Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, prides itself on historic preservation, but it takes considerable dedication to keep this reputation.
At Tuesday’s Historic Landmarks Commission meeting, local historian John Goodenberger gave a presentation titled “Overlooked Astoria” that highlighted the history embedded in every corner of town — and made clear that the community has much to lose if it isn’t careful.
Alongside the obvious assets worth preserving — such as Victorian homes and other specimens of antique architecture — are relics that even locals fail to notice.
On the city’s north slope, for example, pedestrians will encounter dark brass rings set into concrete curbs. These are horse rings, once used to tie the reins of horses.
In some spots, portions of old brick streets remain.
The 1300 block of Franklin Avenue, Goodenberger said, may represent a compromise between horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles: The center of the street was laid with brick for the animals, while the sides were paved for cars.
“We’re talking about really, really, really small things,” he said. “But it also does matter, because our homes and our cities are alike: The loss of small parts can add up quickly.”
The value of historic preservation extends beyond physical structures. A town’s oral history and urban legends, which can reveal a crucial context for what took place there, are also important.
Growing up in Astoria, Goodenberger heard tales of a Chinese encampment in the nearby forest. Some folks said that on a spring day, a hiker could still smell the herbs and vegetables growing in a Chinese garden.
Though Chinese immigrants settled in Astoria, they were not welcomed wholeheartedly.
“Back in the 1920s, we ran many of our Chinese out of town,” Goodenberger said. A handful of them fled to the hills above Astoria.
About a decade ago, while he was working on a document for the city listing Astoria’s historic resources, Goodenberger decided to track down the rumored encampment.
He knew the general area where the camp would have been situated and, after a failed attempt to find it unaccompanied, explored the area with a city employee.
On their hands and knees, they crawled through the underbrush, looking for artifacts. Eventually, they found part of a Chinese tea cup and other tell-tale objects. (The Komodo dragon rumored to roam the area to the present day was not discovered.)
“We were able — we think — to locate about where (the encampment) is,” Goodenberger said.
He and the city don’t make a habit of revealing the archaeological site’s whereabouts to the public, lest people start raiding it.
This may not seem like a lesson Astorians would need to learn. But this is the same city that went on a demolition binge between 1965 and 1974.
During this period, the city of Astoria demolished, or compelled property owners to demolish, more than 150 problematic buildings to prevent the struggling community from becoming an eyesore-ridden ghost town.
Goodenberger, who teaches a course in historic preservation at Clatsop Community College, said it is easy to justify demolishing or removing an old building when the community’s mindset declares: “‘There are so many others like it,’ ‘It just doesn’t have any value,’ or ‘No one will miss it when it’s gone.’”
“We have a choice: We can be mindful of our homes and our neighborhoods, maintain its character and character-defining elements; we can support and promote codes and ordinances which protect our assets; we can vote for candidates who share these values, but we must be vigilant — or not,” he said.
“Should we choose to ignore our historic resources, so will everyone else,” he continued. “Potential industry, investors, small business, new residents and the next generation will, as well. And we will simply be overlooked.”