LOLLYGAGGING IN LADD'S

January 28, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I've been spending a lot of time in the archives lately because I've been having fun there, but I must admit that the alternative of actually going outside and taking photographs has been forestalled by the weather and the mood of the city. Downtown Portland, my usual subject, while not the urban dystopia as it is portrayed on Fox News, has lost a lot of luster across the course of the pandemic. I don't need to get angrier at my city's leadership, or lack thereof, by walking through Downtown these days. In any case, I can't remember a longer run of depressing weather in a long time. Nothing dramatic, and no snow or ice, but a windy, dark, and rainy 42 degrees in Portland doesn't propel any journeys outside longer than picking the newspaper off the porch.

So the first really nice day all of this young year prompted me to get out and create some images. It was so nice to be out in the sun that I ignored the fact that it was pretty cold out, a rare case of sunny, cold, and dry "Football Weather" that doesn't quite seem natural in our fair city. The blue skies in some of these images, while out of character, were not created in post-processing.

I chose to take my walk through a neighborhood about a mile from my house, a dozen square blocks of American Urban Paradise named Ladd's Addition. Ladd's is one of those neighborhoods in Portland that renders suburbia even more absurd than it usually is. I would challenge any metropolitan resident in America to find a real reason they wouldn't gladly move into Ladd's tomorrow. An historic district, Ladd's was created as an early suburban development near the turn of the Twentieth Century across the Willamette, a half mile from Downtown. Portland Mayor William Ladd  platted out the neighborhood from family farmland in 1891. While it took longer to "build out" than the Ladd family probably hoped, by the the 1930's the former farmland was a thriving community. Developers moved on eastward in Multnomah County, but rarely if ever achieved a neighborhood as nice as Ladd's Addition.

These images show some of the character of Ladd's Addition. The first is a detail of the central Circle in the neighborhood. I chatted there with a Chinese woman who had moved with her husband to America only two months ago and somehow found herself in the neighborhood. The trellis and front door are typical of the details found on speculative houses for working families back in the day. The two towers on the apartment building, built only as a "gift to the street", would not be allowed by today's zoning rules for violating height restrictions.

While the housing stock is nice, their are grander houses, better small apartment buildings, and I daresay even nicer Bungalows elsewhere in the city. Ladd's strength is the urban design of the neighborhood itself, with an attention to detail and amenities that puts other neighborhoods, even "richer" ones to shame. Other nice neighborhoods contain or border beautiful parks - Ladd's Addition is in many ways its own park. In some ways it is an urban American version of Venice; you will wander, get absolutely lost, and not care a whit.

These are two views of a larger civic building on one of the four Rose Gardens in the neighborhood. It was probably once a church, now a club of some kind. While it resembles a contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House, it's all one big room, so it is not residential.

Architects who peruse a city map pride themselves on their ability to "read" a city, finding a city's soul in the street grid, the path of the river, or the location of highways and parks. A map can frequently reveal truths about an urban area before you even view a photograph of the city, much less walk the streets. I am no exception, and when I took a look at the street map of Portland and hoped to find an apartment, I concluded that Ladd's Addition was either one of Portland's best neighborhoods or yet another blighted urban renewal district. On the map it resembled nothing more than an arbitrary and desperate dislocation of the ordinary street grid that surrounded it. This New Yorker feared that it was another "project" that was divorced from the city.

 

This is a window on another large scale building which seems to now be a residence.

These were my prejudices, so I was blown away when I met the real place. Yes, the streets were suddenly all diagonals, and you were destined to get lost in the car or on foot, but the only thing that separated it from its surroundings in Southeast Portland was the immediate uptick in the urban experience once you passed into the un-gated community. It was the streets themselves, not the houses, or the lawns, or the fancy cars, that caught my eye. These diagonal streets led to a central park roundabout, but the grid also included not one, but four (!) single block rose gardens. The angled street grid led to many unusual lots, which led to architectural solutions far beyond the ordinary 50 foot wide by 100 foot deep Portland lot size. I walked on and on before I realized that one of the reasons these street seemed so damn pleasant was not due to the century old trees, or to the architects that proceeded me, but to the absence of curb cuts. Their were no driveways to break up the streetscape! Ladd's Addition is one of the few neighborhoods in Portland that contains a system of alleys that parallel those diagonal streets. Even the most modest bungalow will back on to an alley, which allowed for the new-fangled automobiles to either be parked in front or back, but not to carve up the lots. Both the mansion and the bungalow will have a proper front garden, and a path for humans to the front door. Amazing!

A modest apartment building of quality, whose right angles really show off the shadows created by an unusually sunny day.

