By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer
If there’s one thing that has changed the food landscape of Northeast Portland, it was the rise of the automobile, says Doug Decker, local historian and expert on early-century Northeast Portland. We’re eating lunch in Dar Salaam, the delicious Iraqi restaurant on Alberta. We’re trying to understand the phases that our corner of the city has gone through in regards to food: how we eat it, where we eat it, what we eat.
But even before the car, he says, the food culture of Portland begins and ends with salmon. Before settlers scratched out a city from the muddy banks of the Willamette, there were creeks and gullies running all throughout the eastside and emptying into the river. These streams were full of salmon and the Natives that lived here before the arrival of Europeans relied on this bountiful food supply, as did the settlers.
After the era of salmon but before the reign of the car in Portland, he says, Portland’s extensive streetcar system shaped the Eastside. It operated on a wide network of tracks that ranged from the city center all the way east to Estacada and even south to Salem. Real estate development followed the streetcar lines (in fact, they were often financed by real estate speculators) which led inevitably to the Eastside quickly growing denser. Small mom-and-pop grocers sprouted up to meet the demand, with both mom and pop as well as their kids often living upstairs from the storefront.
This explosion of small grocers laid the foundation for how we ate in this era: since there was little commercial transit then, these stores only carried local produce. And local meant hyper-local: produce might have come from as near as Fernhill Park in Concordia, which back then was a maze of small farms. The stores sold other goods in bulk barrels – think nuts, flours, and other baking goods – that came from other crops in and around the Portland area.
But it also meant something more intangible: people knew their grocers as well as their neighbors. There was no car to isolate yourself in on your way to a big box supermarket. Instead, people walked to the store and talked to their neighbors along the way. They had relationships with the store owners who often sold food on credit with no interest rates required, just the simple trust in repayment that’s built through long-standing neighborly relationships.
But the car changed all that. As car use rose, the streetcar declined and was soon abandoned entirely. In its place, the car allowed families to travel much further to shop, and that led to the consolidation of the small grocers into bigger and bigger stores, eventually becoming supermarkets.
As far as Doug sees it, one of the main downfalls of this shift towards cars was the lack of community that results. In his view, food is the center of any society, any neighborhood, and the traditions that surround it. Once people stopped walking up the street to their neighborhood grocer, they also stopped being forced to interact with their neighbors on the street and in the store and a certain cohesion was lost. But at the same time, that is just how time works: things change.
But perhaps they don’t always change as much as they appear. We are talking inside a restaurant on a street that has certainly seen a lot of change over the years. But ever since the first streetcar tracks were laid down Alberta, it has been a place full of small businesses where people have come to eat, drink and shop, just as it is today.
In the early part of last century, open-air farmer’s markets were a common sight around Alberta and people congregated around the grocery stores and small shops up and down Alberta. Today, small businesses still dominate, with new restaurants taking the place of the grocery stores of old, but bringing food to the neighborhood nonetheless.
As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’And often, it tastes pretty good too.
Doug Decker is the neighborhood historian behind the always-awesome blog, AlamedaHistory.org