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.

 

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