Only 6 streets in Portland are named after people of color.
Given Oregon’s history, this is isn’t exactly unexpected, but I still find myself surprised at just how low the number is.
Three are civil rights heroes with streets named for them across the country: Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez. Three are what you might call hometown heroes–people with ties to the region. Sacajawea and York were members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Bill Naito was a Portland civic leader.
Even then, the names aren’t always respected. Portland likes to portray itself as an inclusive community, but you should see the snarky comments on r/Portland whenever someone mentions Cesar E. Chavez Blvd (true Portlanders still call it 39th Ave, I guess?)
(To note, I wasn’t able to confirm without a doubt that the 375 other streets were named after white people. I do think it’s a reasonable assumption, though. Most of these streets are named after 19th century landowners and real estate developers–not likely to be anything other than white.)
Women are also extremely sparsely represented among Portland street names. I was able to find 18 streets with known female namesakes.
There are about 40 other roads bearing female first names for which I could find no origin, including, I’m pleased to say, Erin Way (2 blocks long, has a Les Schwab). Most are super tiny, on average just a quarter mile long. Because I could not establish whether or not these streets were named after actual people, I did not include them in my total of woman-named streets.
Unsurprisingly, the women I were able to identify are overwhelmingly the wives of prominent men (10) or royalty (3).
Just 4 or 5 have streets named after them for their own accomplishments.
And, of course, we can’t not talk about Harvey Milk Street. To my knowledge, it’s the only road in Portland named after an openly LGBTQ+ person. It’s a 13-block stretch of road that was renamed in 2017.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Harvey Milk Street. Is it symbolic and meaningful? Of course. But should the city have chosen to honor someone with actual ties to Portland? I think yes.
Put together, these 23 streets are pitifully tiny. They make up just 1.6% of Portland’s total road milage. For comparison, streets honoring white men make up 26% of road milage.
So what can we do?
To be honest, I don’t really know. Rename some streets, probably. Especially out on the east side, which has exactly 1 street named for a woman (Barbara Welch Blvd).
If the city were to rename any streets, I’d love to see more Portland-centric names chosen. Naito Parkway is a great example–if it didn’t exist, I’d never have heard of Bill Naito, a Portland legend. Surely there are other great Portlanders who deserve the honor of a road.
How I made the charts
This was a super straightforward project, made much simpler by my purchase of Portland Names and Neighborhoods by Eugene E. Snyder. Published in the 1970s, it includes the origins of over 900 street names, and it was definitely worth the $20-odd I paid for it.
I supplemented that book with good ol’ Google, and managed to find the origins of 61% of Portland street names.
From there, the viz was nothing special, just the usual combo of R to map the roads and Photoshop to create the annotations.
If you have any leads on other street names…
Please do let me know.