There’s an intriguing idea at the bottom of The Oregonian’s nicely written piece today about folksinger Woody Guthrie’s ties to Portland.
The article (which is actually the last from former transportation reporter Joseph Rose, who’s headed to a job on the East Coast) focuses on the 30 intensely creative days the Oklahoma-born folksinger spent in a 400-square-foot apartment in Lents in spring 1941. It’s two blocks from the trail, and still available for rent today.
Guthrie was visiting for a one-month gig with the Bonneville Power Authority, which paid him $266.66 to write 26 songs promoting hydroelectric power on the Columbia. They turned out to include some of his enduring classics about the people who helped win World War II by industrializing the West Coast: “Roll On, Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Oregon Trail” and “Pastures of Plenty.”
Here’s a recording of his Grand Coulee Dam:
Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum
Making chrome and making manganese and white aluminum
And there rose a flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam
Late in the article, Rose quotes ROSE Community Development Corporation director Nick Sauvie, who sees an opportunity for commemorating Guthrie’s visit by naming East Portland’s most important north-south bikeway in his honor.
Sauvie hopes the city or the state renames a street or landmark in Lents to recognize the neighborhood’s role in the Guthrie legacy.
For years, he has lobbied the Oregon Transportation Commission to change the name of the car-free I-205 Multi-use Path a couple blocks from the apartment to Woody Guthrie Trail.
The state has been resistant, saying it rarely names transportation routes after people and, besides, those people must have made a lasting and significant contribution to Oregon. Guthrie’s wildly productive 30 days in Portland don’t fit neatly into that criteria, the bureaucrats say.
“A lot of people already call it the Woody Guthrie Trail,” Sauvie said. “The ‘I-205 Multi-use Path’ doesn’t exactly drip off the tongue.”
Just last week, a friend of mine who works in Lents (a few blocks from Guthrie’s old place, it turns out) said he didn’t want to use the 205 path to get there because it’s close to the freeway. That’s true enough — but I’ve never heard him talk about avoiding the east-side MAX lines because of their equal proximity to freeways. (Not to mention avoid driving on a freeway because of its proximity to a freeway.) So it’s easy for me to imagine that a biking-walking path named after an Interstate highway might have a branding problem.
I called Sauvie to learn more.
“There was actually a push maybe four years ago,” Sauvie said Monday. “I actually talked to a couple people like Jefferson Smith when he was in the legislature and Randy Leonard when he was in city council. There wasn’t a lot of interest in kind of carrying that ball forward, and I got busy with other stuff. But I’ve got a pretty good list of people who were interested in that idea.”
Among the potential backers, he said, are labor leaders, who respect Guthrie’s role in the Depression-era labor movement; local researchers studying Huntington’s disease, the neurological disorder that would kill Guthrie in New York City 26 years later; and Peter Yarrow, the frontman of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary that drew on and covered Guthrie’s music.
The Woody Guthrie Trail, in fact, already has a Facebook page with 800 fans.
That’s enough to make it 40 times more popular (on Facebook, at least) than Interstate 84, whose namesake Thomas Harry Banfield is remembered today mostly for having run the Oregon Department of Transportation just before the freeway era.
Sauvie forwarded an email from Shelli Romero of the Oregon Department of Transportation, which controls the I-205 path. She said the state can only name one of its transportation routes after a person in a situation that meets all four of these criteria:
1. The person must have been deceased for at least a year
2. The facility is long enough with defined endpoints
3. There is demonstrated statewide support
4. The person made a lasting and significant and historic contribution to Oregon
Sauvie, whose nonprofit develops affordable housing in the Lents area, thinks the case can be made.
“It was really amazing work in a month’s time to write 26 songs, and I really think the songs are some of the best things I can think of that really evoke the Northwest,” he said. “It’s really striking how some neighborhoods get a lot of attention and have a lot of assets and investment. There’s conversely a lot of neighborhoods that don’t get a lot of attention and what attention they do get is bad. I think it’s really important to celebrate the history and the contributions that all of Portland have brought to the community.”
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – email@example.com
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Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.