By Glenna Gee-Taylor
The South Park Blocks, in Southwest Portland, was among the first places I visited when I moved to Portland. I have always lived in the suburbs, a charming former mining town in Colorado with the lowest crime rate in the country for a town of its size; so, to me, Portland was the big city, and the big city was intimidating. The South Park Blocks is just on the edge of downtown, where the streets become less business-oriented and more residential. I, like Jane Jacobs, felt more comfortable where there are businesses, assuming, as Jacobs did, that the more people who are watching, the safer I will be. The park made me a little nervous. It was not well lit, and I didn’t know what was around the imposing buildings surrounding me blocking out the last of the sunset. I had also just spent a week on my new student trip, focused on homelessness in Portland, and so I was making a conscious effort, trying not to judge a place or people based on appearance or suburban prejudice. The second time I visited this park, for the purpose of this assignment, it still troubled me, but for different reasons. The South Park Block is on the edge, physically, between the central downtown and the more residential outskirts, but also the edge between status as a public space or a private space.
The South Park Blocks is plural for two reasons. It is literally plural – eleven historical blocks. They were the first designated green space in Portland, and originally they were on the literal edge of town, narrow plots of land bought up by a philanthropist in the throes of the public park movement. The public park movement emphasized the use of places like parks and public museums for moral uplift, to allow the industrial poor a venue to improve themselves. The South Park Blocks are clearly designed to do just that. Though small, the blocks do provide respite from the surrounding hectic city. There is a certain serenity there, partially because the block is surrounded by rather tall and austere buildings. The height of the surrounding buildings provides privacy from the surrounding businesses and residences, and cuts down on noise in the area. This provides an ideal setting for the uplift that the creators of the park were looking for. The constant cacophony of a city was seen as a means of stifling thoughts, especially thoughts of workers who not only lived in the city, but worked in loud factories or shipyards as well.
The blocks are also plural in their pluralistic ideal; the park was originally intended for all as a place of democracy and equality. As the city grew around it, the park became a center of culture, and it remains that way today. There are definitively public cultural aspects of the park. No one will stop you from walking in it, talking in it, or examining the sculptures in it. In the central block of the park stands a statue of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse, entitled “The Rough Rider,” and a block over is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, both meant for public uplift. They were both donated in the 1920s and both have lengthy plaques giving the history and significance of the figures. The park and its amenities are meant to be inclusive to all, including Portland’s sizable homeless population. The benches in the park do not have the dividers that many benches throughout Portland have; one could sleep on the benches. The park doesn’t have signs to discourage the homeless from sleeping, unlike the downtown signs that proclaim that the sidewalk is for walking only. Though these things are not actively encouraging a homeless presence in the park, they do not discourage it, and so the park is a meeting and sleeping place for many. This public park is an institution that does appeal to the entire populous, including white middle class families who fled metropolises in the 1960s and 1970s to escape what Alison Isenberg referred to in “The Hollow Prize,” as the “atmosphere of racial conflict.” The park, though intersected by a college campus, is an easily controlled and surveilled area, the narrow blocks surrounded by high buildings provide an ideal situation for government control echoed in Mike Davis’s “Fortress L.A.”
As time passed, privatization crept in both physically and culturally: the South Park Blocks have become less open to all. One of the first things I noticed on my return to the South Park Blocks was that the park had hours. The park is only open from five A.M. to nine P.M. on weekdays, and this is one of the only times I have ever seen hours posted for such a classically public institution. This distinction between the public and private spaces is blurred in this park. The South Park Blocks are surrounded by institutions of uplift, which started out for the benefit of the public but which have evolved into more private endeavors. Though the Oregon Historical Society or the Portland Art Museum were originally intended for the benefit of all citizens, these establishments have become privatized in that they now charge an entry fee, capitalistically monitoring who can enjoys the culture that the park was supposed to be the center of. These cultural landmarks were originally created to cater to all, but as patronage of the arts became less important these institutions were forced to charge an entrance fee to stay afloat, especially in the depression of the 1940s. It is hard for these institutions to use Leach’s “Strategies of Enticement,” they cannot use show windows to directly display merchandise; they have no merchandise to display. Museums must advertise themselves as a way of life, as a means for the rich to separate themselves from the poor. This is in direct opposition to original intent of the museums, as a means of uplift, not as a commercial venture. The trend of these institutions from free to fee follows the wider trend from public towards private. The park movement intended to provide the economically disadvantaged with a means to enjoy art and cultural leisure. Imposing a fee, however nominal, to gain access to these institutions excludes the very population that the parks movement was trying to reach.
The first victims of privatization of classically public places are always the homeless. In another dichotomy between public and private, there are not only aspects of the park that are friendly to the homeless, but also realities that would deter homeless people. There are no public bathrooms, not unlike the “Fortress L.A.” that Mike Davis wrote about. The lack of public restrooms is a war on the homeless. It essentially forces the homeless to all be in one part of town: the part with public restrooms. It is incredibly degrading to not have a place to relieve oneself, and the elimination of public bathrooms dehumanizes many Portland residents. The idea is that park goers will use bathrooms in the surrounding private institutions, museums, or businesses, but homeless people are often denied access to these institutions, and this plan is a transparent attack on the homeless population. There is also a distinct lack of public drinking water in the park. Though even a few blocks away there are Benson Bubblers on every corner, the park is conspicuously lacking. This is another deterrent for the homeless and makes the park a less desirable place for anyone to spend the night. These actions are deliberate and fall in line with the posted park hours. The South Park Blocks make a statement – a specific class of people is meant to populate the park. And though it was not always meant to be this way, the current economic apathy towards culture has required changes to be made. Consumers must be attracted to keep the institutions economically viable and to attract a more affluent class of shoppers downtown. Aas evidenced in both in “Strategies of Enticement” and “The Hollow Prize,” there must be a pleasant atmosphere, a gemütlichkeit, and that requires a clean and orderly downtown, free of the unpleasant image of homelessness or even poverty.
The South Park Blocks are a reflection on the wider trend of Portland and the country as a whole. Though many places seem public on the surface, more and more ways have been found to privatize even the most public of institutions. I find the park a pleasurable place to spend time, but it is easy to see the kind of patron that is ideal at the park, and if I were not that ideal, I would be uncomfortable. Public places are rare, and though the South Park Blocks are not as public as they used to be, even the appearance of a public space is somewhat gratifying. While I was at the park, I was struggling to find the date that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt was erected, and without hesitation fellow park-goer pointed me towards the plaque. The public nature of a public park can never fully be eradicated, and while that can be seen in the South Park Blocks, so can the increased privatization.