Portland Waterfront 1980 through the Present Day

Nina Crow
Written by Nina Crow

1980 to the Present Day

Some Odds and Ends of My Own

The mechanization and containerization of the waterfront took away a lot of the character (and characters) that gave it much of its charm. The job of longshoring went from being a new experience with each new trip to the hiring hall to being a day job, 8am to 5pm with overtime on the weekends, if you wanted it, showing up to the same workplace, using the same skills, day after day. One longshoreman is quoted as saying:

The extraordinary strength of the Union had been built by the social relationships that had been fashioned amongst the members by reason of the hiring hall and the nature of the work. And we lost that one with the 9.43 [‘Steady Man’ clause].

Herb Mills (Transforming the Waterfront, San Francisco and Oakland, California)

This has been my own experience of coming to things a little on the late side. I came to Portland with my family in 1966, just in time to see urban renewal hit and the face of the city to change dramatically. The river still smelled bad, but I was used to that sort of thing, having lived in Yokohama, Japan, most of my life. By the time I was hired to work for the USDA on the waterfront, most of the old timers were on the way out, and a new breed of longshoreman was coming on board, the sons and nephews of the old timers. Some of them were even Republicans, a fact that I hope never came to the attention of Harry Bridges before he went to his reward in 1990. It would have broken his heart.

Entering into the life of the waterfront was an entirely new and unexpected experience for me. During my second day on the job at Globe dock (by then called LDC by us new folk), I saw a man lying sprawled prostrate on the deck of the ship. I ran to the office to alert them to call an ambulance. One of the bosses walked over to the window and pulled open the Venetian blind and looked across to the ship.

“Oh, that’s just old so and so.” (even if I remembered the man’s nickname, I wouldn’t use it here) The boss said.

“Well, what’s wrong with him?” I gasped, bug eyed and confused.

The boss looked at me, slightly amused, and said, “About two fifths.”

During the next several years I would come to see drinking and wild antics that would make my own Haight Ashbury teenage years look mild by comparison. There was a feeling like this was the end of something, a grand era, and it was time to celebrate in the morbid sort of way men sometimes celebrate a tragedy. These characters, each with his own distinctive moniker, had lost out in the end. They had more money than they knew what to do with, but the faceless machine of international commerce had taken away their liberty and had given them in return an occupation—a day job. Everyone watched each other’s backs and the antics went on unchecked.

I remember one night working on the barge at T4 when I looked down the dock to see a man coming to work waddling down the wharf. Old timers will recognize who I mean immediately. He weighed no less than 500 pounds in his gigantic coveralls, and he was carrying his “lunch”, a half gallon of white rum in one hand, and a gallon of orange juice in the other. He stuck his head in the door of the barge shack and said:

“Hi, my name’s _____ _____ . How the hell are you? Have a drink!” and he proceeded to stick the half gallon of rum in my face. A nice enough guy. He was famous for having put away a case of beer at 10-o-clock coffee break one day while working a log raft. He kept a freezer full of quarts at home with the temperature turned to 32 degrees, in case he wanted a beer after work. When he had chicken dinner, his wife cooked everyone invited their own entire chicken (with fixings), and when you were offered a beer you got a nice cold quart covered with little ice crystals. Living large, I believe it is called.

What I miss most about my early days on the waterfront was listening to the stories of the old timers. For instance, I can remember working at Terminal 4 hearing the old timers talk about why China will not trust the wheat sold by the United States. They told about an operation that went on for years at that elevator where wheat would come into the elevator covered with the black spores of the Fusarium fungi commonly called “smut.” Smutty wheat could be washed to make it less smutty and blended in with other, quality wheat and sold at a premium price.

Well it seems that in the early 1950s there was an elevator manager who had little regard for the Communist Chinese and a high regard for making a quick buck. He would take the good grain destined to meet the contractual agreements with the Chinese and load it out on to trucks that would drive out the gates of the terminal, turn onto Lombard, drive down into Saint Johns, and come back to the terminal with the proper paper work to be unloaded as new product. In the meanwhile the silos full of smutty grain would be loaded onto the China-bound vessels, making a huge profit for the manager. Workers involved in the process, including the Oregon State Grain Division inspectors were kept greased with bribes–bottles of booze, twenty dollar bills. Everyone was happy, except the Chinese who have long memories and are still too suspicious of our system to be a big grain buyer.

Stories like this were enjoyable, and explained some of the reasons for the way things worked (or didn’t work) in the business, but if called before a House Committee on Agriculture to testify to the validity of stories like this, or even the names of the people telling them, I would be of no help. I simply didn’t take notes in those days, which is really too bad because I could fill a large book with what I heard.

And then there were the hookers. I remember a steady stream of prostitutes of all sizes and shapes getting out of taxis and going onto the ships. It didn’t matter which dock, and if there was a guard at the gate, they were never stopped in those days. There was one sad case in particular, a woman everyone called, “Dirty Legs” who had apparently worked the ships since she was a young teen. She would wander the docks, decks, and parking lots offering to do anything for a big discount.

