A Portrait of Portland

One of Louisville’s oldest, poorest neighborhoods goes under the LEO microscope

Apr 14, 2010 at 5:00 am
A Portrait of Portland
Photo by Ron Jasin

— I. —

On a typically gray, overcast February afternoon, my mother and I sit in her van across the street from a vacant residential lot on North 29th Street.

“There it is,” she says, tapping the driver-side window. “Five-sixteen. It was the first home we owned. My dad bought it for $10,000, I think, if you can even imagine that today. Now it’s, well …” She waves her hand at the empty patch of land, overrun with wild grass and errant garbage, laughing softly to herself. “Do you want to get out and take a picture of it?”

“A picture?” I ask. “You mean of nothing?”

“Funny,” she says.

I exit the idling vehicle and snap a few photos of nothingness, noting that the two homes flanking the barren property aren’t looking so hot, either. Maybe it’s the effect of the gloomy weather, whose diffuse, antiseptic light exposes the city’s rougher textures; but something about this place suggests the weak shadows cast by foreclosed homes, chunks of displaced concrete and sagging telephone poles are permanent fixtures of the landscape itself, as if the shadows somehow persist after sundown. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

My mother is taking me on a haphazard driving tour of Portland, which has in effect become a tour of the landmarks of her childhood. She points out old haunts, friends’ homes, streets where she’d ride her bike that now resemble third-world communities, the church on Market Street where she volunteered on bingo nights just to catch glimpses of the boy she was crushing on, the Portland Library where she’d spend hours reading and drawing pictures, the bar (Angelo’s) where her father spent too much time, two still-standing bushes that she and a friend had dubbed “Bunnytail Palace,” located just yards away from a massive BASF chemical plant.

As it turns out, Bunnytail Palace is right next door to another home — also razed and long gone — where my mother, her six older siblings and her parents lived when she was 11. The make-believe palace was a sort of refuge where she would play, pretend and escape what she considered a not-so-happy childhood — a better alternative to her tiny backyard, which was virtually destroyed by runoff from the BASF facility, then owned by Harshaw Chemical Co. “This sulphur smell would kind of ‘bubble up’ out of the lawn,” she says. “Whatever the hell that stuff was, it killed the grass and cracked the soil like those dry plains in Africa.”

By the time she was 18, my mother’s childhood predilection for fantasy escapism gave way to the real thing: After briefly living in her first apartment at 710 Cedar Grove, she met and married my father, and shortly thereafter they bought a modest home on the outskirts of Germantown. With her siblings having already migrated eastward in kind, and her father long dead from the combined effects of cancer and alcoholism, my grandmother Velma followed suit, abandoning the home at 516 N. 29th St. to the forces of urban decay.

For all intents and purposes, Portland had ceased to exist for her family, and, by extension, it had ceased to exist for me as well.

Although she says the Portland of today largely resembles the one of her ‘60s youth — dilapidated housing stock, persistent crime and poverty, a sense of psychic doom — the modern-day, post-apocalyptic trappings that color my mother’s perception are a far cry from the proud and bustling river town that gave rise to Louisville’s economic supremacy nearly a century ago. The striking disconnect between the area’s ridiculously rich past and its depressing present not only call into question the commitment of Louisville Metro to the neighborhood’s ongoing (and largely self-funded) revitalization efforts, but perhaps most importantly illustrates the way in which the city has generally dealt with any West End community for the past 50 years: by not really dealing with them at all, for the most part, because areas west of Ninth Street are to economic investment what St. Patrick is to snakes.

— II. —

For most of LEO’s readership, Portland probably exists as a kind of “wrong turn” in your head, whereby you only find yourself there by accident or some other GPS-related hiccup while en route to, say, the Glassworks Building or Caufield’s Novelties. Bounded by 10th Street to the east, I-264 to the west, Market Street to the south and the Ohio River to the north, Portland is probably just as much a mystery to you as it is to me. For our smaller-but-exponentially hipper readership, you might spend some discretionary income at Carter Street’s Unique Thrift, or at the occasional art shows hosted by Nelligan Hall, or for a tour of Portland’s antebellum Marine Hospital, but the overarching sentiment is that it’s just another fucked up neighborhood in the fucked up West End, and one that you’ll want to get out of ASAP before dark — unless, of course, you’re in the market for Boone Square’s discount prostitutes, then by all means: Please support the local economy.

