The Streets: A Sellwood Walkabout

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This is my street.

Children and elders stroll past with alarming frequency. Visiting parked vehicles over-occupy the local dearth of curbs. Test-riding bicyclists from the local shop take this street invariably; the chck-chcks of derailleurs changing gears ubiquitous as a cuckoo clock.

Time passes slowly here. I haven’t seen anyone enter the convenience store in months, yet they seem to pay the rent.

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When we landed here, we were told Sellwood was one of the safest neighborhoods in Portland. In a span of five months last year, I had a truck stolen and the window of the vehicle I bought to replace it shattered—during the peak of the rain! Auto theft and burglary are relatively common: our neighbors moved into a house, and that night, the daughter woke up to someone climbing through her bedroom window.

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Socks, board games, toys,, tea, coffee, spices, shoes, antiques—for which Sellwood/Moreland has long been known—all get their own stores. On wheels, Sellwood would be a quaint caravansary. The local bank is a five-minute walk from my house; for the first time in my life, the keepers of my money know my name. I hail from the out-of-town, from the commuter clan, the familiar but foreign zip code.

Living in the center of things offers me unlimited access to distraction.

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This building is a mystery. No advertisements, no signs, no clues to its business but a handful of old microphones sitting in a glass case inside the door. The owner of Jade Bistro, across the street, said that the actor Sam Elliot lunched there one day, and when he left, he walked into the mysterious orange building.

At least five Southeast Asian cuisine spots live within three blocks of one another. Another could have emerged in the last hour. Coffee shops and roasters, art supplies, a poorly-designed food cart pod, and one of Portland’s famous rubberstamp libraries occupy space within pajama distance of my bedroom. An apothecary peddles tinctures and crystals; the mortuary is the largest single building for what seems like miles; in fact, its west-facing wall, formerly a concrete pad facing Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, was muraled to mirror the birds and mammals once hoped to occupy the man-made wetland.

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The Refuge, which lays low between a high bluff of neighborhood and railroad tracks, plays a significant factor in my wanting to live in this area. Apparently, the view is important to others who also live here, and possess chainsaws.

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At night, despite the static din of the almost-visible interstate across the Willamette, I walk the trails through the trees ’til I can almost pretend I’m not in the city anymore; threats of cars speeding down 17th abate, the operating room glare of the new LED street lights fades into the traditional spectrum of urban light pollution; frogs croak at such a volume that I can’t hear my voice, and all goes relatively silent in my city brain.

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Oaks Bottom Refuge lends its name to a small amusement park across the railroad tracks. Bright white, the mathematically designed, cage-like beams of a roller coaster face eastward, toward the wild zone. In effect, the creatures that live in and visit the refuge operate in a hall of mirrors, an unfenced zoo, observed by humans in the wild.

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Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is an experiment growing from the dumping grounds of the displaced dirt when the interstate was built, a noble attempt to re-invent a wilderness where one had been destroyed. As Oaks succeeds or fails-however that line is drawn-humans learn that it’s okay to destroy wilderness, because we can just build it back.

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Today I found at least three things that were new to me along corridors I’ve walked, ridden, and driven hundreds of times. Not to mention, the cherry trees are popping!

What’s under your nose, in your backyard, down your street?

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2 thoughts on “The Streets: A Sellwood Walkabout”

  1. 1. I don’t think Oaks Bottoms was named after the amusement park. Possibly Oaks Park was named after the wetland, but I’m unsure – when built, the park was on the floodplain with no protection and indeed the skating rink floor is meant to float when the building is flooded, which last happened in the 100 year flood of 1996, IIRC.

    2. It’s not man-made, it is a remnant flood-plain wetland (one of the few remaining on the Willamette). Heavily modified and somewhat managed, but still, a remnant wetland that preserves some of the character of what was once common on the river.

    3. Portland Parks did begin to fill from the north and south ends back in the 1970s (perhaps dating back to the 1960s) in order to build ballfields or the like. Local activiists, in particular Portland Audubon, stepped in and convinced the Parks Bureau and city to stop filling and preserve the what was left of the wetlands. The technique was simple – the community began posting “Urban Wildlife Refuge” signs along the trailheads on the bluff etc, and eventually it became true. To be honest, it wasn’t all that hard to sell Portland Parks on the idea.

    4. There are man-made modifications in order to manage the mosquito population without using pesticides. An important part is a man-made water control structure (small dam). Interestingly, when the water control structure was approved as part of the plan to end the aerial spraying of insecticides being used at the time to control mosquitos, but before it was built, for two or three (or more) years beavers built a dam at the drainage point and maintained water levels close to the target level for the water control structure. Eventually the dam failed and the structure was built. Still quite cool. The water control structure is meant to manage the water levels to something approaching what was seen before the railroad dike separated it from the river (the drainage points were built to reconnect it).

    5. There have been further efforts that have modified the wetlands a bit in order to somewhat control the invasive reed canary grass that fills so much of the wetland (and almost every other wetland in western OR and WA), originally introduced in the PNW for cattle forage. Purple loosestrife is another invasive plant problem.

    6. “…was muraled to mirror the birds and mammals once hoped to occupy the man-made wetland.” I have personally seen every bird species on that mural, and more, and some of the mammals (I’ve never actually seen beaver, just their dams and felled cottonwoods). 185 species of bird have been recorded in the wetland. I’ve probably seen a good 125 or so species there myself.

    Hope you find this helpful.

    Don Baccus
    Portland Audubon board member 1985-2001

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    1. Wow, thank you Don for the corrections and reflections. I’m both humbled and more educated about the refuge. In the future, I’ll do more research into a place before writing flippantly about it 🙂

      Please check back, and keep reading Stumptown Lives! I could obviously use the occasional realignment, and it’s always good to hear from locals who also care about the spaces I care about. See you around town.

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