Portland Names And Neighborhoods: Their Historic Origins, by Eugene E. Snyder
This is the sort of book whose title seems a bit dry and dull, and honestly few people would pick up a book like this unless they had a particular interest in Portland (Oregon) and its history. This particular book was published in 1979, a couple of years before I was born, and is the third book by the author on Portland history (I have not read the other two, but reading this book did make me interested in doing so), and far exceeded my modest expectations with a surprising amount of wit and humor as well as the ability to provide a great deal of historical insight into the psyche of Portland as a city that can be revealed from its neighborhoods, roads, schools, and parks, and the origin of their names.
This book is organized in such a way that it begins (perhaps a bit defensively) by justifying the legitimacy of looking at place names as way of looking at the history of a place, and then looking at the way in which Portland was platted by developers, and how it annexed towns and unincorporated communities and imposed a sense of order on what was initially a rather chaotic plan. The vast majority of the book is a scholarly and also often entertaining look at the origin of the various street names that are found in the city of Portland. There are a variety of names that come from England, New England, California, and Virginia (as can be expected). Other names come from trees, local and national historical figures, and a lot of relatives of developers (a lot of wives and daughters, besides the developers themselves, have been honored with street names).
To the author’s credit, what could have been a very dull recounting of names like “Easy Street” (a small two-block alleyway) and their origins becomes a humorous work thanks to the skill and style of the author. For example, the author delights in pointing out any connection to Portland can be found by anyone whose name is recorded in the city (even figures like William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, who are so famous that they do not need introduction). The author also digs up some fascinating anecdotes about very obscure people, including a police officer killed in duty in 1941 whose name became attached to a park in Albina and a street named after a fellow who was cheated out of some real estate wealth after his estranged wife and son died intestate, and who later left town embittered. My favorite anecdote is something that, if I am fortunate, may be thought or said about me someday, said about George Law Curry, namesake for a street in the SW part of Portland on page 117 of this 250-page work: “In private life and among his neighbors and personal acquaintances, Gov. Curry was universally esteemed and, by those most intimate with him, he was regarded with affection. His affable and courteous manner, his fine conversational powers, and his well-stored mind made him an agreeable companion. He was everywhere recognized as a true gentleman and an honest man.” And this was a eulogy from a political opponent! I want to be remembered in such a way myself.
If there is one fault in this work, it is a flaw that this book could be easily (and profitably) updated as a way of discussing the influence of Portland’s place names on public culture in shows like The Simpsons (whose character names were taken largely from street names like Quimby, Lovejoy, and Homer, among others) or Portlandia. Since this book was written well before the Simpsons came out, this shortcoming is no fault of the author, but rather a result of the way in which Portland’s place names have even more relevance in the larger culture of the United States (and other places) than was the case when the book was written. These references make this book (especially if it can be updated to the present time to account for the last three decades of growth by Portland) worthwhile to a larger audience than may be initially aware of it. Those who do pick up this book, though, whether out of idle curiosity or a desire to better understand the history of Portland as reflected in its place names, will not only be informed but will also find much to amuse them with dry wit and gentle irony. One can only wonder why other major cities are not honored with such delicacy and skill, but at the same time, this is a book well worth appreciating, especially for those of us looking to gain local knowledge about Portland, and an exercise that could be profitably done for many other cities as well.