If you’ve ever studied a map of Louisville, the first thing that’s immediately noticeable about Portland is how its street grid runs diagonally to that of Louisville’s urban core — a feature due to Portland’s early independent development as a town in its own right. In fact, if history had gone a little differently, then the rest of our Louisville’s roads might be skewed to the 45-degree angles drawn out by Portland’s original surveyor, Alexander Ralston.

Due to its prominent location just beyond the Falls of the Ohio, Portland was able to handsomely reap the rewards of heavy steamboat trade in the early 1800s better than neighboring peers Shippingport and Louisville, and within a few years of its inception, the town’s residential lots had already been subdivided to accommodate a booming working-class population. By 1830, however, Portland’s infrastructure began to shift toward the industrial with the advent of the Louisville-Portland Canal, which would allow steamboats to bypass the falls and, therefore, reach neighboring Louisville with greater ease. A few years later, the advent of railroads further altered Portland’s growth, beginning with the construction of the Lexington-Portland Railroad up to the massive Northern-suffolk Railyard, which currently dominates 20-plus city blocks of Portland-proper.

Unscrupulous Louisville businessmen sought to keep their money-making stranglehold on river traffic by blocking the creation of a Louisville rail line, which prompted Portland to offer its annexation — and accompanying rail lines — as a sort of developmental compromise. By the 1860s, many Southern cities were reeling from the devastation wrought by the Civil War, and Portland’s unscathed Water Street was the commercial dynamo of the region, featuring many ornate, multi-story buildings not unlike those found on Louisville’s West Main Street. The Irish potato famine sent thousands of families packing for America, including “The Kentucky Giant” Jim Porter, who operated several taverns in Portland and Shippingport. Also around this time, Portland became known as something of a major hub on the underground railroad and served as a critical gateway for runaway slaves seeking northward passage across the Ohio River.

Then came the flood of 1937 that buried virtually all of Portland under hundreds of thousands of tons of water and mud, from which the neighborhood — and much of the West End — has never fully recovered. The affluence and commercial might once integral to Portland’s early character headed for the East End’s higher elevations, leaving the rabble of poor blacks and whites to deal with the aftermath. With the construction of a flood wall in the late ’40s, and a hideous riverfront interstate highway installed just a decade later, the glories of Water Street were forever drowned and left to ruin, effectively destroying the center of economic gravity whose reverberations are still felt, if not seen, to this day. In less than 100 years, Portland was severed from the very river that had given it life.

The Louisville race riots of the late ’60s and early ’70s effectively cemented Portland’s place in the West End. When combined with the then-new Ninth Street interstate connector, the result was that Louisville’s whites, who were by default the more affluent race in the city, didn’t spend a dime to alleviate the mounting woes of burgeoning inner-city poverty, under-education and dearth of viable health care that began overwhelming the West End. (It also didn’t help that Louisville’s mayor at the time, William Stansbury, was cavorting in Louisiana, but hey, what can you do? Corruption can’t spend the money all by itself.)

Nowadays, statistics only confirm the worst assumptions about the neighborhood: More than 60 percent of Portland’s housing stock was built prior to 1939, and as of the 2000 census, the poverty rate was 33 percent — nearly three times higher than the Louisville Metro average, and likely much higher now in the wake of America’s Great Recession. Renter-owned, Section-8 housing is also significantly higher here than the Louisville average despite recent citywide efforts toward creating affordable and decidedly less-depressing housing — projects like Liberty Green, Park DuValle and the upcoming Sheppard Square redevelopments — which have occurred in virtually every decaying urban Louisville neighborhood besides this one.

