In this interview with History Press West’ s Jessica Harrington, returning author Polina Olsen discusses the lure of the 1960s and the Rose City’s contributions to one of the most vibrant eras in US history. In her newest book, Olsen combines historic research and interviews with Portlanders to go beyond the iconic images of the Sixties and provide a layered history of the city’s counterculture.
JH: The state of California–San Francisco in particular–has always been synonymous with the hippie movement, why do you think that is when other states were obviously just as involved in the movement?
PO: Maybe because a lot started there beginning with Lawrence Ferlinghetti opening the City Lights Bookstore during the beatnik age. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley shifted young people’s thinking around the country. Haight-Ashbury, psychedelic music, so much happened in San Francisco.
For Jim Gilbert and others, passing out free soup became a Lair Hill Park tradition during the ‘60s. Emery and Jo Ingham at the Psychedelic Supermarket on Southwest First Avenue made large pots each Sunday. The idea came from The Diggers, a San Francisco group that envisioned a society free from buying and selling. –Portland in the 1960s: Stories from the Counterculture
JH: In 2011, you wrote a book on the history of Jewish Portland, and now you have explored the 1960s era. What sparked your fascination for the history of Portland? In particular, what is it about 1960s Portland that inspired you to write this book?
PO: My interest in Portland history started on a personal note. Although all my grandparents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, like so many young people, I never asked about their early lives. When I learned about the Jewish immigrant neighborhood in Portland, I was sure the experiences would be similar, and I was right.
The ‘60s book is also personal since I’m a child of that era. Although I grew up around New York City, my experiences were much like the Portlanders I spoke to.
It’s a fascinating and controversial period. While some remember naïve or disingenuous young people who exaggerated their importance and ability to influence change, others who lived through the 1960s find themselves forever defined by them.
JH: How has Portland progressed or regressed since the 1960s? Is the city still divided or has there been continued political, personal, cultural, and religious growth?
PO: From what I’ve heard and read, Portland would be unrecognizable for someone who hasn’t seen it since the early 1960s. While today the city is known as a progressive, liberal, and artistic center, it once was politically and socially conservative with few alternatives for those who didn’t conform. Maurice Isserman, the co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s summed this up well: “Writing about the ‘60s, I argued that the left lost the political war and won the cultural war. While the politics of the country in the decades that followed the 1960s swung dramatically to the right, the right could never win the culture war. It could never go back to the prevailing culture of the 1950s.”
JH: In what ways did the 1960s effect the landscape of Portland today?
PO: Like many parts of the country, the “progress” brought by urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and ethnic centers. On the other hand, in 1968, Governor Tom McCall began studying options to replace Harbor Drive with a public park that has become a symbol of Portland.
JH: Do you have any personal attachments or affiliations to any of the events, people, or organizations you wrote about in this book?
PO: I personally relate to almost every chapter in the book. During the mid-1960s virtually all of my free time was spent in anti-Vietnam War activities in New York City. I was on the steering committee of The Student Peace Union and active in the Vietnam Peace Parade Committee. Experiences were similar to Portlanders I interviewed down to a favorite restaurant in Chinatown. I remember going to the Central Park’s first Be-In and hanging around Greenwich Village. This parallels the area around Lair Hill Park.
Joe Uris, Antonio Valdez, myself and some musical groups got together to do a free concert in Lair Hill Park. It was a cultural protest. We started doing music every Saturday, and within months, this got huge. Everyone in the neighborhood came. PH Phactor Jug Band and Great Pumpkin always played, but we had other groups. It was a Portland Be-In. –Patrick Lloyd Jones, Portland in the 1960s: Stories from the Counterculture
And, speaking of Lair Hill Park, this is the same neighborhood where Jewish and Italian immigrants lived during the early 1900s. I’ve written several books on that era and still give walking tours. Now, I talk about the immigrants and the 1960s. The park where children once played became ground zero of the city’s hippie era. Mrs. Maccoby’s old Jewish grocery evolved into the Psychedelic Supermarket. That building, sadly, has been torn down, but I still point out the spot.
JH: Are any of the buildings/homes where these events took place still around today? If yes, can people visit them if they take a trip to Portland?
PO: So many 1960s era icons still stand that I’m thinking of drawing a map. Visitors to Portland should certainly stop by the Crystal Ballroom and see the poster from Allen Ginsberg’s 1967 visit. Walk around Lair Hill and see the old, now gentrified houses and park. Paul Hebb, who owned the 13th Avenue Gallery in Sellwood tells me little has changed although the building is now Grand Central Bakery.
Portland State’s student newspaper published a photo story prior to my reading. The text included an inaccurate report that the school had requested and I had complied with a request to behave at Portland State with some especial “propriety.” Fortunately, for everybody’s sanity no such request had been made. –Allen Ginsberg, The Oregonian
Then there’s the once Centenary-Wilbur Church which headquartered so many of the city’s alternative organizations. Stop by and have dinner in the downstairs café. Kent Ford, once the leader of Portland Black Panther Party, still give tours of significant sites. For a step back in time, visitors shouldn’t miss Darcelle’s in Old Town. The famous female impersonator once owned the city’s first beatnik coffeehouse.
JH: Are there any museums or exhibits in Portland today that pay homage to 1960s?
PO: Yes, there’s quite a bit of interest. The Oregon Historical Society recently featured A History of Popular Music including posters from the 1960s. The new permanent exhibit “Oregon Voices,” includes a display from that era. Facebook pages like “I Remember the Psychedelic Supermarket,” and “Dead Memories Portland,” keep people in touch. The Storefront Theater also has an active Facebook page along with a reunion in a Portland park each year.
Polina Olsen is a freelance writer and author of Stories from Jewish Portland (History Press 2011) and other books on local history. She grew up in New York and was active in the Student Peace Union and Vietnam Peace Parade Committee during the 1960s. She traveled throughout Asia and South America for several years and in 1977 settled in Oregon with her British husband, Andy. She is a University of Oregon graduate in computer science and worked for high technology companies for more than twenty years.