So Ladd's Addition was really a triumph of urban design. The design quality even increased in the details. The major streets were bordered by street strips of planting that measured 8 feet, twice as wide as the strip in front of my house. Thus those gigantic trees move less of the sidewalks than they do in most neighborhoods, which saves homeowners lots of cash, since we must maintain the sidewalks broken up by the trees required to be planted in the strips which are actually city property. The preponderance of architecture from the early Twentieth Century, whether mansions, bungalows or apartments, insures a certain level of quality and detailing that is missing from Postwar housing much less than the crap built today. As an architect, I was inducted into the "Ladd's Rules" when I put an addition on a house in the neighborhood; not only were there quality rules for windows, siding, etc., but anything viewable from the street had to relate to the historic fabric of the neighborhood. It was shocking to me that the planner could tell the architect that my addition would never have been allowed if I had exceeded the roof ridge of the original house, despite no written rules to that effect. When he demanded an additional small window to "balance" the facade, I could only laugh since I have never met a window I didn't like. His insistence overcame my client's resistance to a window in her new shower.

The "Missing Middle" in action. Somehow the quality of a one-story duplex allows it to coexist with a Four Square three times as big and probably twice as expensive as both of the units in total.

The neighborhood also benefits from its moment in time. While Jews and Blacks were not allowed, the times also resisted the idea of large scale development, even of single-family homes. Thus pretty much every house was designed by a different architect, or at least in a different style. Thus the streetscape is a collection of very different houses, even if they are mostly from the same era. More important than style is the fact that the individuality of the homes extends to their very size and market themselves. On the same block there will be three-and-a-half story mansions sited next to one-story bungalows, some smaller than my own 1200 square foot home. This kind of housing designed for very different social classes at very different prices would never be allowed in today's market. When socialists like me advocate this type of mix, even in an affordable  development, we are shouted down as hopelessly naive. Yet Ladd's has allowed for different price points since the beginning, and now the racist exclusions are now gone. This inclusionary idea extends even to the presence of what Portlanders call duplexes and small apartment buildings in the neighborhood, right next to similar-sized single family housing. This is the "Missing Middle" that has become the flavor of the month in planning circles which consider single family homes as somewhat fascist at best. The concept works in Ladd's because of the quality of these projects, which I have no doubt would never fly in today's America. Why would a developer put any effort into a small house when he could make much more money building a large one? The "Missing Middle" works so well here because for the most part it is just as attractive as the neighboring single family houses, just smaller and attached. If developers would  build to these standards today, I couldn't see any arguments against density beyond parking. The trouble is that you could drag the typical developer to Ladd's, show him the duplex, and he would refuse to build it today, just like they refuse to build my bungalow, even though every young couple in Portland would literally kill me and my wife to get ours if they thought they could get away with it.

Yes, it's just a front stoop. But a curved front stoop leading to a porch on a small duplex? If you don't think this is important, think of today's typical shoddy wooden stair leading up to no porch on a comparable small house that the middle class can't afford.

The downsize of all this quality is that it comes at a price. Fran and I could only dream of Ladd's Addition in 1993. We finally found our bungalow in a working class neighborhood one mile to the east. I can map the gentrification of Portland by which neighborhoods young architects could afford over the decades. We "missed out" on Ladd's by 1993; we probably could have afforded it a few years before. Now our bungalow is one of the lowest valued houses in my neighborhood at around 600K; if it was transported to Ladd's Addition it would probably fetch 800K. Thus Ladd's is obviously not affordable, unless you think bungalows at 800K are more affordable than larger houses at 1.3 million. The benefit of a historical neighborhood is that the neighborhood is protected from demolition much more than my neighborhood. A single-family house will not be replaced by an out-of-scale duplex, each half costing multiples of the original. Rant over!

If you can't get a tattoo, at least you can smile. I don't know what the billboard is selling, but I liked the shadow of the cross that is now part of the advertisement.

 

January! Why not?

 

That branch probably died way before I was born.

Ladd's Addition is still part of Portland, so my walk included a few amusing signs, engaging tree trunks, and flowers in January. The unexpected is to be appreciated and sort of counted on in a strange way. It is impossible to convey the cacophony of a murder of crows on Elliott Avenue. Let's just say that if you live on that street you better like "caw" in a multitude of accents. There were literally hundreds of crows ensconsed on each block, and since I am not a nature photographer these two examples were the best I could do in the cold. I missed the one time they all flew at once, since they don't seem to be afraid of much of anything. Three passersby referenced a certain Hitchcock film.

Ladd's Addition is just beautiful, and I heartily recommend that you Google it to get some overall photos of the neighborhood to give you a sense of the ambience. I am an artist, so my images reflect my own concerns and my tendency to focus on details. I would encourage you to shoot what you love, even while wandering in a different neighborhood. These images reflect one person's experience of one nice day walking in the cold in one of the nicest neighborhood in America.

                            NEVERMORE : FINAL B&W VERSION

                           Now that's the mood I was looking for!


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