Although Portland’s sorry state is attributable to the deleterious effects of federal “urban renewal” programs, a lack of affordable transportation alternatives and the indifference of city officials over five decades, there does exist a meme in the Louisville psyche that, for whatever reason, the people of Portland are themselves to blame. They are, goes the meme, too dumb, too lazy and too far gone to help themselves, so why should we?

Case-in-point: A recent FOX-41 news story touched upon the phenomenon of so-called “phantom trash” finding its way into semi-abandoned Portland properties; a key scene showing an open garage filled with all manner of debris and garbage. The gist of the FOX piece was two-fold, namely: 1) Holy shit, can you believe what these animals allow to happen in their own communities? and 2) Don’t worry, The System is working fine, city-provided help is on the way, as always ...

“It was just ludicrous,” says Natalie Andrews of the Portland Museum. “I mean, they make it sound like we can’t help ourselves and that the cavalry is on its way to save us when, quite frankly, there is no cavalry, and there likely won’t be. It’s like we’re a pack of wild dogs or something and that if the city ever threw us a bone, we’d only fight each other for it.”

Andrews, a short woman in her 50s with closely cropped graying hair, has worked at the museum in some capacity for more than 30 years. Along with fellow curator Jessica Dawkins, the pair is pretty much responsible for every aspect of the museum’s operation: curation, maintenance, promotion, archives, designing exhibits, grant writing, finances, clearing phantom-trash out of their alley, etc. For what seems like an exhausting, perhaps at-times overwhelming position, Andrews’ passion for Portland appears to compensate for it. Although not a resident of the neighborhood, Andrews knows Portland as much as anybody can know any place. She tells me about the museum and how it was a residential mansion of sorts, which was expanded and is undergoing much-needed renovations, including a climate-control system to better protect its collection of John James Audubon oil paintings.

She tells me of the dire fiscal straights currently facing the museum, whose continued operation rests squarely on Andrews’ prolific grant-writing abilities and the generous donations of patrons. Andrews didn’t want to go into great detail here, but everything the museum has done or is doing — including an underfunded, piece-meal restoration of the Squire Erick home, which was built in 1811 and is a Louisville landmark — is ultimately undermined and made all the more difficult by a lack of city funding.

“We haven’t suffered from donations being down,” says Andrews, “but it means we’re closed a lot. It’s just the two of us here.”

Andrews also tells me the story of Portland Wharf Park, for which she wrote numerous grants at the behest of then-Mayor David Armstrong, who strongly supported the proposal and the neighborhood. In a nutshell, the proposed Portland Wharf Park was envisioned as a kind of interactive archaeological site, whose location above the submerged and wonderfully intact Water Street would provide visitors a window into a past that, for many, never existed. Andrews, Armstrong and then-Parks Director Bridget Sullivan headed down to New Orleans in 2000 for the City Park Forum, which selected Wharf Park as the best proposal submitted. The project also was awarded a Preserve America grant, becoming the first neighborhood museum in the country to receive one, as well as a National Leadership grant due to the park’s emphasis on engaging area youth in the park’s planning process. At the time, the park was projected to open in 2011 in time for Portland’s bicentennial

When asked if this deadline is realistic, Andrews simply laughs.

In 2003, when Louisville’s government annexed Jefferson County, Armstrong did not run for re-election. Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson took over and Sullivan was let go in the resulting dynasty shift. It soon became clear that all of the work and money allocated for Portland Wharf Park simply wasn’t going to materialize, chiefly because Louisville’s post-merger priorities lay elsewhere. The last piece of city-subsidized funding awarded by Armstrong (some $300,000) was eventually spent on the Iroquois Amphitheater instead. Andrews says there’s $28,000 in federal grant money sitting in a bank account in Washington, D.C., that is still awaiting a matching contribution from Metro Parks in order to be dispersed and thusly move the project forward. Via phone message, Metro Parks spokesman Jason Cissell says the Wharf Park is a “long-term project” and that it will “require much additional funding” before it sees the light of day, given the park’s ambitious nature.

