Portland transformed from a small trading village in the 1840s to the commercial crossroads of the Pacific Northwest by the end of the 19th century. The NW District, given its proximity to the water and adjacency to the original townsite, was at the forefront of that change.
The NW District is the product of four donation land claims that merged over time. Captain John Heard Couch, a wealthy mariner from Massachusetts, claimed 640 acres near the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. His land was directly north of Portland's original townsite and was formally added to the city twenty years after he purchased it in 1865. William Blakiston took 200 acres north of Couch's land–acreage he would later lose in lousy business dealings. Danford Balch took a claim northwest of Couch and Blakiston's land. And Amos King claimed the 535 acres that make up the rest of the NW District in 1849. He opened a tannery on his property.
Couch was the first to platt his land, creating NW Portland's earliest subdivision between what are now Ankeny and Kearney streets. Initially named by letters of the alphabet, this neighborhood became known as the Alphabet District. In 1891 the streets were renamed for prominent historical figures in Portland whose last names the aligned with the letters.
Up until 1872, most subdivided lands were broken up into what was considered a standard lot (200 x 200 feet). When Couch's widow was subdividing the last bit of their land claim, she doubled some of the lots (200 x 460 feet). When the King and Balch subdivided their donation claims, they went with this larger lot size. The larger lots, positioned up the hill, attracted wealthier Portlanders who took advantage of the additional space to build mansions with ample grounds. The area became known as Nob Hill, named after the fancy San Francisco neighborhood.
During the 1870s and 80s, the city more than doubled in size as the railway construction boom connected Portland with the rest of the Northwest and the U.S. The waterfront of the Willamette River developed into a bustling commercial area and the surrounding streets filled in with housing for workers.
This northern part of NW Portland earned the nickname Slabtown because workers heated their homes with the cast-off ends and slabs that piled up in the sawmills. Middle-class housing went up in the area in between the workers and the wealthy. Streetcar lines went in along Burnside, 16th, 23rd, Thurman and Savier streets. These well-trafficked routes soon became centers of commerce.
In 1905, the Lewis & Clark Exposition put the city of Portland on the map, bringing in 1.5 million visitors. The influx of people that followed wanted to live in the NW neighborhood but could not afford single-family homes. This wave of new residents inspired the development of different types of housing in NW Portland, including duplexes, 4-plexes, and even luxury apartments.
The automobile had significant impacts on the neighborhood. Affluent residents took advantage of their mobility and moved further up into the hills to neighborhoods like Council Crest, Kings Heights, and West Hills. Apartment buildings replaced Victorian mansions, and the area became the most densely populated neighborhood in Portland. Businesses gradually transitioned from moving goods by rail to trucking, increasing the need for additional land for loading and moving trucks. By the mid-1920s Slabtown was shifting from a residential area to a commercial one.
The city made a concerted effort in the 1950s and 60s to remove residences from large swaths of NW Portland and make it strictly commercial. In the early 1970s the entire area–except for Willamette Heights–was declared blighted. Around that same time, the Northwest District Association formed, and they worked with the PDC to keep specific areas of the NW District residential. The 1980s saw substantial reinvestment in the NW 23rd Street corridor, creating a booming retail district and encouraging both the renovation of old structures and new residential construction too.
NW District is one of Portland's earliest neighborhoods. There are layers of history there, and as a result, you can see examples of architecture from the late 1800s through new construction. You will find also find a mix of single-family and multi-family structures.
The NW District has great proximity to Portland’s major highways and downtown. There are numerous public transit options including the streetcar and buses, and the neighborhood is also pleasant and well-suited for walking because of the mix of residential, retail and commercial.
There are two schools inside the neighborhood boundary, Chapman Elementary (K-5) and the Metropolitan Learning Center (K-12), an alternative school that is part of Portland Public Schools. Emerson Elementary (K-5), a public charter school, is right next door in the Pearl District, and Lincoln High School is also nearby. For middle school, residents of NW District can attend any District 1J Portland Public School.
Couch Park sits near the southeast corner of the NW District. The park was created in 1975 with design input from students at the nearby Metropolitan Learning Center. In 2012 and again in 2014, the parks department had to remove portions of the play structures because of rot. Funding to upgrade the park was included in the 2014 Parks Replacement Bond. There was a ribbon cutting for the newly renovated play areas in May of this year.
Wallace Park is in the northwestern area of the neighborhood, conveniently located right next to Chapman Elementary. It’s a lovely and well-trafficked neighborhood park with a basketball court, softball and soccer fields, an off-leash dog area, and plenty of spots for picnicking.
The southeastern tip of Forest Park is one of the NW District’s neighborhood boundaries. Although the park is not officially part of the neighborhood, many of the park’s most popular trails can be accessed from within it.
In addition to being the gateway to some of Portland's best outdoor experiences (in Forest Park), there are plenty of great places to hang out inside too. Portlanders have been shopping and dining out along NW 21st and 23rd streets since the late 1800s. The neighborhood movie theater, Cinema 21 has been screening movies for 90 years! Maybe this is why it feels so natural to shop, eat, and wander in the NW District.
The only areas of the NW District that are strictly residential are the two northwestern fingers–Willamette Heights, and Forest Park NW District–all other parts of the neighborhood are a mix of commercial, retail and residential.
Walking either main drag–NW 21st or NW 23rd–in Nob Hill, is like taking a historical walking tour of Portland's food scene. The Ringside Steakhouse has been serving up steaks and martinis since 1944, just a few blocks away is newcomer Bhuna, introducing us to Indian Soul Food.
It's hard to imagine that Gus Van Sant filmed Drugstore Cowboy in Nob Hill in the late 80s because that's precisely when the local food movement was putting down roots here. Papa Hayden opened in 1983, followed by Wildwood (now closed) in 1994, Paley's Place in1995, and Ken's Artisan Bakery in 2001. Coffeehouse NW (2004) helped cement the city's third wave coffee scene. These businesses were some of the first to demonstrate what was possible when craft and skill was applied to the raw materials of the Pacific Northwest.
Nob Hill continues to attract unique restaurants and retailers because it has the highest housing density. More recently, Portlanders have show that they’re also interested in exploring the grittier parts of the NW District.
In the early aughts, when clothing designer Sarah Bibb opened her boutique, Folly, in the shadow of the I-405, there wasn't much else around, except for the ragtag creperie, Le Happy, and a couple of dive bars. Around the same time, eight blocks north of her, Steven Smith was crafting his first batches of tea in an old blacksmith's storefront.
Even with all of the newness that continues to come to the NW District, there are reminders of all that Portland has been since its earliest days. Besaw’s, the neighborhoods oldest restaurant (1903), and the first establishment in Oregon to get a liquor license, has rolled with the changes–prohibition, blight, brunch–through the years.
Just like the neighborhood, Besaw’s has reinvented itself many times over its hundred plus year-old history. And while its current incarnation is less scrappy than the original, it has remained true to its Northwest roots all along.