We don’t have any scientific polls to back this up, but we feel pretty confident in the assertion that this time of year, pink cherry blossoms are the most photographed subject in Portland….and by “this time of year” we mean right now. If you want to catch peak blossoms in this city, late March to early April is most likely your window. We thought we’d share our some of our favorite cherry tree locations and give a bit of local cherry tree history. And as is often the case with history, the stories are often checkered and upsetting…even stories about pretty pink blossoms.
Japanese American Historical Plaza
The northern-most section of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland is the most popular destination to see cherry trees in bloom. Certainly the most photographed. What you may not be aware of is that the stretch showcasing beautiful pink blossoms each Spring is designated as the Japanese American Historical Plaza.
Along with the showy Akebono cherry trees, the plaza features thirteen stones engraved with poetry and stories sharing the history of the Japanese immigrant experience, the unjust incarceration of the over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and honors those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces while their families were in the camps.
The next time you visit, look for the stone at the center of the plaza which lists the ten internment camps. The base of this stone is surrounded by an irregular pattern of flagstones representing the broken dreams of the internees. A bronze plaque embedded in the last stone has excerpts from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, including an apology for the unlawful imprisonment of people of Japanese ancestry, 2/3 of whom were American Citizens.
In 1988, the City of Portland decided to complete the north end of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which bordered Nihomachi, the area known as Japantown, on one side. Before World War II, this was where many Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked. Under the sponsorship of the Japanese American Citizens League, landscape architect Robert Murase had his designs approved for the plaza that locals and tourists have been enjoying since its dedication in 1990.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon is currently closed but they have lots of great information on their website if you want to learn more about this part of Oregon’s past. You may want to add a visit to your bucket list once they are up and running again.
Albina District Cherry Trees
If you walk around North Portland in the early Spring, you can’t help but notice the quantity of mature flowering trees that line many residential streets in the area. But, the story behind how these particular trees came to beautify very specific areas of North Portland is one mired in racism and discrimination.
After the Vanport Flood displaced many African Americans residents, those who remained in Portland faced discriminatory real-estate zoning known as “redlining”, an embarrassing blight on our own industry. Redlining effectively restricted African Americans to live in the the Albina District which includes the Boise, Eliot, King, Sabin, Overlook, Piedmont, and Humboldt neighborhoods. In 1960, with legacy of housing discrimination still evident, nearly four out of every five black Portlanders lived in Albina. Urban development projects, like Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital further displaced significant numbers of residents and black owned businesses. During this period, while much of the city celebrated relative affluence, members of Albina’s black community were experiencing poverty and city disinvestment in their neighborhoods.
In 1961, local black leaders organized as the Albina Neighborhood Improvements Committee and obtained $1 million in federal funds to revitalize their neighborhoods. The Albina Tree Planting Program was part of the larger revitalization project and began planting trees in 1962. The program had the goals of beautifying the area and fostering a deeper sense of place.
Throughout the twelve years of the program, leaders favored planting the Kwanzan flowering cherry, which is why we see so many of these beautiful pink blossomed trees today. It’s fair to guess that most mature flowering cherries you might see in the Albina District were planted as part of the Albina Tree Planting Program. The program also planted other species including: Incense Cedar, Japanese Maples, Dogwood, and Tulip trees, which are also still in abundance around North Portland.
One small note, many of the trees planted back in the 1960s have far outgrown their planting strips and are either dying or have created sidewalk hazards, thus are coming to the end of their life spans. A number of these historic trees have been or will be replaced. So, take in the pink splendor while you can, and keep in mind where they came from and why.
Digging into history is something else, isn’t it? Perhaps, from here on out when Portland’s cherry trees start to blossom, it can serve as a reminder that we can all do better for our neighbors, communities, and city.