the 1960s, this neighborhood was neglected by the city and run down, and the decision was made to dramatically remove tens of blocks in that area to make way for new urban renewal projects. Jewish Portlanders had little recourse and were scattered all over the city. The Ira Keller Fountain is part of a trio of fountains built in that razed location, referred to as the southern part of downtown Portland.

African American history

Around 1900, the Golden West Hotel was one of the only places in Portland where African Americans could get a hotel room. The hotel had 100 rooms, a Turkish sauna, candy parlor, a barber shop, and a restaurant. It provided “all the conveniences of home” for blacks being denied accommodation at white hotels.

The hotel’s basement was home to the biggest gambling house on the West Coast. Owned by George Moore, the basement was the stopping point of all the black entertainers who came to Portland for as many years as the hotel was open.

On the one hand, black people were not supposed to be on the streets after sunset. On the other hand, almost all hotels that catered to white people wouldn’t rent rooms to black people. At the same time, more and more black people were moving to Oregon.

From the 1880s all the way to the 1960s, millions of African Americans moved out of the South to the North and West Coast to flee racist terrorism, violence and Jim Crow laws there. A lot of African Americans and Latino Americans worked on the railroads, which stopped at Union Station just a few blocks away from here. The owner of this hotel, black entrepreneur W. D. Allen, stopped in Portland and saw this problem. So he opened the Golden West hotel in 1906.

The Golden West was significant as it provided a safe space for African Americans to socialize. The KKK was active in the 1920s, with recruitment throughout the state. In 1923, there were 35,000 members in Oregon. African Americans stopped through town as they worked on the railroads. Porters, waiters, cooks, barbers and even entertainers were recruited by the major railroads, but there remained few places for them to stay.

The Royal Palm Hotel on N.W. Third and Flanders was another location that catered to black Portlanders during this time. It was built in 1913 and was owned by a Japanese family. This was the heart of Japantown, “Nihonmachi,” though the neighborhood was very mixed: transient lodging, Asian grocery, Japanese steam baths, and, in the 1940s it housed African American shipyard workers.

“My family operated and lived in the Royal Palm Hotel on N.W. Third Avenue and Flanders Street. Because of the location our tenants were railroad workers—brakemen, conductors, and porters–most of them African American. When our family was evacuated in ’42, my folks turned over the hotel to an African American couple.” –Yoichi (Cannon) Kitayama. From Nihonmachi: Portland’s Japantown Remembered.

Japanese history

Portland’s Japantown, Nihonmachi, had its heyday from the 1910s to 1941. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, but before the Immigration Act of 1924, a significant number of Japanese came to work for the railroads, lumber companies, farmers and canneries.

Admitting Japanese women to the U.S. helped to balance out the gender ratio which had undermined the Chinese immigrants who came earlier: In 1910, the ratio of Japanese men to women was 7 to 1. In 1920, the ratio of Japanese men to women was 2 to 1. Japanese laborers became married to these women, and together they raised families. Over 100 businesses, many of which were Japanese owned, popped up in Japantown–stores, barbershops, schools, restaurants, churches (both Christian and Buddhist), etc.

One of Nihonmachi’s most important businesses was the Oshu Nippo or the Oregon News, the only Japanese weekly newspaper in Oregon. Its headquarters were at the Merchant Hotel. Oshu Nippo was founded in 1909 by Mr. Toyoji Abe; Mr. Iwao Oyama took over publication in 1917.

The Oshu Nippo had news about the local Japanese community as well as news from Japan. You could also read about the births, deaths and marriages of Nihonmachi. Eight to ten employees wrote stories, set type and operated the old-fashioned letterpress. It contained both English and Japanese sections.

Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI shut down the Oshu Nippo. The editor, Mr. Oyama, was arrested and sent to an internment camp. Albert Oyama, the editor’s son, didn’t see his dad again until 1945. The typesetting equipment was confiscated and the U.S. Navy used the printing equipment to produce propaganda during the war. The equipment was never returned and the paper was never published again.

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center is Portland’s Japanese American history museum. This is a great resource for information on Portland’s Japantown, Japanese immigration to Oregon, life in the internment camps and Japanese American history.

