BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last year I wrote a series of posts about the 20th anniversary of my arrival in Portland from New York City in 1997 (after growing up in McMinnville, Oregon). But this year has brought another milestone: 20 years living in one of Portland's great neighborhoods.
In 1998 I was living downtown in an apartment that leaked heavily, so much so that my landlord installed a series of long plastic sheets just underneath the ceiling, almost like transparent Slip 'N Slides, which diverted water through an open window. After having the windows open all winter, it was time to get out of Dodge.
Luckily a coworker was giving up her apartment in Ladd's Addition, the leafy neighborhood just east of the Central Eastside, bounded by Hawthorne Boulevard to the north and Division Street to the south. Within a few weeks, a small group of my uncles and friends helped us move our collection of Goodwill-bought furniture across the river.
It didn't take long to figure out that Ladd's Addition is laid out unlike any other neighborhood in the city, and unlike any neighborhood I've encountered elsewhere.
First platted in 1891, the neighborhood is centered around Ladd Circle, a small park from which eight streets radiate outward like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. To the north, south, east and west are a quartet of smaller green parcels, each featuring scores of roses. What's special about the neighborhood is not so much the green space, although those small park spaces are a lovely place to congregate, but the way the uncommon street platting discourages automobile traffic. Couple that with what is said to be the largest tree canopy in the city (although sadly it has eroded due to Dutch elm disease) and you've got a wonderful place to walk and bike. Indeed, Ladd's Addition is popular with bicyclists, particularly along Ladd Avenue as it moves from the northwest to southeast corner of the neighborhood, allowing a short cut for those heading to points south of Division and east of 20th Avenue.
As Carl Abbott explains in an Oregon Encyclopedia entry on the neighborhood, the land for Ladd's Addition was originally acquired in 1866 by James B. Stephens under terms of the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. For most of those first 15 years the land was hardly settled at all, remaining pasture, even though it was purchased from Stephens by investor and former Portland mayor William Ladd in 1878. But the same year the neighborhood was platted, 1891, saw the incorporation of the then-separate cities of East Portland and Albina as well as the completion of the Madison Street Bridge (now known as the Hawthorne Bridge). Before long, people were building houses.
The land was divided into 32 blocks containing 716 lots. What's also notable is that the blocks are split by service alleys, which according to Abbott were intended to assist the development of Ladd's Addition as an upper status area. Today it means that you will find hardly any garages at the front of houses, which is aesthetically pleasing. By comparison, last week when I visited my sister in San Diego and stayed with her in the popular North Park district, when I'd go for a walk I felt like all I could see were garages, with the houses hidden behind. Here, though, it's just one lovely old house facade after another.
The unconventional street layout was Ladd's own idea, which he apparently developed against the advice of his surveyor. It has been speculated that Ladd copied the plan from Washington, DC. I suppose that could be true because Pierre L'Enfant's circa-1791 plan includes several streets laid out on a diagonal across an otherwise geometric grid, creating a series of traffic circles. But ultimately Ladd's Addition is fairly different, making its circles more prominent and putting them at the center.
William Ladd never got to see his land fill with houses. He died in 1893, and because of the depression plaguing the country from 1882-1885, nothing was built in the two years between Ladd's purchase and his passing. Only in 1905 were the first houses completed, replacing dairy herds. By that time, though, there was a streetcar line running along Hawthorne (completed in 1888), and so development increased near there along the northern edge of Ladd's Addition. In 1908, the Ladd family spun off its holding as the Ladd Estate Company so development of houses could be accelerated. Streets were paved, sidewalks were built, and over a three-year period, the Ladd Estate Company planted 1,600 street trees (mostly American elms, Norway maples, and little-leaf lindens). Those trees would grow to hundreds of feet tall, their branches stretching high above Ladd Avenue to touch each other and form the canopy. That same year, which also saw William Howard Taft defeat William Jennings Bryan for the presidency, the City of Portland began planting roses in the four public squares surrounding Ladd Circle, as part of the city's 1903 Olmsted plan.
To this day, the northern portion of Ladd's Addition is where you'll find the most ambitious houses: large American Foursquares, several Victorians, dating to the 1900s and 1910s. As the neighborhood moves south, there are more modest historic homes, particularly craftsman bungalows, dating more to the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, Ladd's Addition became more diverse, and not just economically. From the 1920s onward, the largely Italian American community that had burgeoned south of Division Street began to fill Ladd's as well, and today there is still evidence of that presence in the form of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church; its original building dates to 1913 and was designed by the noted Portland architect Joseph Jacobberger, who also designed much of the University of Portland and Marylhurst University as well as the still-intact Calumet Building downtown. A new version of St. Philip Neri designed by the great Pietro Belluschi was completed in 1952.
