Tuesday, December 27, 2011


There is a useful Pidgin expression I learned from a Hawaiian fellow: "Tengs ah neba no!" It is to be said with the mouth slightly ajar and an expression of amazement at having learned a new and interesting fact. I have been finding myself muttering this to myself a lot lately as I delve into my city's sordid history. Charles Dickens had given a world wide notoriety to the seedy, whore mongering (in the correct sense), haven of drug and drink in London with the ironic name "Whitechapel". It wasn't long before the name was bestowed on the districts of other cities that bore a similar infamy. Portland has done a rather good job of stowing its skeletons in places that are out of the way and hard to find, so when I kept bumping into the mention of "Portland's Whitechapel district" in nineteenth century newspapers it took me awhile to realize that this was a "district of the soul" and not one that I would not find on any map of the day.

I did, however, chance upon a talk given in 1901 by the Rev. J. E. Snyder at a meeting of the Men's League of the First Baptist Church.  The account tells how Reverend Snyder "exhibited a chart he had prepared of conditions of the district known as Whitechapel, 14 blocks, bounded by Pine, Second. Flanders and Fourth streets In which he stated there were 131 dives or disorderly houses, 42 saloons, 14 lodging-houses and several pawnbrokers' shops." As shocking as this may sound Rev. Snyder might have missed a few brothels, if some other reports I have seen are accurate. Some of these places were actually warehouses divided into "cribs" for the working ladies.

This district was near the waterfront, which was at that time rotting wharfs and docks thrown up in boom times and subjected to flood, flame, and constant winter drizzle. It was a "colorful" period, but one I am happy to observe from the safe distance of over a century removed in time. The lowlife and infamy of this place will be given some serious treatment in the book I am busily writing. If I don't cover it all here, I will try to do it there.

Here I have thrown together for your education and enjoyment what may be the only map in existence of Portland's Whitechapel.