Where was/is South Portland?
Aerial view of South Portland, ca. 1955.
There was never a formal, official definition, but Portlanders at the start of the twentieth century knew where to find South Portland. It ran from Columbia Street at the north down as far as Curry or Gaines, where the hills squeezed close to the river and pinched South Portland off from Fulton further to the south. The eastern edge was the industrial corridor along the Willamette. The western edge followed the South Park blocks south from the old Lincoln High School on Broadway and then curved around the base of the hills. First Avenue was a major axis with a streetcar line and bridge across Marquam Gulch. So was Fourth Avenue with its Interurban rail line that continued along what became Barbur Boulevard in the 1930s. The southern end was a bit less clear—certainly to Gaines Street and perhaps as far as Abernethy.
In 2020, the City of Portland readdressed a section of the city near the west side of the Willamette River, between the Hawthorne Bridge and the Lake Oswego border. All properties in this area that are east of Naito Parkway or View Point Terrace are now officially part of the newly designated South Portland.
South Portland: The City’s Most Diverse Neighborhood
South Portland was a neighborhood for Jewish families who had recently arrived from the Russian Empire and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
South Portland grocery and deli, 1958. Photo courtesy Portland Archives and Records Center.
South Portland was a neighborhood for Italian immigrants, many of whom arrived as single men.
South Portland was an extension of the Skid Road district where unattached working men and women lived in cheap hotels and rented rooms.
South Portland was part of a thriving employment district where sawmills and lumber yards, ship repair yards, power plants, box and furniture factories, breweries, iron works, and railroad tracks filled the riverside land that is now Riverplace, the South Waterfront, and the Johns Landing/Macadam district.
When immigrants arrived in an American city in the years between 1840 and 1940, two questions influenced their choice of neighborhood. Where could people with little money afford to live? Where could they have easy access to the greatest range of low-skilled and entry-level jobs?
SW Grant Street in South Portland, 1959. Photo courtesy Portland Archives and Records Center.
The answer to the first question was areas where the middle class didn’t want to live, such as places close to smoky factories and noisy railroads. The answer to the second question was neighborhoods close to the city center with its variety of jobs, neighborhoods close to industrial districts, and neighborhoods with public transportation to get them to those jobs.
In Portland, this meant that immigrants clustered in greatest numbers at the northern and southern ends of downtown and also in districts close to riverside industry on both sides of the Willamette.
South Portland in the early twentieth century overlapped two of Portland’s ten wards—Ward Five between Jefferson and Caruthers Street west of the Willamette River and Ward Six south of Caruthers. The 1910 census, taken at the very peak of European immigration to the United States, counted 4,718 foreign-born residents in Ward Five, 647 of them from Italy and 654 from Russia. Census takers found 2,729 foreign-born in Ward 6, 445 of them from Italy and 675 from Russia. The American-born children of these newcomers reinforced South Portland’s distinctive ethnic character.