When the city demolished the Cotter and Lang housing projects to make way for the aforementioned Park DuValle mixed-use community, most of the nouveau homeless refugees fled for the Clarksdale projects, but a great many of them landed in Portland, taxing the already-strained housing supply and fueling misperceptions that the neighborhood was little more than a nasty, crime-ridden cold sore on the city’s polished, Derby-belle face.

Five years ago, a mayoral task force informed Andrews and Portland’s neighborhood association, Portland Now!, that they would be eligible for $2 million in housing funds if they drafted a comprehensive neighborhood plan. So they did, with the help of the Center for Neighborhoods, but when all was said and done, the money wound up being spent on Clarksdale 2.0, aka Liberty Green, instead. By the time the recession officially hit Louisville, Portland was awarded $750,000 via the Obama administration’s goodly intentioned but flawed Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which requires the money to be spent quickly or not at all, and puts Louisville Metro in charge of disbursing it. True to form, Metro has so far suggested using the money to fund temporary housing projects that aren’t included in the very revitalization plan they asked Portland to draft just a few years earlier, which would only serve to perpetuate the problems Andrews & Co. have worked so hard to alleviate on their own.

If you’re picking up on a pattern of sorts here — ignore, rinse, repeat — it’s only because you’re starting to realize that what has happened to Portland, Shippingport and large swaths of the West End has, in fact, been allowed to happen for decades.

— III. —

There’s a saying in this neighborhood, “Portland is people,” that I wanted to test firsthand. So, on a bright, sunshine-drenched morning, I drove through downtown to the 2700 block of West Main to meet with several members of Portland Now! Until you hit 25th Street, the cityscape is a bombed-out nightmare of crumbling historic structures and open-air poverty, but for whatever reason, the vibe on these last few blocks somehow manages to evade the West End bleakness that has thus far dominated my perception.

In the immaculate, three-story brick home of Portland Now! members Judy and Gary Watrous, the PN! intelligentsia is sipping coffee and eating chocolate doughnuts. Despite their collective whiteness, they are a varied bunch: an architect, a Circuit Court clerk, a social worker, a communications coordinator and a program manager for Metro United Way, and the thing they all have in common is that they live, breathe, eat and sleep Portland.

Formed in 1980 in the wake of other, disparate Portland neighborhood organizations, Portland Now!, like any such group faced with the challenges of tackling poverty and crime, has its work cut out for it. To get a good idea of what they’re up against, they’ve helped spearhead a public relations campaign specific to the neighborhood whose tagline proclaims: “Most Portland youth DON’T use drugs!” If this is the kind of message you are compelled to spread about your community to shore up economic investment, then something is clearly wrong.

“It would be wonderful to do this kind of campaign in the East End, in the Highlands,” says Susan Crook, the marketing strategist for the Portland Now Prevention Partnership who helped craft the PR campaign. “But it just so happens there are perceptions about teens and substance abuse all over the city, specifically in Portland,” Crook continues. “So these ads, which are based on statistical data from public schools and compiled by Seven Counties, helps defend against that (misconception). What’s more, if a child in Portland sees that positive message, it will make him or her that less likely to use drugs and, hopefully, help break the cycle.”

Regarding Portland’s bad wrap, Judy Watrous says, simply, “Desperate people do desperate things, and if somebody is selling drugs here it’s because they cannot get a real job that, in reality, would pay them less money than selling the drugs would.”

Aside from PR-campaigns, trash pick-ups coordinated with the local police auxiliary and the ever-persistent writing of grants that will likely be mismanaged by Metro bureaucracy, Watrous says they’ve been ridding the area of vice, one house at a time.

“We were successful at the house next door,” she says, “which was for about a year just another drug house.” She describes the story of her neighbor, who grew up on the block, raised her kids there and was a friend of the Watrous family for ages. After losing her job on Christmas Eve, the friend made a desperate and hysterical call to them, saying she had no way to pay her heating bill. “So we did the Portland thing,” Watrous says, “and just ran an electrical wire over to her house.”

