We take Wilshire Park as a given in our lives today, but a look back in time shows it has narrowly escaped several possible fates, including being developed as campground in the 1920’s and later into a housing development. The park traces its history back to an investment made by one of Portland’s wealthy early residents, Jacob Kamm (1823-1912), who made his fortunes in the steam navigation business. Kamm also dabbled in real estate investment and had strategically purchased parcels downtown and at the edges of Portland, including the 15 acres of woods just north of the Alameda Ridge off the old county road (today’s NE 33rd Avenue), which he platted as the Spring Valley addition in 1882. When Kamm died in 1912, the tract had been untouched, and his estate was valued at $4 million. Sorting out the estate took years and was frequently in the press.
An effort to turn the park into a KOA-style automobile campground in 1920 was cancelled with prejudice by vociferous neighbors who were worried about its impact on property values and didn’t like the notion of a non-residential and transient-based activity being so close to their homes. After that fight, which involved petitions, community meetings and a high level of consternation with city government, the fate of the 15 acres rested for a few years. For the full story on the battle over the land, head over to the Alameda History Blog.
The topic goes quiet then, resurfacing six years later in September 1926 when the city mentioned the property as a possible future public park. It would take another seven years until 1933—with the property connected to the still unsettled Kamm estate—that the city would seriously consider the idea. The early 1920s were a major boom period for the construction of homes in this area. All around the 15 acres, new subdivisions (and lots of kids) were springing up. Kids from these neighborhoods were already using the wooded area as their playground, with a maze of improvised trails, forts and other secret places nestled into the thick brush and trees.
The Wilshire Addition Community Club—a kind-of early neighborhood association and social club—was the first to call for acquisition and development of the park, submitting a proposal in September 1926 for the city to float a bond measure to fund the work. But Portland Parks Commissioner C.P. Keyser felt the chances of a voter-passed measure were too slim because not enough planning and survey work had been completed, so the effort stalled. Left on their own after the city chose not to take up the cause, neighbors began direct negotiations with the Kamm estate. By 1933, an agreement had been reached that allowed the property to be used as a park—still owned by the Kamm family—as long as the planning and development work was funded and conducted by neighborhood residents. In a Monday morning, March 27, 1933 news story, The Oregonian reported the following:
Improvement of a 15-acre tract of land has been started by residents of the Wilshire District to convert the site into a park. The land has been made available by the Kamm estate with the proviso that improvement expenses be assumed by persons living in the neighborhood. Volunteer workers gathered at the tract Saturday and yesterday and cut away underbrush and cleaned the land for further improvements.
Thanks to work parties like this, and continued use by neighborhood kids, community interest continued to build in the mid-1930s—with the property still in the hands of the Kamm estate—until a proposal was made in the fall of 1937 to have the city purchase the property with a localized bond measure. Backers of the proposal knew that time was running out to keep the park as a park, and told The Oregonian in December of 1937 that “this is the last chance to get it. Contractors want to take over the property to build homes.” They also continued to make the case that the nearest proper park was too far away for children to use.
The 15-acres was still a glorified brush patch. Working with neighbors, the city proposed assessing the agreed purchase price of $28,500 across 3,000 homes within the surrounding vicinity, less than $10 per household. This did not go over well with some, and a firestorm of letters to the editor and complaints to City Hall boiled over. More than 30 percent of the 3,000 homeowners signed petitions opposing the fee, though not all were against the park acquisition itself, if the city could find a way to spread the cost city-wide. In 1937, Portland was in the grips of a recession that followed the Depression, and joblessness and foreclosures were headline news on a daily basis. Creating a park was not a high priority. One letter writer, local resident Spencer Akers, put it this way:
The controversy over the proposed Kamm park seems to be fanned to a red heat. Where is the justice in a comparatively few individuals being obliged to shoulder the purchase price, especially since the depression has reinforced its destruction siege by the surprise attack of the ruthless ‘recession?’ If the city is too poor to purchase the property than why in the name of common sense should we, who happen to live in the immediate vicinity, be judged as financially able to raise the whole purchase price? I know of several families in this district who are actually in need, and a bombshell of this nature would play havoc with their tottering defenses.
