Painting Portland: the Poetry Post and more

Cameron's Books in downtown Portland (SW 3rd and Stark.) Photograph by Thomas Hawk

Cameron’s Books in downtown Portland (SW 3rd and Stark.) Photograph by Thomas Hawk

Portlanders are bookish. From Annie Blooms to Reading Frenzy to Cameron’s to Wallace Books to Write Around Portland to Powells, City of Books (a literary mecca as the largest independent bookstore in the world), Portlanders find every opportunity to put their nose in a book or put a pen to paper. I am proud to live in a city where the books never run dry and where my BA in English always seems relevant. Here, the written word is valued and supported and words are powerful. And there is no doubt about it, words hold power. They can persuade, inspire, confuse, enlighten, depress, entertain, and preach depending on their context, medium, and purpose. And words come together to form stories- stories that can be so many different things to so many different people.

Living in such a literary city, I am not surprised to find the written word in unexpected places. That doesn’t mean I am not delighted every time I stumble across a hidden literary gem, but perhaps it does to reinforce the notion that Portland is good to us word hounds. One of these such surprises is an invention called the Poetry Post. And it is exactly what it sounds like- a piece of wood, about 5 feet tall, installed in the ground with a box sitting on top. Often, these boxes are hollow, with a piece of plastic installed in the front that can be opened and closed to replace the contents. And what is usually found inside? You guessed it! Poetry. Displayed by neighbors for neighbors, with the sole purpose of bringing more words into each other’s lives.

Poetry Post in SW Portland Hills, above the Market Street Drive stairs. Photo credit: Laura Foster.

My first encounter with Poetry Posts occurred last summer, while on a delightful highway-stairway walk with my family. We descended a stairway from Vista Avenue  into a quiet cul-de-sac on Mill Street Terrace and caught our breath with a view of the city laid before us. In this same location, directly at the top of another descending stairway to Market Street Drive, a neighbor had erected a poetry post that immediately caught my fancy. There was nothing elaborate about it, made out of unadorned wood, but I was entranced by this idea. Erect a post in front of your house, in the public sphere, to display your favorite poems. You never know who will drop by or stop to read your post, but regardless, you have brightened the world. It was a lovely thought.

But the idea of Poetry Posts was stuck in my mind. I wanted to find more! Because the highway-stairway walk was detailed in Laura Foster’s book Stairways of Portland, I took a look on Laura’s blog to see if she had written about poetry posts. And she had indeed, back in 2010! She wrote about the Poetry Posts of Portland, mainly located in the Grant Park neighborhood and Mt. Tabor Neighborhood, and how they represent the thrill of stumbling across human creativity. Often, when we are confronted with human creativity in an unexpected place (like the sidewalks where you walk your dog), we are jolted out of our everyday routine,  pause, and this pause often calls upon the attention of others around us to notice as well. I also love that Laura acknowledges that she has fellow Portlanders to thank for her mental health, tipping her hat to people she doesn’t know for keeping her on her toes and helping her notice the wonders of our city. I often feel like this on my walks as well, wondering if anyone else has found something special that I have stumbled across, like a fairy house tucked at the base of a tree, or a stairway hidden around a hedge. Sometimes I feel alone in my exploration, but in a good way, that I hold a great secret just waiting to be released to friends.

door to the fairy realm in the Alameda Ridge neighborhood, January 2012

The exploration that I am letting you in on today is one that I took a couple months ago, in the beginning of January. It was an overcast, nippy afternoon, and Lindsay, John, and I headed out to the Alameda Ridge neighborhood in Northeast Portland for the sole purpose of discovering its stairways. John is a stairway aficionado, and we have spent many hours exploring his hometown of San Francisco with the help of Adah Bakalinsky‘s book Stairway Walks in San Francisco. Therefore, it was my pleasure to return the favor to him by busting out Laura Foster’s book and follow her directions to roam in an area I am less familiar with. Stairways do that. They help us orient ourselves to our cities, show us hidden areas only accessible by foot, and reveal new views and perspectives of the city that we’ve never seen before. Both Foster’s and Bakalinsky’s books aid us in this type of revelatory exploration. The Portland Stairs Bookincludes stairway lists (by category), entertaining essays, and personal attributes. It reminds me of Adah’s book quite a bit and reading it reminds me of the joy I took exploring San Francisco last year.

