The mystery of Crane Street

On a recent walk, we encountered some buried Northeast Portland history that demanded investigation and made us think of a scene from an old movie.

Do you remember that last shot at the end of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes when a distraught, time-traveling Charlton Heston collapses to the beach as the camera pans back and in the distance we see the top of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried, sticking up through the sand revealing the beachy landscape he was riding across was actually the middle of New York Harbor? Kind of like that, but not really. We did not fall to the ground.

In this case, sticking out of the pavement and sidewalk in an otherwise normal neighborhood block were remnant clues to a stretch of street that no longer exists: NE Crane Street where it once passed through the southwest corner of the Alameda Park subdivision. It was called East Crane Street before Portland’s Great Renumbering created the four quarters of the city we’re familiar with today. Take a look at what we found:

Clues to what once was. Curb corners mid-block on NE 24th Avenue where Crane Street used to pass through. Today, the former street is occupied by houses, garages and driveways like the one shown here. Looking north on the west side of the street.

 

Cast into the this corner curb now marooned mid-block is a barely visible “CRANE ST.” Today, the nearest part of Crane Street is three blocks west.

Today, Crane Street makes a short run from NE 19th to NE 21st, but it used to go all the way through to 24th. It’s always been a narrow street, a bit wider than an alley, but not much. Go check it out, and then walk NE 22nd, 23rd and 24th and look hard along the alignment of where Crane used to go, you can see clues to its past: fully formed curb corners that are now driveways. CRANE ST. stamped into the abandoned curb at mid-block. Even the crown of now-gone Crane Street—the gentle sloping away from centerline—can be seen on NE 24th where Crane used to intersect.

When we found those clues, we had to know more, so we visited our favorite source of official documents: City of Portland Archives. From official records—ordinances about renaming and street abandonment (a process called “vacation”), and petitions from neighbors—we were able to piece together an understanding of Crane Street.

First, let’s remember—from our earlier exploration of what we’ve dubbed the Prescott Jog—how strange things can happen when adjacent development plats filed at different times by different developers bump into each other. This unique little stretch of Crane Street exists at the junction of four plats, each filed by a different developer at a different time: Hillside, 1894; Vernon 1903; Alameda Park, 1909; George Place, 1910. (Check out our collection of local plats that might be of interest.)

It’s probably also worth noting the topography here: this is the edge of Alameda Ridge where other streets have a hard time getting off the hill: NE 21st zigs and zags and feels like an alley as it tries to find the crest of the ridge before becoming a real street and heading downhill to the south. Mason doesn’t even bother going through: it turns into a footpath through the former orchard on the slope of the ridge. And NE 19th is impassable: it gets stuck in a cul-de-sac where it gives up and becomes a flight of stairs.

This detail of the Vernon plat shows it all. Crane Street (once named Mason) appears at the bottom of the map, with detailed notations of a name change and two “vacations” or street closures and abandonments. Click to enlarge. Yes, this is part of the Vernon plat, though the city thinks of this area as Alameda. Read more about the difference between plat names and neighborhood names.

The Hillside plat of 1894 locked a single slice of Mason Street onto the map that other developers tried to line up with in the following years. In 1903 when the Vernon subdivision was carved from the surrounding forests and fields, Crane Street first appeared as Mason Street, trying hard to line up with the short stretch of existing Mason Street in Hillside and the Mason Street further west in an existing plat called Irvington Heights. Because the new Mason and the old Mason were so far out of alignment, local residents at this very south edge of Vernon petitioned the city in 1909 to just change the name of the street (which was still gravel) from Mason to Crane in an attempt to reduce confusion. When Alameda Park came along a few months later, the newly re-christened Mason became the chosen alignment for the Mason Street we know today.

Eugene Snyder, Portland’s leading authority on street naming, suggests the Crane namesake may have been either George Crane, an agent for Equitable Life Assurance Co., or Samuel Crane, agent for New York Life Insurance Co. We couldn’t find any logical connection to the area for these two Cranes, or any other Crane for that matter.

In 1921, a majority of property owners along East Crane asked City Council to vacate the stretch of Crane between NE 22nd and NE 24th. Along with the citizen voices was a strong letter of recommendation from Commissioner of Public Works A.L. Barbur, explaining: “this portion of Crane street is slightly less than 28 feet in width and does not in any manner form a ‘through’ street which can be rendered useful for general traffic.” Council unanimously approved the request on August 31, 1921. Soon after, the property formerly known as Crane Street between 22nd and 24th was purchased from the city, added to the Vernon plat as new lots, and homes were built. The left-over stretch of Crane between 19th and 22nd was still gravel.

In July 1930 another group of neighbors brought a petition to vacate their own stretch of Crane between NE 21st and NE 22nd, and another recommendation letter from Commissioner Barbur: “This portion is not improved and its vacation will in no wise affect the remaining area of the street, which connects with East 21st street on the east, thus affording a connection to the streets to the south. The property in this vicinity is all in residential usage and the proposed vacation will not be detrimental to the value of the surrounding property.”

A page from the petition signed by neighbors in 1930 to vacate East Crane Street between 21st and 22nd. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Council unanimously approved the request on October 15, 1930, and that property was purchased, replatted and built.

Today, five houses sit at least partially in the middle of those two vacated stretches of the former East Crane Street between 21st and 24th, made possible by the involvement of neighbors trying hard over 20 years to enforce order on a jumbled (and frankly bumbled) set of plats symptomatic of Portland’s chaotic early planning history.

Makes us wonder if maybe today’s Crane Street neighbors between 19th and 21st ought to get together for a block party to have a chat. Someone send for Commissioner Barbur…

Alameda sewer geek-out

We’ve been spending some time at the City of Portland Archives lately, which is something we recommend. The staff there are always helpful, knowledgeable, patient and friendly too. One of the nice things about visiting is that you might run into something you didn’t know you needed to know, and that might just amaze you when you really think about it. Like this:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives file AP/25016, January 5, 1934.

The same view, looking north on NE 24th at Alameda, in December 2017.

On a recent visit, we bumped into some old city documents and photographs that provide a major archival document and engineering geek-out for us and possibly for one or two AH other readers: 110-year-old sewer plans for Alameda and repair photos from the 1930s.