The Band-Aid was only symbolic, however, as the neighbor was forced to make ends meet by resorting to prostitution, whereupon she became addicted to hard drugs and wound up in the control of an abusive pimp. The final straw came when Gary Waltrous confronted the pimp on the neighbor’s front porch, who was beating an “employee” at the time. With the aid of police over several months, the Watrouses and Portland Now! were able to bring the offending parties to justice, and, when all was said and done, the neighbor finished her prison time, got clean and was reunited with her children, whom were held by the state the entire time.

Like most crime, the crime that afflicts Portland is borne out of economic inequality and the resulting social injustices perpetrated by that inequality. While crime prevention is of utmost concern to Portland Now!, their efforts are focused on the systemic obstacles that make selling crack or turning tricks an economic first and last resort for many area residents. As such, their advocacy of sustainable housing, economic investment and infrastructure improvement is well placed, although given their limited resources, their hands are decidedly tied.

In conjunction with Portland’s councilwoman, Cheri Bryant-Hamilton, D-5, Portland Now! successfully designated any future development in the neighborhood as “Category 3,” which in the esoteric parlance of the Department of Housing and Urban Development code means residents have control over what types of housing is built and, more importantly, why. This was in response to out-of-state, for-profit companies like Samson Homes taking advantage of depressed real estate and building atrocious Section-8 housing — a practice that again conflicts with the neighborhood’s revitalization plan, and was allowed to happen mainly because the city really wasn’t paying too much attention.

Portland Now! President Jennifer Strane-Harris knows what it’s like to grow up in substandard housing and doesn’t want to see any more of it in Portland than there already is. Originally from the South End, Strane-Harris relocated to Portland shortly after her youngest child developed lead poisoning from drinking tap water and became an advocate for lead poisoning awareness. Since her relocation, she has developed more into the person she wants to be, and uses her platform as president to dismiss any misconceptions people have about renters, whom are generally spat upon within the nation’s equity-crazed, mortgage-heavy upper-middle class.

“I want my child to graduate from poverty,” she says, “not to fall deeper into it.”

Over the course of doughnuts and coffee, I learn a lot about the neighborhood: The bell tower of Portland Presbyterian — the lone survivor of a devastating fire — is finding a new home in the “old Kroger,” which has sat dormant for years; the Marine Hospital actually wasn’t for Marines but for mariners, aka river folk; and despite everything they’ve tried to do, the city and bureaucratic red tape keeps them exactly where they are for the most part. One gets the feeling that being left up shit creek without a paddle is something they’re used to by now and, for better or for worse, that they have learned to make the best with what they’ve got.

— IV. —

“The only place you can even get a LEO out here is the Chevron at 22nd and Lytle,” says Portland resident and PN! member John Owen. “But it sure is nice when you guys come and visit.”

An outspoken and, at times, cantankerous advocate for his adopted neighborhood, Owen relocated to Portland in 2001 because, as he puts it, “Why the hell not?” He is a retired broadcaster for the former WAVE-AM radio station, and says he was pissed about the FOX-41 story. Summing up the discontent of Portlanders thusly, says Owen, “We’re the dumping ground for whatever the city doesn’t want. If you can’t put it anywhere else, put it in Portland. We’ve fallen through the cracks. “

Owen cites the redistricting of Portland as the primary means by which it was allowed to disappear, specifically in that it forces Councilwoman Bryant-Hamilton to serve two masters: one white, the other black.

“After the Board of Alderman cut it up, no representative had enough of Portland to give a damn,” says Owen. “I mean, do you think we get the same services that neighborhoods like Clifton or the Highlands get? They’ve got nice, wrought-iron trashcans out there. We’re lucky to get a wire bucket.

“Really,” he continues, “If you want to paint a certain picture of Louisville to a visitor exiting the interstate at Ninth Street, you can tell them to turn left where they’ll see the Glassworks district. But if you tell them to turn right, they’ll see a burnt-out warzone. It’s damning to the current administration and to the council to allow the decay to continue any further than it already has.”