During the 1920s and '30s, Ladd's Addition was also uncommon in that it was open to families of Chinese origin at a time of substantial anti-Asian prejudice. Initially, as Abbott chronicles, the neighborhood, like many in Portland, had written into its deed an exclusion of Japanese and Chinese people living in the neighborhood unless they were servants. Thankfully that changed, and even today there is a Chinese Baptist church on Ladd Circle. Just around the corner is a Lebanese Catholic church, another sign that this became largely an immigrant neighborhood.
In the 1970s came a new threat to the neighborhood: the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, which would have pressed up near the southern edge of the neighborhood. But the freeway's defeat in response to extensive opposition helped give birth to the nation's first modern light rail system, MAX. In 1977, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and the Portland Planning Commission designated Ladd’s Addition as one of the city’s first two Historic Conservation Districts.
When I moved to Ladd's Addition in 1998, one could tell it was a neighborhood in transition: one that had been affordable and perhaps even a bit run down in past decades, as much of the middle class had moved to the suburbs in the midcentury. On a closet door in my apartment one can see the graffiti that was painted over, I've even been told that my building was occupied by drug dealers. Yet even then Ladd's Addition seemed to be mostly occupied by families. But it was also, particularly in those days, a neighborhood where many of the big old houses were shared by groups of young adults, with acoustic guitars played from porches often providing a soundtrack as I walked or biked through its streets.
Perhaps the most famous resident of Ladd's Addition came here just a couple years before I did: the late musician Elliott Smith. He lived in a house on SE 16th Avenue on the south edge of the neighborhood, near Division Street and St. Philip Neri. His song "Punch & Judy" includes a line about driving up and down Division Street (although the chronically-depressed singer's next line is "I used to like it here"). There has always been speculation that Smith, who was born with the first name Steven and changed it while in Portland, took the name Elliott from Elliott Avenue, which runs northeast-southwest from 12th and Division to 20th and Hawthorne. Smith was also photographed in some of the Ladd's Addition rose gardens, and the 2014 documentary about him, Heaven Adores You, includes several beautiful overhead shots of the neighborhood. The 1996 Jem Cohen short film Lucky Three shows Smith performing from his Ladd's Addition house and walking some of its rose gardens (particularly at the 7:17 mark).
As I've walked the streets of Ladd's Addition over the past twenty years, there has been very little physical change with regard to the houses. These historic craftsmans, Tudors and foursquares increasingly have new coats of paint and more affluent residents, but few have been substantially altered. What has changed is the area surrounding the neighborhood. Division Street along the southern edge from 12th to 20th avenues was for much of my time here pretty sleepy, but whether it's the cluster of businesses at 12th (including the renovated Ford Building) or the one at 20th anchored around a New Seasons grocery store, there are a bevy of dining and retail options that didn't used to be there. Along the northwest edge at 12th and Hawthorne is now the popular Cartopia food cart pod, as well as a cluster of popular eateries like Lardo. The blocks to the west, part of the Central Eastside, are seeing warehouses convert from light industrial to creative office space.
The trees and parks themselves aren't as plentiful and abundant as they used to be. This neighborhood was the first in Oregon to implement a community-based tree inoculation program in response to Dutch elm disease under the Save our Elms campaign. Since 1986 volunteers have planted 600 new street trees. Unfortunately it's not enough to truly maintain the cathedral-like tree canopy, because it takes nearly a century to grow to that height. What's more, recently the City of Portland ceased all funding for maintenance of the century-old rose gardens in Ladd's Addition's four small squares. So far I've been unsuccessful getting an interview with the head of Portland Parks & Recreation, but my anecdotal understanding is that the cut has to do with equity: now-affluent Ladd's may have received a disproportionate amount of parks funding in the past, and perhaps there is an expectation that its residents will take up responsibility for maintenance in the city's absence. I'm all for equity, but in the sense of all neighborhoods and parks receiving adequate maintenance funding, not shifting where the cuts are made.
Every year I wonder if it will be my last trip through the calendar in Ladd's Addition. Living in a rental apartment means one is subject to the whims of a landlord when it comes to rent increases, and as has been the case all over the city, in recent years they've become bigger and more frequent. Even so, with just over a month to go until my 20th anniversary in Ladd's Addition, I'm still here, and thankful to have spent so much time among such beauty, both natural and architectural.