Lindsay, John, and I began our adventure at Vernon Tank Playground, with its iconic large turquoise water tower. A few days later, while at Council Crest Park, I spied this very water tower off to the Northeast, and smiled, remembering how imposing it was when standing by it in person. We meandered in the Prescott area, slowly winding our way through neighborhood streets until we reached what is officially Alameda Ridge. The Alameda Ridge neighborhood is characterized by its large, single family homes, beautiful deciduous, broad-leaved trees, and flags. It’s funny- most of the large houses display flags of states, football teams, countries, whatever place or affiliation the family seeks to display. As we walked through the neighborhood- along Fremont, 33rd, 42nd, Alameda, Wistaria, and other major roads, we enjoyed peeking in people’s windows. From the houses on the top of the Ridge, we could see breathtaking views of downtown and the West Hills that reminded me of the views from houses in my neighborhood. The streets were meditatively winding and we passed people with their dogs, kids playing on bicycles outside of homes.

It is evident why this neighborhood is named after the Ridge- you can’t miss it! Streets like Northeast Knott stop us as they run into the hillside. And as you take the street it diverts you to, you can look up and see the houses on the top of the ridge, high above you, stacked on top of the houses below. You can wind about on streets like Alameda Street or Wisteria  throughout the neighborhood until you have lost your sense of direction. I understand why people always get lost in the Southwest Hills- it is shocking to your internal directional system (thinking in terms of gridded streets) and to suddenly get shuttled onto a street that winds away around, your path obscured by large houses and large stands of trees, man, you can really get thrown for a loop.

Poetry Post on Alameda Ridge…”you shall above all things be glad and young” by e.e. cummings

And the poetry posts- there were so many! Every few blocks, we would stumble across one. Laura’s words echoed in my head as I reveled at the rampant public display of literary-philia. The first one we spotted, I got very excited, as I didn’t know that the Alameda neighborhood was so literarily open. I could have guessed, from the glimpses of grand mahogany bookshelves inside people’s living rooms. They came in so many different styles- different colors of wood, different heights, different levels of craftsmanship. One was Japanese inspired, matching the clean lines and dark/light contrast of the house decor behind it. Some of the poetry was typed, others handwritten. Some was original, some was from well-known poets such as Mary Oliver and Shel Silverstein. And every time we passed a poetry post, I was as surprised as ever and delighted to see the diversity of creativity in our city.

this one reminded me of a stairway in San Francisco near Twin Peaks…palm tree and all!

So how do you think residents of Alameda Ridge travel from the upper streets to the lower ones? The steepness of the hill makes building too many streets impossible. But for city-philes like me, I can think of an easy solution.  The token solution for hill-filled cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland has been to build stairways! Portland is fairly flat, except for neighborhoods such as the West hills, Mt. Tabor, and Alameda Ridge, but all of these neighborhoods have rectified their isolation factor by building stairways into the hillside to make family-friendly, pedestrian byways. The stairs of Alameda Ridge are very hidden, as are most neighborhood stairways- meant for easy use by locals who need them but invisible to the oblivious bystander. Without Laura Foster’s book, we would have walked right past most of the stairways, disguised as driveways. One even ran alongside a family’s driveway and I felt like we were trespassing. But oh no, it was a public stairway!

Our walk of Alameda Ridge was meandering, rambling, meditative,  enlightening. We were shaded by overhanging trees (mind you, most were leaf-less) and entertained by beautiful houses on the lower end, while stunned by breathtaking views and a stairway treasure hunt on the top part of the ridge. We connected ourselves to fellow word lovers when passing by poetry posts and felt like season urban explorers when ascending and descending the hidden stairways.  For those that know me, it was my ideal day of melded interests. Who knew that stairways and poetry posts could be so intertwined, as it seems they are in Portland. Is it just the people who live in these areas or is it something intrinsic about the two that makes them go hand-in-hand? I can only conjecture. To put the cherry on the top of our day, we celebrated back at home with a little bit of local cheer: homemade pizza and local Laurelwood’s Vinter Varmer and Alameda Brewery’s Black Bear Stout. Huzzah!

here’s to urban exploration!

See the video below for a videographer’s journey into the poetry post phenomenon! Oregon Field Guide also made a video on Portland stairways.


3 thoughts on “Painting Portland: the Poetry Post and more

  1. Pingback: Line 75 to the Forest «

  2. Pingback: a Sunday morning «

  3. Pingback: Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. «

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