History for Jaqueline Peterson is about buildings and their occupants, about street life, about gypsies and sailors and immigrant workers-and little girls eager to show off their toy airplanes. History is about place and about everyday life.
Peterson, a professor of history at Washington State University at Vancouver, is president of the Old Town History Project in Portland, Oregon, just across the Columbia River from campus. The oldest surviving historic district in Portland, Old Town is bounded by the Willamette River, Burnside, the trainyards, and Broadway.
Prompted by stirrings toward development in the district and the realization that much of the area’s architecture had already been lost, the project aims to remember the area’s rich working class ethnic history in a number of ways.
Project participants are gathering oral histories of the area, taping them for later analysis. Photographs brought in by Old Town residents are digitized as part of a virtual archive. Such is the case with the accompanying photo of the Maletis family, dating from the 1920s, brought to the Old Town History Project’s storefront office by Mary Maletis, who is the little girl with the airplane.
The project has also initiated “insider’s tours” of the area. Longtime residents give guided tours of Old Town, sharing their personal perspectives on the area’s rich past.
Known variously as Japan Town, the North End, China Town, and other designations, Old Town has been home to many ethnic groups: Greeks, Roma, Scandinavians, African Americans, Native Americans, Italians, Irish, and southern whites, as well as Chinese and Japanese. This varied and continually shifting heritage was artfully summarized in the first of a series of project installations in Old Town called “Illuminations.” Animator Rose Bond distilled 120 years of the district’s history into a 12-minute animation projected through the second-story windows of the Seaman’s Bethel Building.
The “Illuminations” series was inspired by early American torchlight parades. Illustrated banners bearing artisans’ and workingmen’s party insignia were hung from buildings along the parade route and backlit by candles.
Bond wove together story fragments, symbols, gestures, and sound, telling the story of the 122-year-old building, starting with its first use as a rooming house and chapel for sailors intended to insulate them from the area’s Chinese prostitutes. The story of the building continues through its successive incarnations as Japanese and Chinese social clubs and as a fortune-telling parlor.
Early last fall, Bond’s “Illumination #1” ran on a number of evenings. Crowds gathered on the street across from the Seaman’s Bethel building watched the animated history loop over and over, cheering and applauding each time.
Peterson’s public history students helped recreate the story of the Seaman’s Bethel Building and other buildings in the district. Peterson hopes to write a book about the district’s history.