Irvington and Alameda: What’s in a name?

We’ve been listening to a fairly heated conversation this last week about the location of the western boundary of what people think of as the Alameda neighborhood. The debate has been spawned by a pending proposal to create the Irvington National Historic District. The proposal has been in the works for several years and is about to be submitted to the federal list keeper back in Washington DC for final decision. But just recently, some residents in one portion of the neighborhood—known as the “Alameda-Irvington overlap” – have learned their blocks are to be included. Problem is—from the standpoint of some who live there—they aren’t part of Irvington, and they’re concerned about permit review fees and other constraints if they want to undertake exterior house projects. Reasonable concerns.

We won’t focus on the complexities of historic district status, building codes and permit review costs because that’s not our expertise or particular interest (we support the notion of historic districts and feel they are an important tool to conserve the historic integrity of a neighborhood), but we will explore the Alameda western boundary question. Some longtime residents of the neighborhood are more concerned about the historic identity of the area, which is also a reasonable concern. In their view, the proposal overreaches the more logical boundary at NE 24th, which we all know was the location of the Broadway Streetcar. The Irvington proposal would draw the eastern boundary to include the east side of NE 27th Avenue, directly across from Alameda Elementary School.

In the past, we’ve written about the difference between neighborhood boundaries (established by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), and plats (established by the developer, typically many years ago). Sometimes plat names survive and are part of the identify of a place (as in Alameda). And sometimes they don’t. It’s not an exact science.

What does seem clear to us—and we think this is a compelling point—is that long-time residents we know who have lived in this overlap for 50 years or more have not thought of themselves as living in Irvington, but rather in Alameda.

Never mind that Alameda takes its name from the Alameda Park Addition, a whole other piece of real estate platted in 1909 and occupying the area north of Fremont, south of Prescott, west of 33rd and east of 21st (more or less…the western boundary squiggles around north of the ridge). The “Park” part of our name began to fade from usage in the 1950s (we’d like to see it revived, actually).

To get technical about it, as far as the city is concerned, the overlap area is part of the Alameda neighborhood. And it exists within several plats whose names have been lost to time: Edgemont, Pearson’s Addition, the Bowering Tract. Those plats have been around since the late 1800s, which would be more concurrent with development of Irvington than Alameda (platted 1909). On the other side of the coin, the vast majority of the houses in the overlap area weren’t built until the mid 1920s, much later than most of Irvington and more concurrent in style and feel with Alameda and other plats that people think of today as Alameda.

An hour spent browsing through real estate ads in The Oregonian from the early 1920s is less conclusive. The vast majority of advertisements for homes and lots in the overlap area actually do refer to the district as “Irvington.” Some refer to it as “Alameda Park” which is patently not correct. Some refer to “East Irvington.” Of course advertisements are designed to sell homes and both Irvington and Alameda had a certain cachet that any real estate agent might want to stand next to.

The upshot for us: pushing the eastern boundary of Irvington into an area that has been considered Alameda for generations, that has architectural similarities and patterns of life more connected with Alameda than with Irvington, and that claims a boundary directly across the street from Alameda School, does seem like a reach. Many of today’s residents of the overlap aren’t concerned with historical identity,  but are more focused on the costs and constraints of permit review, and about the public involvement process behind the proposal. Realistically, the proposal looks ready to sail through the final approval process.

Historic district status will help conserve the historic integrity of the neighborhood, no matter what it’s called. But a different neighborhood name that far into what most think of as Alameda does feel like pushing the envelope. Perhaps it could be the Alameda annex to the Irvington Historic District, or the first installment of an Alameda Historic District of its own.

Amazing, isn’t it: the power of a name, a place and a little history.

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