As Owen elaborates on the problems plaguing Portland, he inadvertently sheds light on longstanding racial prejucides in the neighborhood.

“Cheri and I are good friends,” Owen says, noting that he filed to run against her but, as it turned out, the local GOP didn’t care much for funding a West End council campaign. “She needs to have more events for (Portland). Sad to say, but there are some folks in Portland who won’t come out to Shawnee.”

I ask him why. Owen leans in and says, “Because her mother was part of a group in the ’68 riots that tried to blow up Portland. I bet you didn’t know that.”

Dumbfounded, I ask him what that has to do with the Portland-Shawnee disconnect in District-5. Owen cocks an eyebrow: “You can’t tell me that’s not going to influence what people think about her.”

The gist of Owen’s claim is thus:

In 1968, during the Louisville riots started and escalated by baton-happy police, six African-Americans were arrested and charged with, among other things, sewing the seeds of violence and for apparently trying to launch an all-out offensive on Portland, ostensibly by blowing it up with dynamite. A trial was held for this so-called “Black Six” in Munfordville, Ky., and after two years, the wrongfully accused civil rights activists were acquitted of all charges. One of those activists was Cheri Bryant-Hamilton’s mother, Ruth Bryant. Whether this factoid affects your opinion of Councilwoman Bryant-Hamilton’s performance for her district largely depends, I think, on where your racial sensitivities lie.

As Judy Watrous explained to me, it’s easy for some people who live in Portland to blame their problems on those who look different, if only because that’s an easier path. As a result, Portland has had something of a reputation for being hostile to blacks for generations.

“If you were black, you simply didn’t go into Portland if you didn’t have to,” says longtime Portland resident Dorothy Dunlap, who is African-American. “It was very segregated, but the whites who lived around us never treated us badly or anything. They even watched our family dog whenever we’d go out of town.

“I guess then we didn’t realize we had so much in common,” says Dunlap.

When asked about racial tensions in Portland, Bryant-Hamilton sets the record straight.

“Historically, Portland was a no-man’s zone for black people,” she says, “except for a small area where black folks lived. Black folks have not felt welcome (in Portland), that might be true, but anything having to do with my mother is simply ... I won’t even comment on it. I am proud of what my family has done in this community and for the civil rights movement. All the (Black Six) was about was trying to get affordable housing in the city, nothing more.”

Acknowledging the racial politics of the district, Bryant-Hamilton says it’s always been a challenge. “Shively and other areas of the South End have that same diversity. I would say my district is very compact,” she says. “It’s not as spread out, though, and people are on top of each other which is never good regardless of race.

“There have been racial incidents that have occurred over the years,” she continues. “But people are overcoming some stereotypes now. I recently named the District 5 community service award for (longtime Portland resident, activist and white person) Molly Leonard. She cared about the whole community, and I don’t think she saw black or white. I figured something in the name of Molly would extend the openness to everyone in my district.”

Bryant-Hamilton is trying to model her district on the Harlem Children Zone, which according to its website creates a “tipping point in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to ‘the street’ and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior.” The Harlem Children Zone has been imminently successful, and if emulated here would go a long way toward solving the problems that affect white and black alike.

But then that old pattern threatens to rear its head again — ignore, rinse, repeat — and cutting past all the racial bullshit, anything planned for Portland, and by proxy for the West End, be it a project for blacks, whites or both, will simply not happen unless there’s federal money subsidizing the investment or McDonald’s has decided to further compete with itself. It’s an element of common ground shared by both Owen and Bryant-Hamilton. But if the neighborhood’s chief organization and its Metro Council representative have to fight a city that routinely forgets their existence, what else can be done?

“It’ll take people like your mother coming back to Portland and shaking their fists,” Owen tells me.

Owen is only half right, however: My mother doesn’t have the capital investment prowess of, say, Gill Holland.