OK, we know this isn’t going to interest everyone, but the drawings below pertain to the very earliest construction activity in our neighborhood. When you really look at them—and realize this universe of sloping interconnected pipes was carefully thought up and then dug deep into the ground and placed by hand—you have to appreciate the early planners and builders. Have a look (click to enlarge) and then we’ll analyze what we see.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, record number M/13197.

What we’re looking at here are elevation drawings that show a cross-section of Alameda streets and slopes and how the sewer system relates to the grid above the surface. The measurement between the dashed line (which is ground level shown as feet above sea level, 243′ at the top of the ridge) and pipe placement shows how deep these pipes are. Pretty deep in some places. The red numbers indicate the number of feet between the indicated junctions. The percentage numbers indicate the slope of each line (up to 22 percent slope coming off the ridge). The whole idea here is to have positive drainage through the entire system (thank you, gravity). The label “SP” indicates the diameter of the pipe used. Pipe dimensions start smaller to the north and get larger as the sewers run south, a function of the growing number of connections into the main line as the sewers head for the main trunk collector sewer which is under Sullivan’s Gulch. There are many nuances to be seen here. Interested in learning more about the history of sewers (not a question that gets asked very often, I’d say)? I’ve probably lost you by here, but just in case, check this out.

This sewer system was one of the first construction items completed when Alameda was built. Grading for the streets, curbs and sidewalk construction followed. If you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Elwood Wiles” stamp on our sidewalks and wondered who he was, check out this earlier post. Among many other things, Wiles was a former Alameda resident (maybe you’ve walked by his house on Bryce just east of Regents).

Evidently, aside from the engineering challenge of getting sewage safely and predictably down from Alameda Ridge, construction of that first sewer system posed financial and legal challenges as well. The Alameda Land Company wanted to be able to hook its sewer system into the existing Irvington sewer system, which made sense since it was all downhill on its way to Sullivan’s Gulch (where today’s I-84 runs) which was home to the major sewer line that drained into the Willamette River. (Read more about how the eastside gulches drained sewage directly into the Willamette River and were eventually filled in. But that’s a different topic…let’s stay on track here).

Irvington and Alameda were in competition for real estate sales and there was no love lost between the two development companies. Irvington was not about to foot the bill for construction of a sewer system just to have it be used for free by neighbors up the hill. A restraining order was filed by Irvington against the Alameda Land Company in 1910 and eventually the city had to step in and referee exactly how system development charges were going to be apportioned. Ultimately, Alamedans paid for construction of their own sewer system, a portion of the costs for their sewer that drained into Irvington, and their share of the costs when the city constructed the main collector sewer in Sullivan’s Gulch in 1911. Interesting to note that over the years the usually friendly Irvington-Alameda rivalry took on a life of its own beyond sewer lawsuits, which you can read more about here and here.

During our recent visit to City Archives we also learned that Alameda’s sewer system did not stand the test of time. Things started falling apart in the 1930s. We came across photos and an engineering report from 1934 that details the very expensive reconstruction of more than 1,700 feet of sewer all along NE 24th from north of Prescott to south of Alameda. Here’s another view of that work, looking north on 24th. The house near the center of the frame is on the northwest corner of 24th and Prescott.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, file AP/20614, January 5, 1934.

Similar view in December 2017

This was a costly job: $13,622.57 which employed a small army of 48 laborers for two months and required trenching in some places 30 feet below the surface of the street. The construction report placed blame for the work squarely on methods used by the Alameda Land Company when they were hurrying their system into the ground back in 1911:

City of Portland Civil Works Administration Report 35-26W-76, March 20, 1934.

Back in 1911, using the drawings referenced here, workers dug deep trenches under what would become Alameda’s streets. At the bottom of these trenches, they used heavy wooden timbers to build long three-sided “box tunnels” without tops. Into these continuous long narrow boxes they placed fill dirt and sewer pipe. Using this common method, they were supposed to completely fill around the pipe with sand and dirt then close off the top of the box with a heavy wood cover before filling the trenches back in to street level. But that didn’t happen.

Eventually the unsupported weight of sand and gravel settling in from above crushed the box and the sewer pipe. The surface of NE 24th also dropped as all the soil below street level began to work its way lower and lower into the collapsed box tunnel. The result: a cave-in at the surface of the street, crushed sewer pipes below and one heck of an expensive mess.

Fortunately, for City Engineer L.G. Apperson, the city had the original drawings on hand and knew where to start looking to solve the problem.

Never underestimate the value of a good archive!

In praise of alleys

Here’s something you probably have not spent much time thinking about: Northeast Portland alleys.

It’s OK that you haven’t been thinking about them—it’s hard to know exactly where they are, some neighborhoods have them and some don’t. And even where they do exist, they might be hidden behind a wall of blackberry bushes, or garbage cans, or yard debris.

But now it’s time to think about alleys and to go out of your way a bit to appreciate and understand their history, demise and possibility. Along the way, we should also examine the question of why one neighborhood has them and another doesn’t. Mull that over a bit while we explore this topic.

First, an important fact about Portland alleys: virtually all of them are on the eastside.

Downtown Portland, known for its small and walkable 200’ x 200’ blocks, has never had alleys, to the chagrin over time of some business owners and public works officials who have complained that our downtown grid makes deliveries and trash removal too complicated and public. If our city blocks had alleys, they’ve argued, those essential but less desirable functions could take place out of view, giving the front of the business more leeway and prominence.

Here’s a great map that shows the extent and location of Portland’s alleys. Have a good look at it then come back here and we’ll continue our exploration.

There is at least one common denominator in this map’s seemingly random purple grid segments: they exist in neighborhoods platted before 1909. In Portland, as in so many other US cities, alleys were a utilitarian feature designed before the age of automobiles. The barn out back that might have housed a horse or wagon also contained garbage and other chaos that you didn’t want to have out front. But when the car came along—a symbol of convenience, independence and even status—garages began their migration from out back to the front of the house.

After about 1910, land development companies platting Portland’s eastside neighborhoods responded to this shift by dropping alleys and back garages from their plans. Not incidentally, this allowed houses to be a bit larger and to shift back farther from the street allowing for front yards and landscaping, as well as driveways and garages.