An editorial from The Oregonian made an eloquent case otherwise:
If the Kamm tract were certain to remain available for a park for a number of years, and the majority of the residents of the district desired that buying of it be deferred, there could be no sound objection to such a course. It is likely, however, that the tract soon will be developed for residential purposes if it is not taken over for a neighborhood park. The national cry for more housing and the probability of advantageous federal financing for building make that seem inevitable, if the city does not act now. The price is reasonable, probably lower than it will ever be again. No other property is to be had for the purpose. The proposed assessment [of $8.60 for a 50 x 100 foot lot] would be unlikely to be a hardship on anyone; the return of value to the property owners in the district would be obvious.
But forward-looking arguments did not prevail, and after all the fuss, the city dropped the proposal. Meanwhile, kids kept using the 15 acres, brush continued to grow, crimes were reported being committed in the woods, and developers sought to purchase and build on the property. The story goes quiet again, until a brief headline in the April 10, 1940 issue of The Oregonian: “City Acquires Kamm Tract.” The short, page 4 story reports only that the City Council took the action by emergency ordinance and was acquiring the land from the estate at a cost of $28,500, financed with a two year loan from the First National Bank that would be paid off from city funds. Perhaps a development proposal led to the tipping point and the
emergency action…that part of the story is untold. The public purchase of the property brought an important chapter to a close, and secured the land for the future.
However, almost as if the neighborhood needed something more to fight about, controversy boiled again in February 1941 about naming the newly acquired parcel, with some wanting to call it Jacob Kamm Park, which stemmed from a proposal made by the Sons and Daughters of Pioneers. The majority of surrounding neighbors lined up behind a proposal to call it Wilshire Park. After several stormy meetings on the topic, City Council agreed with the neighbors and adopted Wilshire Park as the official name.
By 1950, the city had cut and removed much of the underbrush, constructed the ball diamonds still in place today, and even built a playground, which featured among other things, old Fire Engine Number 2, a 1918 model that was finally decommissioned from service at the SW 3rd and Glisan fire house.
Many other memories remain about the park, including the family that lived in a home at the far southeast corner of the woods around the turn of the last century; Christmas trees cut in the 1920s and 1930s from the “33rd Street Woods;” the World War 2 “victory gardens” planted along the park’s southern edge; the jackstrawed piles of trees and branches left over from the Columbus Day storm of 1962; the generations of baseball players, soccer players, runners and dog walkers who have loved this place.
For more neighborhood history, photos, maps and memories of Wilshire Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, visit Doug’s blog at http://www.alamedahistory.org.
28 Neighbors from Alameda, Concordia, and Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhoods came together on Monday, March 19 to form the Friends of Wilshire Park, a grassroots organization dedicated to caring for and improving Wilshire Park.
Yvonne Boisvert, Vice President of the Friends of Peninsula Park Rose Garden, spoke to the group, describing the ways their organization had found success and providing valuable advice on how to get off the ground as a new community group. She recommended finding a motto that clearly defined the group’s purpose and starting with a small, well-defined, attainable project and using that as a springboard for larger successes.
The members broke into discussion groups to share ideas and goals for the children’s play equipment, the off-leash dog area, the jogging track, and native habitat enhancement. After coming back together as a large group, the meeting adjourned with a challenge for members to spread the word to friends and neighbors who enjoy Wilshire Park that they now have a chance to get involved in its improvement.
The meeting was opened by Julie Bernstein, who gave a welcome and introduction. She was followed by Yvonne Boisvert from the Friends of the Peninsula Park Rose Garden, who explained how her organization had found success. Key takeaways from her comments included:
Find friends. Expanding the circle of people and resources is always better. Lots of help is needed for big community based projects. Having lots of people who can bring in gardening and construction equipment is very helpful. There are lots of Master Gardeners in Portland, and their advice is extremely valuable.
