tumbling bricks (the Jefferson West)

unsafe sign, SW 11th and Jefferson, Portland

It's easy to postpone thoughts of old age or death when only halfway there, just as it's easy to ignore the big red-and-white "unsafe" signs affixed to the empty building next door when a lease is signed. (After all, you still sometimes confuse the firefighters' red U with the Umbra logo.) Your apartment manager said the building next door had been empty for some time, so there would be no one peeping in, only a view of a private brick wall and a few windows across a wide air shaft.

It's easy to forget how the landowners of the world cannot abide physical spaces not producing income, that the world is made of invisible dollar signs. (Can you not see them floating in the air among the glittering dust motes and dry falling leaves?)

The Old Church, dwarfed (SW Portland)

Notice of Public Hearing: 11th & Jefferson Apartments (photo: April 30, 2014)

green chair, Jefferson West

room shadows, Jefferson West

Who but me cares about an old textured brick wall that glows salmon-pink in afternoon light, or the ferns growing from a crack in a windowsill—life willing itself along, blind to what's coming—or the pigeon family roosting in alley shelves aside a rusty air shaft, their morning coos, their evening shadows fluttering past, stirring my sleeping cat to stalk, tiger-like, the windowsill?

ferns in window brick, Jefferson West

pigeon at roost, Jefferson West alley

Who cares about debt-ridden students and middle-aged workers fallen on hard times between social cracks, whose already thin, oblique shafts of sunlight will be fully eclipsed by a shining fifteen-story LEED-certified apartment tower with all the usual amenities and gated underground parking? Why be cooled by a gentle breeze blowing through an open window sash when you can turn on the air conditioning or fan and send the electric meter spinning?

rusty air shaft, Jefferson West

Who cares that urban planning studies show people prefer more human scale buildings of three-to-six stories, as in Paris, France, or that the high-rise public housing projects of the 1960's failed infamously in large part for this reason? (But who reads these days, anyway?)

Who cares about local history like that of the Mural Room, a former post-war jazz club once swinging inside the Jefferson West, or that the building soon coming down like a ton of bricks next door to my sanctuary of this past year, was once the first campus of Reed College back in 1911 when the building was shiny and new and the tallest thing on the block? As this one block, my block, of downtown clearly shows, cities evolve and grow, but what Portland and the rest of the U.S. need right now if society cares at all about the working and middle classes is not more upscale apartment towers but affordable housing and better paying jobs in dense, walkable neighborhoods with excellent public transit amid retail, entertainment, parks, and services. (The current housing situation is similar to famines in which available food rots in developing countries because people lack the money to pay market rates.)

Mural Room entrance at Jefferson West

The Reed Institute building (aka the Jefferson West) could have been saved if Portlanders had had the will. The old Pendleton Building could have been saved. In some cultures, such buildings are worth saving, despite the costs of renovations and retrofitting to earthquake or other safety codes. Any developer can erect yet another generic glass apartment tower. Look at all the tall high-end condos in the Pearl and South Waterfront, many of which lie empty because too few people in job-desert Oregon can afford them, though the lower-end rental market tightens like a noose. (Who cares about poor people?) Just look at Nevada, where the Molasky Group is based, with its glut of new-construction single-family houses no one can afford and indistinguishable glass office towers whose windows never open. This is the future we Americans are building for ourselves?

What planners and designers and engineers and contractors cannot construct—only as the fake of Disneyland, the faux of Hollywood—are multifaceted, complex, priceless qualities like character, charm, and history—changing aesthetics layered onto well worn edges, those cultural meanings and stamps of time and use that can only be preserved and guarded by way of the past—saved and then exalted and carried into the future. Older buildings (and everything else) also tend to be made better, with more hand-crafting from higher quality materials. All this is why photographers often shoot their best work in places like Morocco in the developing world, in ancient places, or cities like Rome, the living juxtaposition of old and new.

But Americans have a short past and thus a practical disregard for history, despite the popularity of TV shows like American Pickers, preferring to tear things down and build everything up again from scratch in the Cult of New. And so, since America still sits precariously atop its Empire, the world's resources, its trees and mountains and aquifers and air, are all being used up like so many paper plates, all the oxygen-exhaling trees minced into toothpicks, the grand, irreplaceable mountains melted down into computer parts and sliced up into upgradeable kitchen counters, the very water we drink and air we breathe turned into carbon garbage dumps—a disposable world, though the only one we have. We act as if there will always be enough, as if the earth can replenish itself in the lifetime of one biological species.

pigeon on roof, Jefferson West

Yes, the unknowing pigeons I watch each morning, once disturbed, will leave for some new nest the day the earthmovers arrive, as will many of my neighbors, perhaps even myself. Yet how much is lost when all the old bricks come tumbling down—and at what price?


  1. Just last year I learned about the Mural Room in looking through old Oregonian newspapers. One day during my lunch break I thought I'd go check it out. When I got there the whole building was gone and a crew was already starting the foundation of a new building. It was heartbreaking. Here was this building with so much history that I had gone past many times not knowing what it was and then just like that... gone. I'm glad you and some other people got some shots of the entrance before they smashed it to bits. I would have asked (and payed) them to somehow salvage that slab of cement from the entrance for me had I known they were going to tear it down. That whole building and its history like many other Portland nightclubs of vintage years will be forgotten by the public.

  2. Every time I pass by the construction site on the streetcar, the building has gone up another floor, which continues to break my heart a little.


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