Alameda and its neighborhoods immediately to the north are a perfect illustration. Vernon, Elberta (not a typo) and Lester Park—the subdivisions just to the north across Prescott—were platted between 1903 and 1908 and they have alleys and 40′ x 100′ lots. Here in Alameda, platted in 1909 and built starting in 1910, there are no alleys, but 50′ x 100′ lots. North of Prescott, smaller houses crowd the street and yards are small. South of Prescott in Alameda, houses are larger and set back farther. No alleys. (Check out our Maps page and scroll down to find the original plats for Vernon, Elberta, Lester Park and Alameda Park.)

Yes, there are other contributing factors at play: Alameda has the ridge, which breaks the rectangular grid pattern. Plus, Edward Zest Ferguson and his Alameda Land Company wanted Alameda to be an upscale addition of larger homes, as opposed to the more compact homes and lots in subdivisions to the north. Irvington, for instance, platted even earlier than all of us above the ridge, does not have alleys. This was a function of the size and siting of much larger and costly homes on relatively constrained lot sizes. It’s hard to have both large homes and alleys given our compact grid.

The presence or absence of alleys was central to the question of site and building design, real estate value, and marketing potential at the turn of the last century. Throw in the advent of automobiles and you’ve crossed a tipping point away from alleys in the minds of early property developers. Why bother with alleys anymore?

So, there’s our answer to why some eastside neighborhoods have them and some don’t: it’s largely related to timing (pre- and post-1909 as the key date), with the advent of the car looming large, and a few other considerations like targeted market sector and house size. Bottom line is that after 1909, no more new alleys were built on Portland’s eastside.

Here in Northeast Portland you’ll find two types of alleys: the obvious ones that are a long straight laneway right up the middle of the block adjacent to back yards and paralleling the length of the fronted street (typically the numbered street). You’ll find these between Prescott and Alberta, from 24th to 33rd. Another form you’ll find is the tee alley, on either side of Ainsworth between NE 23rd and NE 33rd. This form provides a shorter cross alley (like the top of a letter T) that bisects the long laneway. These are interesting to explore and are in pretty good shape.

Once you start walking our alleys, you begin to see clues to the past and to future potential, and you can see how different neighborhoods have responded to their alleys. While we haven’t walked every Portland alley, we’ve explored a lot of them, and offer these observations as an enticement.

This alley is just off Alberta between NE 29th and NE 30th. Looking a bit like a gallery, the pools of light here illuminate boards that advertise the adjacent T.C. O’Leary’s Irish Pub. It’s an enticing sight.

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Most of the alleys between Prescott and Alberta from NE 24th to NE 33rd look something like this one: muddy ruts, grass, brush ready to grow over.

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Here’s one just north of Alberta between NE 27th and NE 28th. The entrance is crowded with garbage cans and recycling bins but adventure up a bit and you see a kind of graffiti gallery.

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Here’s one that has grown over. Looks like that laurel bush has eaten the garage too.

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The Piedmont neighborhood has great alleys that run south from Rosa Parks to Killingsworth between MLK and N. Commercial. Lots going on here: powerline corridor, pavement and some interesting ADUs.

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We came across quite a few alleys that had an entry threshold like this one with the gridded pattern scored into the sidewalk. This signaled the alley opening to passing pedestrians.

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Some alleys like this one in Portsmouth have become debris dumping zones for neighbors, with piles of clippings, dirt and other debris forming impassable mounds. No more cars up this alley.

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This Portsmouth alley is so well used and traffic-friendly that residents have built a driveway off the alley that seems like a primary entrance to their house. No need for a front yard here.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in alleys as public spaces that connect neighbors and neighborhoods. In many ways they are a hidden resource, public spaces in out of the way places. A few years back a consortium of city planners and urban design professionals launched the Portland Alley Project, which led to several alley maintenance and recovery projects. Here’s another great blog by San Francisco urban designer David Winslow with passages from his book Living Alleys: A new view of small streets.

Check these out, look at the map and then go for a walk. Get out there into this ready-made local trail system where you can slow things down and experience a completely different neighborhood than the one you think you know.

A Concordia alley

“Our old synagogue of blessed memory”

We’ve been exploring the history of a 110-year-old building in the Vernon neighborhood at NE 20th and Going, once home to Congregation Tifereth Israel, an eastside Jewish community, and then to several African American Christian congregations.

We’ve always been interested in transitions between building uses and occupants: what creates them, how they go, how people feel and react, what happens after.

In this case, the transition from Jewish synagogue to African American church brought out the best in the respective religious communities, but was a low-water mark for enlightenment in the neighborhood, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise given Portland’s troubled history of official and unofficial racism.

The Tifereth Israel community had its roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Many of its earliest members were immigrants who fled discrimination and violence there at the turn of the last century. As families became established in Portland, and new generations came along, the Tifereth Israel community grew to a point where they needed more space than the 1,000-square-foot Alberta Shul could provide. Congregation leaders—many of whom lived in the surrounding neighborhood—focused on a slightly larger building at NE 15th and Wygant, which was then the Redeemer Lutheran Church, a community that was about to move out and up to provide space for its own growing membership.

In December 1951, Tifereth Israel leaders announced they were going to buy the nearby Redeemer Lutheran building, and sell the Alberta Shul:

The Oregonian, December 29, 1951

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The move to the new venue apparently went fine, with services starting up there in 1952. But things got complicated that fall when the empty Alberta Shul went up for sale. Another growing church community, the Mt. Sinai Community Church, made an offer on the former synagogue, which ignited concern in what was then a mostly white neighborhood.

The realtor handling the sale dropped the deal like a hot rock once the neighbors started to push and as they were quoted in the newspaper with thinly-veiled reasons for opposing the African American church, which had gone out of its way to keep the peace in the neighborhood. Read this next story carefully.

 

The Oregonian, October 8, 1952

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Tifereth Israel leaders and others stepped in when the real estate agent stepped out, and the deal went forward.

The Oregonian, October 10, 1952

Lest you think this was just a real estate transaction for an empty building, have a look at the following passage of a letter from Tifereth Israel leaders to real estate agent Frank L. McGuire, which reads as true and important today as it did in the 1950s.

