Old Town is Portland′s Original Urban Core
The discovery of gold in California in 1849 opened the West Coast to immigrants from all part of America and from Southeast China. When ship transportation between San Francisco and Portland began in 1851, Portland was incorporated as a city.
The Chinese and Japanese were among many immigrants who found work and refuge in the area, which would be known over the next 150 years by a succession of names: The North End, White Chapel, Burnside, Skid Road, Old Town and Old Town/Chinatown.
From the 1850s until the 1950s, Old Town also was home to large numbers of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, African Americans, Greeks, German, Sephardic and Russian Jews, Filipinos, and Roma residents and workers.
Early street scene in Portland’s Oldtown
Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, established 1907
Skidmore/Old Town Historic District
The Skidmore/Old Town Historic District was Portland’s first recognized historic district, and it is one of only two National Historic Landmarks in the city. The district also is important for its exceptional architecture, including one of the finest collections of cast-iron buildings in the nation.
Portland’s pioneer merchant-entrepreneurs transformed the city from a stump-strewn clearing to the cultural, financial, trade and transportation hub of the Pacific Northwest — second only to San Francisco as a “metropolis” of the Far West. Its trade houses, commission agents, steamship companies and financial institutions, clustered along Front and First streets in and near Old Town, supplied the goods, services and trade connections that supported the development of Oregon and the greater Pacific Slope region.
The district also offered important social services for the working classes and various ethnic and social groups, including: lodging for itinerant workers, sailors, and loggers; union halls; reading rooms; missions and chapels; ethnic publishing houses; and various popular entertainment and vice venues such as saloons, gambling halls, burlesque houses and brothels.
Gathering at Andrew Kim’s House, Portland, 1895
Wing Sing & Company, during the Portland flood of 1894 — The Willamette River rose 33 feet above normal. Water extended as far as Northwest 12th Avenue and Kearney Street. Shoppers and merchants rowed to stores on flat-bottomed boats.
The Chinatown/Japantown Historic District
The Asian immigrant story was different from those of other immigrants to Portland. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not repealed until 1943 by the Magnuson Act, and the inclusion of the Japanese under the Chinese Exclusion Act’s provisions after 1924, the Chinese and Japanese were more restricted in their movements beyond Portland’s wharf and train station.
In the face of threats of deportation, and a climate of discrimination and racial hostility, Chinese and Japanese immigrant workers and families built strong immigrant ethnic communities, adapting the existing built environment to reflect their Asian heritage. This included housing the growth of institutions such as schools, churches, family associations and political and social clubs, as well as offices and stores for doctors and dentists, pharmacies, groceries, laundries, hotels, restaurants, theatres, recreational and gambling establishments, and many other businesses.
The Japantown area suddenly disappeared in the spring of 1942. It is accepted wisdom that Japanese Internment ended Japantown or Nihonmachi in Old Town. However, a map of residential hotels managed by Japanese returnees in the 1950s listed as many hotels as before World War II. Moreover, until the early 2000s, major Japanese and Japanese American political and cultural institutions such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese Ancestral Society, as well as several Japanese restaurants and businesses remained in Japantown. A major tourist destination, the Japanese-American National Plaza, and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center both are strong reminders of the Japanese historical presence, just as they are sources of pride for Portland’s Nikkei community today.