The margins of history, ecology, and culture overlap in stories about hidden hydrology. This is evident in a 2016 article by Putsata Reang in Oregon Humanities, entitled ‘The Farmers of Tanner Creek’ that looks at this convergence in Portland and the history in the Goose Hollow area to the southwest of downtown.
The article investigates the shadow economy of Chinese immigrants that gardened on the fringes of the city of Portland around the turn of the century. Alternatively referenced as “Vegetable Man” or “Chinaman”, Reang leads with the legders of the Mills family, who “likely hefted his produce in wicker baskets hung from a pole and slung across his shoulder, trekking uphill from the gulch along Tanner Creek in Southwest Portland where his garden grew and along the hill to the Mills’ mansion every day, faithfully, for much of 1907.”
The photo above shows the area around 1892, where “Tanner Creek runs between Chinese gardens and shanties” on what is now the site of Providence Park, where the Portland Timbers soccer team plays.
The story also notes that around 1910 that these gardens and “vegetable men” started to disappear from life, a combination of urban expansion and racism which made the land more valuable and more likely to lead to displacement. Perhaps something we can learn from again with massive growth and gentrification that is occuring in Portland and many other cities. As Tracy Prince is quoted:
““It was real estate that was once undesirable and became desirable that disbanded the vegetable garden community,” says Tracy J. Prince, professor emeritus at Portland State University. “The same pressures are gentrifying Northeast Portland, having the black community move out.”
The draw for Chinese immigrants to the area may have been the location adjacent to the creek, which Reang mentions “the lure of that wild land and an interest in cultivating crops that many had brought from their homes in the agrarian Pearl River Delta of China, an area known for terraced farming,”
The land was considered less desirable by settlers, but for immigrants aligned with floodplain food production, using the rich soils to maximize yields. The first removal of the natural channel of Tanner Creek was also the reason for the gardens to exist:
“When a wooden bridge over the creek that connected the burgeoning neighborhoods from 14th Street to 17th Avenue North collapsed during a flood in 1873, the city used the calamity as an opportunity not only to repair the bridge, but also to tame Tanner Creek. That summer, the City of Portland contracted Chinese workers to build a 115-foot cylindrical culvert to pipe the creek sixty feet below Burnside Street, a solution that both controlled and ultimately prevented flooding in the area.”
The workers stayed and cultivated the areas, eventually growing on 20 acres of land, with many gardeners avoiding the perils of other urban jobs and selling their produce to local residents, many who employed Chinese cooks, according to the article. While the land was undesirable, there was no issue, even without ownership, to using it for production. The dark history of racism in Portland started early, as mentioned, and this was directed specifically at Chinese, as “Oregon’s state constitution of 1859 barred anyone of Chinese descent from owning property, which meant that the Chinese gardeners could be evicted from their farms at any moment.”
Eventually expansion and development led to the demise of both Tanner Creek and the gardeners that capitalized on the floodplains, land was taken for building the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1893, moving gardeners south, until eventually they were move out completely, as populations spiked around the turn of the century.
Ironically for a town that prides itself on food carts, the other mechanism, the adoption of policies limiting street vending – as the article mentions, quoting Marie Rose Wong, who wrote about the Chinese gardens in her book, Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: “In 1897, the Portland Common Council adopted an ordinance requiring street vendors within city limits to obtain a license—a move that angered white owners of several fish companies that were affected by the law. The white business owners protested and by 1910, the city adopted an additional ordinance limiting the area of downtown where street peddlers could sell their wares to an area that effectively covered most of downtown Portland. Those who sold meats, fish, ice, bread, and newspapers were exempted from the ordinance, which effectively banned only the Chinese vegetable peddlers from operating.”
The crux of the story is that there are hidden stories of people embedded in the narratives of hidden hydrology, in this case the fates of Tanner Creek intertwined with those that helped to literally build grow Portland, attempting to use the creek to cultivate a life amidst forces of racism and development.
The article is a great reminder of the layers of history that exist, from native peoples that occupied spaces these places prior to European settlement, as well as the diversity of those, many often overlooked in white washed histories, that contributed to the early life of these cities, and continue to contribute today. It also is a tale about development, and marginal spaces that seem worthless until pressures make them desirable, and that impulse to remove impediments to development.
A great additional narrative of Goose Hollow, and where I remember first seeing these images of farms, is the book “Portland’s Goose Hollow” by Prince, worthy of a good summary on the site as well, as it does unlock some mysteries about “how Goose Hollow got its name and how Tanner Creek Gulch was filled.” Another photo from the Oregon Encyclopedia history of Goose Hollow shows a slightly different view, capturing the view, circa 1890s, of the creek running under the trestle bridge, with the Chinese vegetable gardens in the lowlands and Portland High School in the distance.
Another from the same source shows the Chinese truck gardens sprawling around Tanner Creek Gulch a bit earlier, from the 1880s.