At the time said agreement was entered into, this congregation had no knowledge of the purchasers other than their name and that they were a Christian congregation. Later it developed that the members of Mount Sinai Congregation are Negroes and pressures have been put upon us to back out of the deal for no other reason than that the purchasers, though Christian, are also Negro.

We regard such pressures as being violative of the principles of Americanism, of Judaism, of Christianity and of common decency…Man has no dearer right than the privilege of worshiping God in his own way. To deprive any group of people of the right to meet and to worship merely because God chose to make them a part of the colored majority of mankind is repulsive to Americans who love their country and the great principles of democracy which distinguish our land from the totalitarian states wherein liberty and religion are destroyed.

In welcoming our colored brethren to our old synagogue of blessed memory, we are mindful of the quotation from Hebrew scripture, “Have we not all one Father; hath not One God created us?” We hope that they also will find God within its walls and that He will answer their prayers and ours that He teach us “to love one another.” In the event you refuse to close the sale, we desire to be released from our listing agreement so that we may ourselves consummate the moral agreement we have entered into.

 

Irate the deal was progressing, neighbors upped the conflict further by taking a petition signed by 90 residents to City Hall. Portland City Council refused to take it up.

The Oregonian, October 24, 1952

Even thought the Alberta Shul transition did go forward, deep currents of racism were affecting Northeast Portland neighborhoods, home mortgage lending practices and individual real estate transactions. The Tifereth Israel letter, written by elders who had survived generations of their own discrimination, encouraged a higher ground.

We’d like to learn more about Mt. Sinai Community Church and to hear from any who have known this building in the past.

Restoring a hallowed neighborhood building: The return of Alberta Shul

Past and present are on course to connect in a humble 110-year old building on the southeast corner of NE 20th and Going in northeast Portland’s Vernon neighborhood.

This long, narrow, white clapboard-sided building was built in 1907 and purchased in 1914 by Tifereth Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation with roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Later it served as an African American church.

This undated photo shows Tifereth Israel, a synagogue from 1914-1952. The building later became home to several African American church congregations, and most recently an art gallery and studio. A group of Jewish community leaders is now working to purchase and restore the building. Photo courtesy of University of Oregon—Building Oregon Collection.

 

The building in November 2017. Developers have been eyeing the corner lot for a tear-down. The Alberta Shul Coalition has secured an agreement with the current building owner to purchase and restore the 110-year-old building.

We bet you’ve seen the old building’s patient but somewhat tired grace, just west of the Vernon Practice House (from Old Vernon fame). Clearly not a residence, it presides over the intersection from its corner height.

Originally the center of Jewish life for a small handful of families on Portland’s eastside–many of whom lived within walking distance–the congregation expanded over the years to include up to 100 families. Known during those early years as the Alberta Shul (a Yiddish word meaning a place of study and prayer), the building drew together the eastside Jewish community. By the early 1950s, Tifereth Israel had outgrown the building, so the congregation purchased and moved into the former Redeemer Lutheran Church at NE 15th and Wygant.

From 1952 until the early 1980s, the building was home to several African American congregations, including the Mt. Sinai Community Church. In 1980, when it was sold to its current owner, the building was rented out for various purposes including religious gatherings and then eventually as storage space. In 2010 it became home to Xhurch (its current incarnation) a gathering and workspace for resident artists and musicians.

When the property was placed up for sale in 2016, members of Portland’s Jewish community learned of its availability—and its history—and began to organize an effort to purchase and restore the building. Their purchase proposal was in competition with developers interested in tearing it down and redeveloping the site, but the current owner was intrigued with the restoration project and has since entered into a contract with the coalition for purchase.

Today, the Alberta Shul Coalition is raising funds and support to transform the building back to its earlier role as a place for meeting, learning, community and prayer for the eastside Portland Jewish community.

Eleyna Fugman is one of the founders of the growing coalition. Her vision is for a special, simple gathering place for local Jewish residents to connect through a variety of community-driven programming, as well as a space that northeast neighbors could rent and use for meetings, classes and events.

“The fact that we could work, play and practice in a building that our ancestors built and made into a Jewish home is very important,” says Fugman. “There are many young Jews who are looking for a place to be Jewish, who are yearning for Jewish community in some format.” The coalition’s vision is that Alberta Shul can be a cultural venue for Jewish art, music, learning, and gathering as well as a place for traditional and alternative religious services and prayer.

The coalition is interested in gathering insights about the history of the building and the generations of families who knew it first as a synagogue and then later as a church. During its years as a synagogue, the 1,000-square-foot building drew people from many areas east of the Willamette River, including neighbors who lived just across the street, and some who came from as far away as Oregon City.

As we’ve seen, the Alberta business district exploded about the time this building was built, and Going Street was known for its neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery.

Eleyna Fugman is intrigued with the eastside presence of a vibrant Jewish community during those days, notable since the most established Jewish neighborhoods—and largest synagogues and congregations—were in south and southwest Portland.

Rosters of past Tifereth Israel members—which can be cross-referenced against city directories from earlier years—can help better illuminate the presence and extent of Portland’s eastside Jewish community. Some original records and other items survive from the early days and were saved when Tifereth Israel was absorbed into northwest Portland’s Congregation Shaarie Torah  in the 1980s. Stories and memories are beginning to emerge. The Alberta Shul Coalition has begun to find and meet a handful of former Tifereth Israel members who recall the building and its community.

The current building resident, Xchurch’s Matt Henderson, has been in touch with pastors from the building’s days as an African American church, and has helped connect and open conversations with members of the Alberta Shul Coalition. The coalition is interested in knowing more about the transition from synagogue to church, which was strongly supported by the Jewish community at the time and which created consternation in the then largely white neighborhood (more on that in next week’s post, which will open a window into the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and discrimination of the mid 1950s).

We had a chance to visit the building recently and found some tantalizing clues to its former lives:

A stained-glass window in the eastern wall. Alert AH reader Robert Stoltz recognizes this as the Harp of David, a metaphor from Jewish tradition for physical and emotional health and healing. We’re working on understanding the un-accounted for seven years between 1907-1914 and how this building started its life, stay tuned for more on this. It’s pre-Great Renumbering street address was 972 East 20th Street North.

