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Growing up in St. Johns:
a Portland, Oregon neighborhood

by Dianne Kochenburg

Wanna go to the movies? The St. Johns Cinema is still open for business!

Portland, Oregon is my home town. I left it when I was 20. I've been back a few times but I never go to the neighborhoods where I lived as a child, namely, Kenton and St. Johns. Last year my daughter Karen took another one of her summer camping trips and she spent a day or two in Portland. We were texting and I was following her on the app called Find my Friends. We had a good time when she decided to wander through St. Johns. She says it looks like a neighborhood in transition, lots of restaurants and interesting places to hang out.

As I remember, it was sort of charming when I was a little girl in the early 1950s. It's located in North Portland at the end of the St. Johns bus line. There was a small village-like shopping area where the St. Johns bridge ends. I remember a department store, a shoe store, lots of small shops and cafes, a bakery and the movie theater, where I spent lots of time. Also the bakery, loved the bakery.

Before we moved to St. Johns I lived in Kenton for 6 years, and I had lots of friends there. Us kids did everything together, all that 1950s stuff. We took the bus downtown, no adults needed. We walked to the Kenton Theater on Saturday afternoons to see the cowboys. And again on Sunday afternoons so the adults could catch a break from all our noise. We all walked to school together, and hung around outside running from house to house playing all those games you have heard about.

My mom, my brothers (3) and I were all living with my grand parents. Mom was divorced from my dad who is a story for another time. Mom remarried and we moved to St. Johns, leaving my grandparents for the first time in years. However, St Johns was a neighborhood with a bad reputation -- mainly because that's where a the colored folks lived, and Portland was definitely a racially segregated city in those days. There was lots of tension. White folks were afraid of "the negroes" (they usually called them the N word), and were always gossiping about how uppity they were, trying to move out of their neighborhoods and into white territory. St. Johns was considered colored, even though it was mostly working-poor white families, with pockets of public housing for colored folks.

I would attend the local elementary school, called Sitton. It's still there in St. Johns. My mom walked me to school the first day and we met with the principal, who had my school records. Mrs. Herrington asked mom if it would be okay for me to be taught by a 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hill, who was colored. Mom said it was fine with her, but she had to sign a permission slip giving her approval for me to be taught by a negro teacher. Amazing. I remember sitting there while the two of them talked about what a good teacher Mrs. Hill was. I didn't question why mom had to give her permission. But I didn't forget it. I liked school and it didn't matter to me who the teacher was. I was somewhat afraid of teachers in general, and was just hoping for a class full of kids that I would fit in with.

School turned out to be wonderful, and Mrs. Hill was the best. I became the teacher's pet, big time, something that had never happened to me before. Mostly I had sat in the back of the classroom, did my work and wasn't an outstanding student. But at Sitton I was a star. The school I had gone to before was a little ahead of Sitton academically, and it showed, which was a very cool advantage for me. The class had a handful of black students. Mrs. Hill rode them hard to make sure they kept up with their work. Actually, she worked us all pretty hard, as I recall. She also tried subtly to get some ideas into our heads about the race problem. Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier, and she was a big baseball fan. We used to listen to ball games on the radio in the afternoon, and she tried to tell us how important it was that Jackie Robinson, a black man, was playing ball with white guys.

She was a great and memorable teacher in all ways and I was her helper. I could print well so she had me make big signs with all of the parts of speech on them. More signs to remind us when to use different punctuation, and math reminders. My printing was on all the walls of the room. So cool. Mrs. Hill wore black suits with white blouses and shoes with heels, very stylish. Sometimes she wore a scarf. We always knew when there was going to be a difficult lesson because would take off her jacket. Oh oh! She had allergies and would walk around our tables and tell us that we needed to bathe more often so her allergies wouldn't act up, and she wanted us all to use a deodorant. We all yes ma'amed that news because she would call us out if she could smell us. Lordy!

I made lots of friends, and 1950s life in St. Johns was much like it had been in Kenton. The only sad thing about moving to St. Johns was that my Kenton friends couldn't come to visit me. It would have been an easy trip. We all took the same city bus, the St. Johns line. They just got off earlier. But their moms would not let them travel the additional 10 minutes to St. Johns because it had such a bad reputation. That broke my heart because there was nothing scary or unusual about St. Johns, except that there were negroes living there, who never did anything scary. 


There is a park under the St. Johns bridge!

The St. Johns bridge is a thing of beauty, rising high over the Willamette River. It's one of many bridges that connect the west side of Portland with the east and north sides. Our house was close to the river and one of the only rules I remember from childhood was  never go down to the river, and never go under the St. Johns bridge. There was no park there then. Well, of course, we went down to the river, it was a great adventure. Mainly it was scrubby trees with trash littered around, and homeless people living in tents and shanties. We checked things out but stayed clear of the camps. It wasn't pretty, smelled bad, and you couldn't swim in the river, so it was just something we did because we weren't supposed to. Just look at it now. What an improvement.


The Wishing Well tavern. I remember this building very well.

I think this corner might have been the end of the bus line, where the bus turned and headed back downtown. It would sit there while the driver went in for a coffee (at least that's what I hope he had). A bus would often be idling unattended with the door open for passengers. Very convenient. I think I had to walk maybe three blocks to catch the bus. I rode the bus all over Portland, all the kids did.

This Signal station is listed on the historical registry. It's now a pizza place.

I did a Google and Wikipedia search of St. Johns and came up with lots of factoids. Many of St. Johns' buildings are now on the historical register, including the Wishing Well. Yup! Also the lovely old library, the movie theater and other random buildings in the area. I'm glad the city fathers thought enough about them to include them, since this is a part of Portland that has never been well loved. I hope that changes over time. I have very fond memories of the three years I lived there.

We left St. Johns when I graduated from Sitton. I of course wanted to stay and go to Roosevelt high school, but my step father said we needed to move. We were working poor, living on his meager salary, most of which he was drinking up.

His idea was that we would buy a trailer and move to Richland, Washington, so he could work at the Hanford atomic bomb factory. We did that. I hated it. What an awful place to live, a huge trailer park next to Hanford. They sprayed us with DDT every night to keep the mosquitoes down. It was hot, dusty and had an evil vibe. I was a teenager then and was very open about how I felt, and I hated every minute of Richland. My nagging worked, probably because it was the truth. About six months of Hanford was enough for him so my step father hitched up the trailer one night and we drove back to Portland. Happier days ahead.

Back in rainy Portland, we lived in a weedy trailer park for about a year. But the park was next to a very nice part of town in NE Portland, so I went to a rich kid school, far from my pals in St. Johns. (Two bus rides away now!) I missed them but didn't get in contact with them because they would have made fun of me for going to Grant high school. Life was hard enough for a poor kid in a rich school so I just sucked it up and started over again. Eventually we bought a little house just up the street from the trailer park, and life wasn't quite so hard. But by the time I was a senior in high school my step dad was ready to move again. So I went back to my grand parents and they took off for California in another trailer, which was probably a good idea, because ... California. But as far as childhood memories go, the St. Johns years remain a highlight for me.

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