One day shortly after I started work, a bright new Lincoln town car pulled up on the dock and a half dozen young girls, I mean young, like thirteen or fourteen, went on board the ship with a kid who looked like someone’s ten year old brother. Soon the kid came back to the Lincoln and handed the pimp inside a wad of bills and went back to the ship. My righteous indignation was roused so I went to the pay phone and called the Portland Police vice squad. I told the officer on the end of the line what was going on. I told him all he needed to do was stand on the sidewalk of the Steel Bridge and he could observe the whole sordid process. The officer then asked me about the race of the girls and the race of the sailors on the ship. I told him the girls were African American and the sailors were Chinese. He then made a racial joke about both races and laughed in my ear and hung up the phone. I had a lot to learn about the world back then, but in retrospect I should have called the Oregon State Children’s Protective Agency, I may have gotten a better result.

When I first started work on the waterfront there was no such thing as men’s and women’s toilets, there was a place we called “the can.” The two or three women who worked for the USDA would have to have someone stand guard while they used “the can.” And then women were admitted to the ILWU Local 8 for the first time.

I remember the day after the union meeting in which women were first admitted seeing the longshoremen walking around in a daze, wondering how it was all going to work out. It was related to me that the president at the time (a name I have forgotten) in a speech of acceptance informed the new women in these words:

“Remember one thing, there ain’t no such thing as a longshore person. You are women longshoremen!” He may have said “lady longshoremen,” I heard both versions, but I don’t know for certain, since I wasn’t there.

Whether they are connected or not I don’t know, but shortly after women appeared on the docks the blatant, crude, passed out cold, drunkenness subsided, as did most of the crazy, dangerous antics and drug use. Even the prostitutes disappeared overtime. It was the 1980s and anti-drink and anti-drug campaigns were common. And it was the beginning of the great AIDS scare, which may account for the decline in prostitutes. But I had fewer and fewer stories to tell after a day’s work.

Mechanization has brought over time a sort of emptiness and vastness to the waterfront that is so unlike the bustling wharves of yesteryear, it is beyond comparison. Even when the waterfront is in full swing, from afar one sees only the slow moving of a crane, or the light fog of grain dust rising from a spout in the hatch of a breakbulk vessel. One hundred and ten car unit trains of rail hopper cars bring in millions of pounds of grain with only a locomotive driver and a switch man. A single crew brings a barge with eight million pounds of wheat down the river from the Paloose, or Idaho. Tractors the size of small medieval castles lift shipping containers onto rail flat beds. And up and down the waterfront the presence of people is noticeably, well . . ., absent. It gets kind of lonely sometimes.

River Renaissance and the 21st Century

In the fall of 2000 (about 40 years too late for the east bank) it finally occurred to the City of Portland that, as the Thames is to London, as the Seine is to Paris, as the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River is to Zimbabwe, the Willamette river should be “celebrated” as Portland’s “centerpiece.” This is described in the optimistic prose of the bureaucrat as: “A long-term strategy to link the natural river system to industry, businesses and neighborhoods.”

The River Renaissance involves a team of eight city bureaus, and there is a report, Willamette River Conditions Report, and there is a web site: www.portlandonline.com. So far the team of eight city bureaus have been hard at it and have accomplished the following:

South Waterfront Plan—A “mixed use” urban development plan that puts new high rise apartments, office buildings, parks and greenways, and OHSU space along 6,500 feet of riverfront that was for many years abandoned industrial land. This also includes the Portland Tram that connects OHSU on the waterfront with OHSU on Marquam Hill (pill hill to old Portlanders). The Tram was controversial, and a lot of people in the Lair-Hill neighborhood didn’t want it. I could never understand why. It cuts down on traffic and it is really, I mean really cool.

A Plan to Disconnect Residential Downspouts—This plan encourages residents to disconnect their downspouts from the sewer system so we don’t wash human waste into the Willamette every time there is a semi-heavy rain.

Weekend Ferry Service—A ferry service that operates on weekends in the summer to take people up and down the river. I wish it ran all year, every day, but a little is better than nothing at all.

Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade—A pedestrian and bicycle path along the east bank of the Willamette with a cantilevered walkway off of the Steel Bridge. This is one of the best improvements to the Willamette in the city since Harbor Drive became Waterfront Park. There are nice places to stop and watch the river, a number of well-designed and informative historical markers, as well as some unique objects of art. If you can ignore the 90 decibel freeway twenty feet away, you can have a really fine time.

Not only does the path go along the river and downtown, but it hooks up to the Springwater Corridor that offers off road bicycling and walking all the way past Gresham to Boring, Oregon (I know, a terrible name for a town, but this is Oregon.) Some day this path will join the Pacific Crest Trail in the Mount Hood National Forest.

Conclusion for Now

The constant of any river is change, and the Willamette is no different. The changes I have seen in my life along the banks of this great river have been, for the most part, good ones. With a new interest in a sustainable environment, the chances of the Willamette surviving as a living river, a home for sturgeon and passing salmon, and the life blood of Portland is very good indeed. With efforts such as the River Renaissance, the development along the bank should be good for all of the citizens who use the river for recreation and commerce. It has been tamed by dams and seawalls, and civilized with green parks and fancy hotels. But on a rainy night in my rocking chair next to the fireplace I will still tell my grandchildren the old tales of shanghaing Bunko Kelly and the tunnels of doom leading down to the slave ships on the waterfront of the old Willamette.

About the author

Nina Crow

Nina Crow

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