 

An interior that is alive at the moment with Xhurch art and music. The windows are tinted green producing an interior glow. Check out the original light fixtures with hanging chains and shades (the fan-fixture is relatively new). Not pictured here is a raised platform or bimah that may have also held the altar in later years. Original? Maybe. 

 

Beautiful and unusual rounded window trim, unlike anything we’ve seen in a building of this era. We’ve had a quick look at several interior photos from the 1950s (hoping to be able to share those here soon) that also show this distinctive woodwork. Could the trim have been original? Five windows in the north wall, five in the south wall—and interior doors—all similarly trimmed out. And all frosty green.

 

The entry, featuring weathered crucifixes from earlier years, a new grid of tiles from the Xhurch days, and clear indications of the restoration work necessary to upkeep the siding, trim, stairs, fascia boards and soffits, roof and just about everything else. Fortunately the building does not have a basement: no downstairs foundation walls that need to be shored up.

The Alberta Shul Coalition seems undaunted by the restoration work ahead. They’ve already raised about $40,000 toward the purchase and are targeting another $136,000 by March 2018 to fulfill the first part of their purchase agreement with the owner. After that, the coalition has set its sights on raising another $250,000 to begin the restoration.

We’re donating some research time to help learn more about the stories of the building and the families who knew it over the years. Maybe you’d like to make a donation toward purchase and restoration of this almost-forgotten neighborhood institution. To learn more, visit the Alberta Shul Coalition on Facebook. More to come about this time traveler here on AH.

Next up: The transition between synagogue and African American church in the 1950s brought out the best of both religious communities, but the worst of the neighborhood.

 

In the footprint of Old Vernon

In the spirit of knowing that pretty much everything is connected, we were intrigued to learn of the ties between mid-century modern builder Kenny Birkemeier (1905-1996) and the old Vernon School block south of Alberta between NE 22nd and NE 23rd.

Frequent AH readers will recall the story of Old Vernon (which is one of our favorites), the giant wood frame structure that once occupied much of the block bounded by Wygant, Going, NE 22nd and NE 23rd. It’s a fascinating story of Portland’s early school building challenges, the growth of a neighborhood and the all-too-frequent fate of Portland’s early all-wood institutions. And there’s virtually no trace left even though its impact on the neighborhood during its heyday cannot be overstated. Learning about Old Vernon was a bit like a curtain going up to reveal an entirely different neighborhood that once was.

Readers will also recall that Ken Birkemeier was one of Portland’s most prolific and resourceful builders between the mid-1930s and the 1950s. Dozens of his homes, most with a distinct family resemblance of Roman brick, ornamented brick facades and whimsically placed oval windows, can be found in nearby northeast Portland neighborhoods.

So–you’re wondering–how do these stories connect?

(Spoiler alert if you haven’t already read our piece about Old Vernon…maybe you should go do that first.)

In the aftermath of the big fire, the school district contracted with Rose City Wrecking in March 1933 to haul off the burned remains and to demolish and remove anything else still standing on Block 54, which they did. An aerial photo from 1936 shows the footprint of the burned building and lots of open land.

Detail of an aerial photo from 1936 showing vacant Block 54 and the burn scar / footprint of old Vernon School. NE Prescott runs east-west along the bottom of the frame.

The mid-1930s were not a great time for homebuilding in Portland, so Block 54 sat vacant for a few years. The Great Depression killed the real estate market and tightened down on much of the available money to build or to buy. But gradually the market returned and our resourceful Mr. Birkemeier acquired the entirety of Block 54: all 18 lots.

Our review of city permits, prompted by eagle-eyed AH reader Michael Johnson, shows Birkemeier began building in October 1940 on the south end of Block 54 (2225 NE Going and 4621 NE 23rd, to be exact) and worked his way north. He finished the last of the 18 houses on that block in the winter of 1944 with a pair of duplexes at 2210 and 2232 NE Wygant.

Ken Birkemeier was a talented builder, and an effective marketer as well. Many of his homes from that era were featured in The Oregonian, including photos of the houses and occasionally of him too. But a careful review of past issues from those construction years didn’t turn up anything from Block 54.

So here’s an opportunity for you to go walk along the invisible fault lines of the past, from the long-ago schoolyard, to the brand new block of the 1940s, to the changing neighborhood of today. Make no mistake, change is our constant companion. That’s how it always has been and how it should be.  How we change will explain a lot to the future about what we value today.

 

Which house is next?

If you live on a block that has a small house on a corner lot, or maybe a home that has experienced some long-deferred maintenance or structural compromise, chances are you’ve been wondering or worrying about the current spate of tear-downs underway in northeast Portland.

The fear is alive and well here in our Alameda neighborhood, where we recently lost a 1922 Craftsman bungalow that is being replaced with two 3,000-square-foot, attached, three-story giants on a corner lot. See for yourself:

The northwest corner of NE 30th Avenue and Skidmore, October 2017. Site of the former Kettleberg home, built in 1921.

These days in our neighborhood, homeowners are looking up and down the street and wondering which house will be torn down next, or if the eventual buyer of their own home will tear it all down and build new. No one wants to wish this on their neighbors or lose the family memories and history of their own home.

In the last two months I’ve been contacted by worried neighbors, AH readers and others who share a sensitivity to and appreciation of older homes. People ask what can be done, could I help them research the house, am I interested in buying or helping them with their fixer-upper?

Remember when fixer-uppers were even a thing? A bargain, a project, something possible? Today, fixer-uppers tend to get torn down. There are some notable exceptions, like this courageous project we’ve been watching closely in the Concordia neighborhood.

The reality is, there’s not much neighbors can do to fend off a tear-down next door or down the block. The city’s recent policy discussion about the tear-down trend—contained in the Residential Infill Project (RIP)—identifies the concern and offers some movement on the scale and size of new construction after tear downs, but doesn’t offer neighbors much in the way of influencing specific tear-downs.

New construction built in the footprint of residential tear-downs or lot conversions has been shockingly insensitive and out of scale to its neighbors. Just look at this charm-free apartment-block-like building now almost completed in the middle of a residential Beaumont neighborhood. Would you like to live next to that?

