One unexpected consequence of Portland's new role in the national spotlight is that many of us are realizing we know embarrassingly little about our city. Whether you’re looking for a deeper understanding of Portland’s minority communities, the city’s architecture, or its entrenched relationship with sin, the following seven books will take you back in time to when our coffee-and-pinot metropolis was a scrappy, sometimes savage, port town.
J. D. Chandler offers a fascinating, introductory people’s history of the Rose City that takes a close look at the ways Native tribes, African Americans, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, women, and other minorities fought their disenfranchisement by white settlers, the U.S. Army, and Portland city policy. For readers looking for a succinct review of the different communities of early Portland, and a foundational understanding of ongoing social justice issues, Hidden History is an excellent resource.
Urban historian Marie Rose Wong provides an exhaustive history of Portland’s Chinatowns from the mid-19th century through the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act 100 years later. A far cry from today’s small strip of downtown businesses, Portland once boasted the country’s second-largest Chinese population and two Chinatowns (one urban, one agricultural), and Wong explores Chinese settlers experiences with immigration, labor, exclusion, community building, and integration through incredible primary materials that bring this bygone era to life.
Want something a little less academic, a little more salacious, but still true? Phil Stanford takes the reader into the seedy heart of 1950s Portland, which saw such pervasive vice and corruption that the mayor and police chief were indicted, and dozens of Portlanders were subpoenaed by the Senate to testify on live TV. A delightful fusion of journalism and off-color anecdote, Portland Confidential will have you calling all your friends to ask, “Did you know…?”
This valuable photographic history of Portland’s Black community examines the lives of the early Black pioneers, who settled in Oregon despite horrific exclusion laws and an active KKK, through to the WWII defense boom and devastating Vanport flood, which decimated the flourishing Black middle-class community of Portland. Like Hidden History of Portland, African Americans of Portland provides an overview rather than an in-depth look, but this slim, thoughtful volume celebrates the vibrancy and resilience of the early Black settlers in Portland, and provides a good foundation for understanding how Portland history informs the current Black Lives Matter movement and local protests.
Portland Then and Now is a beautiful coffee table photography book that highlights the contrasts between Portland’s rough-and-tumble, logging town beginnings and the sleek aesthetic of popular modern-day neighborhoods like the Pearl District. This is a perfect book for locals and tourists alike, made for lazy rifling on days when you’re nostalgic for Benson bubblers and streetcars.
Portland’s proliferation of yoga studios, kombucha bars, and doggie daycares can’t hold a candle to the number of strip clubs in the city, so it’s no surprise that Portland’s relationship to vice has inspired more than one good book. Wicked Portland is a saucy, story-heavy history that explores the brawling, whoring, and shanghaiing of mid-19th-century Portland, and the election shenanigans that protected the lawless.
The Willamette river bisects Portland into eastern and western halves, spanned by 12 bridges that vary wildly in size and design. Sharon and Ed Wortman’s updated Portland Bridge Book boasts gorgeous photos and information about Portland’s bridges, from the Hawthorne Bridge (the nation’s oldest vertical-lift bridge) to the unique tied-arch Fremont Bridge and the towering, gorgeous St. John’s Bridge. With maps, poetry, stories, and illustrations, this is the quintessential guide for Bridge City’s bridge lovers.