Louisville’s green auteur is no stranger to defying the conventional wisdom that has dominated the River City for eons, so much so that Louisville has experienced the slowest rate of growth compared to regional peers Cincinnati and Nashville lo this past decade. He turned seedy East Market Street into the city’s up-and-coming “walkable district,” a la Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue, replete with art galleries, coffee shops and something approaching affordable housing, though not quite yet — largely without any help from the city whatsoever.

Now, Holland has set his sights on Portland. His purchase of a weirdly shaped but imminently charming two-story brick structure at the intersections of 15th, Bank and Rowan signaled the first commercial investment in the area that wasn’t a payday loan shop or a low-density industrial warehouse.

“It’s one of my favorite buildings in town,” Holland says. “Plus, it’s also at the gateway to Portland, specifically the warehouse district on 15th Street. It will be the rock in the pond that creates ripples throughout the rest of the district.”

Holland’s timeline puts him two years off from casting this developmental stone, in large part because it’s the amount of time his East Market “NuLu” district will need to have ideally grown its own legs, so to speak, allowing Holland to start the process elsewhere.

“Once (NuLu) has had its transformation, the question is, where’s the next area of town? For me, it’s Portland/Shippingport. You’re literally eight blocks from 21c, the No. 1 hotel in the nation, and the west side of Louisville. There’s no good reason why that area isn’t booming already.” No good reason, yes, but plenty of bad.

Holland is in talks with Shine Properties to start “either a for-profit or a nonprofit, we’re really not sure yet,” which will buy up the neighborhood’s shotgun houses in an effort to preserve one of the nation’s largest caches of such architectural styles. Calling it “Save Our Shotguns,” Holland plans to shore up about $4 million with the intent of purchasing the at-risk houses, fixing them up and offering them back to the community at affordable rates.

“There are two demo notices next to the building that we bought,” he says of Louisville’s love affair with the wrecking ball. “You can’t fight every battle. But in the long term, I’d like to set up some kind of LLC, maybe raise $2 million-$4 million and buy 50 of them in a four-block radius to try to get a plurality. I know that the cynical person doesn’t believe any developer could work without a profit motive, but my whole thing is, if you can devote some time and money and transform a district and get your money back, isn’t that worth it, then? As opposed to charging people more and gentrifying it? I feel like there’s a way to do both.”

As it stands, Portland still has a long way to go before Holland’s dream, and the money it will bring with it, will refocus the city’s attention to the other side of Ninth Street. Until then, Portland Wharf Park remains just as amorphous — a muddy patch of forgotten land and the history that sleeps beneath it.

— V. —

Shortly before this story was due, I took another trip to the Portland Museum to track down a historical quote that Natalie Andrews recommended I get. It was from one of Portland’s innumerable famous residents, Father John Lyons, and the quote can be found near the museum’s entrance on a placard leaning against the wall. As I began transcribing the text, two kids burst through the rear door, followed by co-curator Jessica Dawkins. They were all covered in dirt. Oddly enough, the kids, who were bored and on spring break, stopped by to volunteer at the museum, so Dawkins and Andrews put them to work sorting the piles of discarded brick that, like most trash in Portland, simply appears out of nowhere, and had been dumped in their alley. Judging by the beaming looks on their faces, the children were having the kind of fun that only children can have with such menial tasks.

My transcription was interrupted further by a happenstance encounter with a group of Portland elders, who were gathered there on a special occasion: To listen to the audio recordings made from their oral histories of the neighborhood. The museum, working off yet another grant, had hired a theater director and a local writer to create fictionalized accounts of these residents’ histories. The aged Portlanders, seated around the table and as diverse as their neighborhood, quietly listened. I sat with them for a few moments, listening, and by the time I finished writing down that quote, I think I finally understood what it’s trying to say, even if my mother cannot. It reads:

There is a spirit of loyalty that is more pronounced in the people of Portland ... a love for this section of the city which compels the inhabitants to cling to it, which incites the youth to dwell in the house of his father and his father’s father. There is a spirit of friendliness, too, the like of which is hardly found in any other part of the city. Perhaps the river, which has brought so much sorrow and distress, has bound these people to one another and to the very land which it has tried to take away from them.