The northwest corner of NE 43rd and Klickitat, October 2017

We’re not anti-development, and we celebrate Oregon’s land use planning framework that protects primary natural resource lands by focusing growth within urban growth boundaries. But before it’s too late, we must help city leaders understand the new fear lurking in old neighborhoods and how the tear-down trend is reshaping the corners and the feel of our residential streets. Frankly, we’d rather write about our ongoing research and the fascinating history of our local buildings and neighborhoods. But the tear-down trend is too pressing and impactful to not bring it to the top here from time to time.

We recommend the Portland Chronicle, a website devoted to publishing the most recent list of city-approved demolition permits. It’s a website I’ve shared multiple times with anxious readers and neighbors wondering if their block might be next; a radar screen of sorts that surfaces and then tracks the sad parade of doomed homes and lots, many of which are in Portland’s older eastside neighborhoods.

One interesting and innovative solution we’ve learned about comes from natural resource conservation circles, called a “conservation easement” that restricts future demolition for certain qualifying properties. Though not in widespread use—and not for every property—it can be a tool for homeowners to protect their properties.

Another creative and admirable approach has been neighbors coming together to purchase and refurbish “fixer uppers” that might otherwise be headed for a tear down.

We’re looking for examples. Wiling to share your story of neighborhood anxiety and wonder, or creative solution?

 

 

Always on the trail of history…

It’s been a quiet summer of 2017 here at alamedahistory.org

The history of Fernhill Park and the Tourist Cabins have remained above the fold for five months now as a busy and enjoyable summer has played out in real time away from cyberspace. But even while in a kayak or on a bicycle (as above at the Mosby Creek covered bridge, east of Cottage Grove on the Row River Trail), I’m always a student of the connection between then and now, past and present.

Remember what William Faulkner told us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

So as the rain and cold bring us back inside for a while, it’s time to contemplate the echoes and insights we’ll search for here in the months ahead:

Windows, old and new. The eyes and defining character of our old homes and buildings.

Tear downs and new construction. This is a big one, reshaping our neighborhood landscape in so many ways. We need to stand back and look at the big picture of change even as we examine the loss of specific homes and family memories.

Alleys and street layout. Why do some neighborhoods have alleys and some don’t?

The rest of the story on things I’ve already written about. There’s a lot here on the blog: 160 posts over the last 10 years covering a wide range of topics. Use the search bar above on the left or the category listing on the right to explore what’s here.

Have an idea or a topic~place you’d like to learn more about? Drop me a line.

Thanks to AH readers who’ve reached out this fall to make sure the lights are still on here in this old house. Sure enough.

Fernhill Park: From wild thicket to popular neighborhood park

It’s often the small and even random things in the past—stuff we don’t pay much attention to or think about now—that make a big difference in outcomes that shape the future.

How Northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park has turned out today is kind of like that: Peel back the layers of history and you can see why things are the way they are today. That’s kind of our broken-record message here at AH, but it’s true.

The hills and gullies that make Fernhill Park distinctive today made it less desirable for crops in the early 1900s.

One of the most prominent features of the park today, located across rolling hills near NE 41st and Holman in Northeast Portland, is responsible for it being a park at all, and probably not for the reason you think. The hills and gullies on the park’s north side, a great place to run the dog in the spring and summer or to sled in the winter, distinguish this place from other nearby city parks.

But back in the day, when much of this area was farmland, this up-and-down topography was a thicket of trees and brush and not very good for growing crops. A close examination of aerial photos from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s show agricultural fields on all sides right up to the edges where the ground falls off into the ravines of today’s park area. So—the reasoning went—if the city really wants to buy that property from us farmers, go right ahead, we can’t grow anything there anyway.

And that’s just what happened.

After voters approved a property tax levy in 1938 to create more parks and playgrounds for a growing Portland, the city set out on a 10-year process of buying those hills and gullies, starting out in 1940 with a 10-acre parcel owned by the Jackson family right in the middle of it all.

During those years, several dirt roads criss-crossed the north side of the park, one even ran right up the bottom of the gully at the heart of today’s off-leash area in the northeast side of the park, pausing at a wide spot that served as a dump and debris field where car bodies and all manner of junk were strewn.

This detail of an aerial photo from 1940 shows the area of today’s Fernhill Park in the middle surrounded by farm fields on all sides. NE 42nd Avenue is the north-south street on the far right and doesn’t yet go through to Columbia Boulevard (it bends around the corner to the right where Holman is today). The north-south street on the left (that also doesn’t go through) is NE 37th Avenue. The east-west dirt road at the top of the park became today’s Holman Street. Paths, a road and a dump area are visible in the top center of the brush patch. Mike Brink’s grandparents’ home is in the upper right corner with the rows of trees and barn to the south. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

It wasn’t an official dump, but more like a secluded out-of-the-way place where folks from the surrounding area knew they could get away with off-loading a truckful of junk if they needed to. So they did. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the NE 42nd Avenue connection to Columbia Boulevard was built, some of the dirt fill needed to make the grade change for the overpass was dug out from and supplied by the gully on the east side of the park along today’s NE 41st Avenue.

Prior to 1940, when NE 42nd didn’t go through to Columbia Boulevard, you could stand near the northeast corner of what is today’s park and see the Kennedy School across the fields and orchards stretching west to NE 33rd Avenue, with more open fields south to Killingsworth and north to the banks of the Columbia Slough. Then during the building boom of the 1940s and 50s, subdivisions marched east transforming the fields into neighborhoods.

Just 10 years later in 1950 the neighborhood was filling in. NE 42nd now goes through to Columbia Boulevard (look for the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern…they’re there). NE 41st has been built and house construction is underway.  And Mike Brink’s grandparents have planted an orchard with orderly rows of filberts south of the house and bing cherries north of the house. Photo courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Often referred to as “truck farms” because the produce was trucked to market (and some of it was sold out of the back of trucks at busy intersections and small markets around town), these surrounding fields produced fruit and vegetables for Portland households. One farm near the corner of what is today’s NE 41st and Holman was owned and run by a Japanese immigrant family, as were others in the area. During WWII, Japanese farming families across the Pacific Northwest were removed from their land and placed in internment camps in southeast Oregon and central California.