Before it was a cultural center, this was the Matsubu Laundry, a bath and laundry house owned by the Matsubu family. Bathhouses were common in Japantown. Japanese laborers would come here, take a bath while they waited for their laundry to get done, and would wear their fresh, clean clothes home.

LGBTQ history

In the ’60s, gay culture in Portland was closeted.

Walter Cole bought the building on N.W. Third and Davis in 1967, and took ownership of Dema’s bar, which became a haven for gay culture and especially a hangout for lesbians. Another early lesbian bar was the strip club Magic Garden, located nearby.

In 1971, Cole turned Dema’s into a theater complete with a stage. Its inaugural drag show happened in 1971. Darcelle XV is currently the longest-running drag show in the U.S. Over the years, this area has served as an umbrella to the LGBTQ community. Portland Bridge, Portland’s first gay newspaper, was published just a few blocks from here. At the age of 85, Darcelle still performs every night, and his son is the bar manager. Darcelle’s is often involved in raising money for nonprofits and community causes, often closing to hold benefits and special nights to support LGBTQ rights and local activists.

IWW (International Workers of the World) history

At Portland’s waterfront in the late 19th century, ships were sometimes docked for months while loads were completed and sailors were let loose on the town because shipping companies would not feed and house them. More times than not, these men found themselves at Erickson’s Saloon.

Established in the 1880s by August Erickson, a Finnish logger — Erickson owned the entire city block and ran five bars continuously around the block-sized room, stretching from N.W. Burnside to Couch, and from Second and Third Avenues.

Lunch was free with the purchase of five-cent beer. On the menu was a smorgasbord (literally!) of sausages, Scandinavian cheese, pickled herring, Finnish flatbreads, lutefisk and gjetoast (Norwegian cheese). Scandalously, a trough ran along the entire length of the bar so men didn’t have to leave the bar to use the bathroom.

Patrons of Erickson’s were so loyal that during the great flood of 1894, when the Willamette River overflowed into downtown, regulars rowed their boats up to a barge where Erickson, determined to not let a little water stop him from making a buck, continued to serve drinks.

One of Portland’s most notorious myths: the Shanghai Tunnels. Some say men were “shanghaied” — drugged while they drank at the saloons and dragged through tunnels to the harbor; then, when they’d wake up, they’d be on ships that had left port, forced to work as crew.

The reality is much more mundane: Recently arrived sailors in Portland were sometimes lured into debt at boarding houses and saloons by people who would then suggest that they pay that debt off as crew aboard another ship. This practice was hardly underground, as everyone from the authorities to the saloon-keepers appeared to be in on it and earning a buck along the way.

Right around the corner from Erickson’s was the headquarters for the International Workers of the World — a union that accepted a lot of the people other unions wouldn’t, including women and unskilled immigrant workers. One of the leaders of the Portland IWW was Marie Equi, a Portland physician and political activist. Her biography sums up a lot of the political issues activists were working on at the time:

“For ten years, 1903–1913, Equi was a model Progressive Era activist. She aligned herself with Oregon’s indomitable champion of woman suffrage, Abigail Scott Duniway. She also pushed for an eight-hour workday, state support for higher education, and prison reform … She supported the Industrial Workers of the World and criticized Portland’s civic leaders for oppressing the working class and suppressing radical dissent. Never content with protest alone, Equi obtained food and shelter for the unemployed, distributed birth control information, and provided abortions to both poor and upper-class women.” From the Oregon Encyclopedia

About Know Your City

Know Your City is a nonprofit organization, located in Portland, Oregon. Our mission is to engage the public in art and social justice through creative place-making projects. Our programs and publications aim to educate people to better know their communities, and to empower them to take action. Included in our programming are public and private walking tours, youth programs, special events, and publications about local activists, little-known Oregon history, and social justice rights.

This zine was inspired by Know Your City’s A People’s History of Portland walking tour, created in part by Dr. Reiko Hillyer, with contributions from Sarah Mirk, Marc Moscato and Amanda Tillstrom. Illustrations by Kate Bingaman-Burt. Edited by Amanda Tillstrom. www.knowyourcity.org

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