Have a mission statement that clearly communicates the values and purpose of the group so it can be used as a lodestar. The tagline for the Peninsula Park group, for example, is “Preserving Portland’s First Rose Garden.” Words such as “protect,” “preserve,” and “enhance” send a strong message to volunteers, community members, and the city. The credibility of the group will then depend on adhering strongly to its mission.
Money. No community group can raise funds without a fiscal sponsor of some kind. Many park friends groups eventually choose to become their own 501(c)3 organization, but many others are able to raise funds in conjunction with similarly aligned groups such as neighborhood associations or the Portland Parks Foundation.
The group divided into breakaway discussion groups based on area of interest to meet one another and come up with wish lists for park improvements.
Children’s Play Area wish list:
Some time ago funds were allocated to convert the dilapitated wading pool into a modern splash pad. However, the project has not been initiated. The group felt this was low hanging fruit as we would not need to plan, secure funds, or get a permit; rather we could do what we can to get this project rolling.
The toddler play area is heavily used and a good community asset because none of the other nearby parks have a mix of equipment for very little children and older kids. However, the toddler equipment is in very bad shape, with splintery plywood and rotting boards. Securing funding for new equipment is a high priority. The larger equipment is in fairly good shape and should be considered a low priority for now.
More seating at the center of the play area would be useful, as parents are often monitoring kids of different ages.
Some sort of shelter for the sand pit would allow for year-round use. The sand is so wet most of the year that children can’t enjoy it.
Oren Bernstein presented concept art of possible play equipment that would harmonize with the natural habitat of the park.
Dog Park wish list:
Complete fencing around the entire dog play area (or at least along Skidmore and 37th Street sides), in order to provide a safer environment for the dogs to play and to also keep them in the designated play area.
Provide a fenced area within the larger area to allow a safe play spot for only smaller dogs to interact — perhaps up to 25 pounds, or so. Many of the dogs coming to the dog park are quite large and a danger to the little ones.
A water source for drinking water for the dogs would be much appreciated. Currently, a very kind woman across the street leaves her hose on for this purpose, but it shouldn’t be her responsibility or expense to provide water for those using the park. Dogs get very thirsty during vigorous play.
Native Plant Enhancement Wish List:
Creation of a “nature pocket” with low maintenance native landscaping to provide understory for birds. We reviewed our discussions with representatives of the Department of Parks and Recreation and the fact that we had toured Wilshire Park with some of them to identify places where pockets of landscaped native plantings could create “nature rooms” without interfering with other park functions or park security. A high priority is to make the park more beautiful and bird friendly while keeping maintenance low.
The group has a draft landscape design that a volunteer landscape architect has created for a pilot program in one of these spaces.
The severe budgetary constraints now imposed on the Department of Parks and Rec were raised and the consensus was that if this project was to move forward, funding needed to come from outside grant monies or contributions. Several ideas of how this project could meet some of the needs of underserved communities were discussed.
Jogging Track Wish List
The track is currently uneven and unsafe. Some areas have large chunks of wood that can lead to ankle rolls, and in some areas the bark mulch has broken down so much that it is quite muddy. This has lead to runners using the outside edge of the track to avoid mud, soft depressions, and “ankle buster” bark chunks, so the track is too wide. These problems are made worse by city parks crews driving on the track.
A realignment of the track which removed existing bark and applying a finer surface would allow for a narrower, better defined, safer track.
There are different options for a track surface, such as 3/8″ or finer gravel, recycled rubber, or fine grade mulch. There were many different preferences. Gravel is durable but harder on runners’ joints. Fine grade mulch is easier on runners but would need frequent replacing. Recycled rubber may be prohibitively expensive and would require maintenance.
Costs of realigning the track need to be researched further.
The meeting adjourned with plans to meet again on April 25.