We know from our recent visits with Mike Brink—who grew up in the 1940s and 50s in the tourist cabins at NE 42nd and Holman now about to be demolished—that the fields and orchards stretching out in all directions were filled with filberts, apricots, bing cherries, raspberries, strawberries and other crops. Mike remembers walking through them and through the heavily wooded thicket that is today’s Fernhill Park on his way to and from St. Andrew’s School at NE 9th and Alberta. He’d leave the cabins in the morning, pass by his grandparents farmhouse that stood near today’s intersection of NE 41st and Highland, then take the path through the woods and fields over to Ainsworth Street where he’d walk to the corner of NE 30th and Ainsworth, which was the end of the line for the Alberta Streetcar (you should check out this link because it shows the streetcar waiting where Mike used to catch it at NE 30th and Ainsworth). Hopping on a mostly empty streetcar, he’d ride south on 30th and then west on Alberta to school, reversing the process in the afternoon, maybe stopping at a neighbor’s house for hot chocolate on the way home. Quite a solo daily adventure for an elementary school kid, but times were different.

Mike doesn’t remember it being talked about in his house during those years, but gradually, the city was buying up parcels of the woods when bond money was available and when the locals were willing to sell. A couple more parcels in 1942 and 1943. Six in 1949.

As the park took shape through the late 1940s and early 1950s, some locals referred to it as Ainsworth Park, a name that appears frequently in real estate advertising of that era. By the early 1950s, most of the open land Mike remembers to the north of the park had been converted to subdivision (the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions for readers keeping track of plat names). NE Highland Street was put through the middle of his family’s farm and his grandparents moved to a new house in the neighborhood as the working farm landscape they once knew was transformed into suburbia. By June of 1951 when most of the park buying was done, the city had invested $60,479 and had acquired 25.95 acres.

In this detail of a 1956 aerial photo, the family farm is gone replaced by the cul de sac that is today’s Highland Street and homes are under construction; all of the lots are built up between NE 41st and 42nd in the middle of the photo; a baseball diamond has arrived in the middle of it all; the paths, road and dump are gone. Once again, the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern stand out clearly just right of center toward the top. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

 

Contemporary view from a hill on the north side of the park, looking off into the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions. Mike’s grandparents’ farm was off to the right.

On July 14, 1954, City Council passed an ordinance officially naming the area Fernhill Park, a name that was not in local usage prior, but that probably takes its meaning from the hills on the north side of the park.

Construction of Adams High School just southeast of Fernhill Park in the mid-1960s caused quite a stir and protest from the neighborhood. More than 150 angry neighbors turned out at a Portland School Board meeting on September 4, 1964 to share their disbelief that the School Board would demolish 26 homes, three duplexes, a local greenhouse/nursery known as Knapps and a PGE substation to make room for the school. The emotion and sense of loss in the letters and petitions submitted to the school board make for tough reading. Despite this strenuous protest, demolition of the homes and businesses went ahead, construction followed, and John Adams High School opened in September 1969.

From The Oregon Journal, September 3, 1964. The homes and businesses inside the dotted line were demolished to make room for Adams High School.

A dozen years later, when high school enrollment dropped in the early 1980s, the building was repurposed as a middle school and operated for another 18 years before being closed in 2000 due to health concerns about mold. The building sat empty and was frequently vandalized until being torn down in 2006 leaving the large open space south of the track. Newcomers to the area today might not even know that vacant piece of ground south of the track was once a school, and before that a neighborhood, and before that farm fields, and before that an Oregon Trail-era homestead.

No history of the area would be complete without taking it back to the earliest record, when this property was homesteaded under the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act, which Congress passed to encourage settlement of the Oregon country. Isaac and Mary Rennison came across the Oregon Trail in 1852 and settled on and farmed the property, filing their Donation Land Claim in 1855 that encompasses the area bounded today by NE 33rd and NE 60th, Holman and Killingsworth.

Before all this recorded history, let’s not forget that these lands on the south shore of the Columbia River and the Columbia Slough were frequented by the Native Americans who called this area home for more than 500 generations.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the places we know and care about today as our local parks came to us partly because of unpredictable events or circumstances: Alberta Park was a brush patch owned by a Chinese immigrant who didn’t want to sell, or to control the brush and trees while the neighborhood developed around it, so the city condemned the property out from underneath him and turned it into a park. Wilshire Park was tied up in a complex probate process inadvertently delaying development until the city took out a bank loan to buy the property on the eve of its being turned into a subdivision. And much of Fernhill Park was property no one really wanted anyway because it wasn’t good cropland. Today, we take these places for granted as fixtures of neighborhood life.

With these lessons of history in mind, what should we be thinking about and taking action on today that would change some future outcome about how our neighborhood feels and operates in the future? Demolition and densification? Traffic? Hmm. More on that next week.

End of Story: Spur Tavern & the 42nd Avenue Tourist Cabins

We’ve been working on the history of Northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park this week, and it’s a fascinating tale of the city’s growth during the mid-20th Century, land use change, local politics and community engagement.

But we bumped into a story along the way that we have to share first because it’s going to be the next one that goes away and we have to appreciate it briefly while we can.

We’re talking about the old Spur Tavern and the garage-like apartments at the northeast corner of NE 42nd and Holman. Here they are:

NE 42nd and Holman, looking east, April 2017. In the mid-1940s, this was a community of returning WWII servicemen and their families, temporary workers and others passing through the Portland area.

The former Spur Tavern, built in 1942, 6300 NE 42nd Avenue.

These buildings have obviously known better days. Some might call them an eyesore, with broken and boarded up windows, tilting roofs and doorways and rotting siding, all spray painted with graffiti. A small ocean of cracked and buckling pavement and gravel surrounds it all, moss growing everywhere, branches down, junk piled. And for the moment it’s surrounded by barbed wire fence. When you see fence go up around buildings like this, you know things are about to happen.

In fact, this week the City of Portland issued a demolition permit, so if you want to go look, make it quick. We haven’t yet been able to connect with the owner, so we’re not sure what’s planned for the property. But we’re guessing most people are probably not going to miss these tired and dejected looking buildings.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Built in 1942, about the time NE 42nd Avenue was connected up to Columbia Boulevard and the new Portland airbase, the “Tourist Cabins” and Spur Tavern provided a sought-after home base for servicemen and their families on short assignment and others who needed temporary quarters for seasonal jobs or as a jumping off place into the next chapters of their lives.

When it was first built, from the front door of the Spur you could look out at agricultural fields in every direction. The Cully neighborhood to the south and east was already established and growing. Off to the west, across the open fields of what is today’s Fernhill Park and the eastern edge of the Concordia neighborhood, you could see the Kennedy School. To the north, more farm fields and dairies around the Columbia Slough and a beehive of activity at what was fast becoming the Portland Air Base and the new Portland airport.

The close-in fields and orchards were the livelihood of local families. One family of immigrants from Croatia lived in a 1917 farmhouse at the corner of today’s NE 41st and Highland Street (there was no Highland Street then). Home to the Anna and Josef Ugar family, this farm residence was completely surrounded by fields and orchards, with the nearest neighbor a quarter mile off to the west. You get the idea: this was the outskirts.

One young person who knew this place well and loved it for the adventure, family and community it provided, was Mike Brink, grandson of Anna and Josef Ugar. Mike split his growing up years between his grandparent’s farmhouse just to the west on the hill overlooking the fields, and the “cabin” at the far north end of the line of connected apartments.

Mike’s dad Bill was from Cascade Locks. In the 1930s, while helping build Bonneville Dam, Bill married Kay Ugar. After Mike was born, Bill  shipped off to World War II, so young Mike and his Mom Kay headed home to the Ugar family farm in Northeast Portland. When his dad returned from the service, the young family stayed local, moving across NE 42nd Avenue to rent one of the tourist cabins.

Mike remembers:

“5 million men came home. Many to wives and families they hadn’t seen in years. There were no jobs. Insufficient housing. And many other societal problems. The cabins served a vital function for us. They were a virtual community. Everyone was in the same boat. Those of us who were there for a longer time formed close bonds. The Spur Tavern was a social hub. Some had difficulty finding work and spent too much time there. Others spent all their free time there. Weekends could get out of control at times.”

Mike recalls the modest means of many cabin residents, and how from time to time when rent was hard to come by, the landlord Al Druery, who also ran the Spur Tavern, would cover a family who needed help with groceries until payday.

“He [Al] also collected the rent for the cabins. He lived in the end cabin—#1 – right behind the tavern. I remember him as a harried looking man who looked like he drank too much himself but I don’t remember anyone ever having a real problem with him. I remember if we were low on milk or coffee or bread or some other staple my mom would send me over to the Spur and they would give me what ever we needed and put it on our bill. And all of us worked together to convert the garages to additional living space and finish the interior. Then there would be a big party. There was a rotating weekly pinochle game. It couldn’t have been too bad.”

Mike recalls how the long line of cabins used to include garages, but residents gradually converted them to living space, which was a premium as families grew. Here’s a current photo, and memories from Mike that help evoke that life and times:

Cabin # 7, 6300 NE 42nd Avenue, April 2017. Note the daffodils by the front door, a remnant of more optimistic times.

“We had a ‘hide-a-bed’ couch in the little room you can see through the partially open door. My folks made that up each night and slept on it. I slept in the area to the left of the door on an old wooden and canvas fold up army cot that we made up each night. There was a small table and three chairs behind the couch and a little kitchenette along the back wall. In the northeast corner was a really small ‘bathroom’ with a shower. It was so small my grandfather commented when he came to visit for the first time, ‘That bathroom is so small you have to decide what you are going to do before you go in.’”

“The area to the right of the front window was the garage for the unit next door. There is a wall there now because after a year or so, when that unit became vacant, my father persuaded the landlord to let him enclose that area and finish the inside. We moved into that unit and the finished garage became my parents bedroom. I then got the hide-a-bed in the ‘living room’ of that unit. It also had a real bathroom and a bigger kitchen. We lived there until 1949-one social strata above the Joads!”

The Spur Tavern was the proverbial watering hole where residents of the cabins, servicemen and people passing through stopped in for a beer and a snack. Mike remembers:

“The Spur was a busy place. It was a ‘beer joint’ in the truest sense of the word. A long bar with round swivel seats running south to north with the bartender behind the bar facing west. Pickled eggs in jars on the bar along with ‘punchboards.’ Two pin ball machines and a juke box in the north end. And cigarette smoke so thick I’d have to squint to see my dad when I went to get him. There were a few plywood booths along the west wall and in the south end. There were rest rooms in the southeast corner with a door going out back to the east. They had sandwiches and pickles but I don’t remember any chips. They made coffee but only in the morning and at night. I remember for a while they had ice cream and made milk shakes. But, no one went there for the food. During the period right after WWII jobs were scarce and the Spur was busy pretty much all day. Most of the patrons then, and I remember they all were men, were mostly guys just ‘hangin’ out’. Sippin’ a beer or two, or three. There was rarely any trouble. Evenings were about the same. A little bigger crowd 15-20 maybe, a little noisier but rarely rowdy.  On the weekends, though, it could be busy and noisy and go on late—loud music, loud voices, cigarette smoke and honky tonk women. There were some loud arguments and some fights but I never knew of anything to get really out of control. I think the real problems came much later when the the drug culture took over the cabins and the Spur. I think it had a pretty well known reputation as a crack house.”

Newsprint and photos are always helpful to record the facts, but personal memories like these are what keeps places known and alive, so even after the Spur and tourist cabins have been demolished and hauled off, many indelible memories for Mike Brink will linger on, including this last one related to the end of World War II:

I still remember V-J Day. I was playing catch with my friend Bobby Collins in front of the cabins and traffic on 42nd Street got very heavy with many cars going very fast in both directions, the drivers honking their horns and people hanging out the windows and yelling. I’m sure you know 42nd was the main axis route to the air base. It scared the hell out of me. I ran in the house (cabin) and my mother had the radio on and told me the news.

Thanks for the memories, Mike. We’ll hold onto these so the future can remember the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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