Exploring the Overlook Neighborhood / by Chris Bonner

photo credit: Willamette Week

photo credit: Willamette Week

Overlook is perched above the Willamette River in North Portland. Its eastern and western flanks are defined by two of Portland's major thoroughfares: the Willamette River and the I-5 corridor. N Ainsworth and Willamette Boulevard define the northern boundary, which border Arbor Lodge and University Park neighborhoods. The southeastern border is the I-405 freeway.

Swan Island has always been an industrial area and an important part of the Overlook neighborhood; technically it hasn't been an island since the 1920s when it was connected to the east bank of the Willamette by landfill. When the Portland Neighborhood Association redrew neighborhood boundaries in the 1970’s they intentionally kept Swan Island within the Overlook neighborhood to ensure that residents would have a voice in decisions about traffic to and from the industrial area.

Residents of Overlook have easy access to the I-5 and 405 freeways and also the Killingsworth, N Prescott, and Overlook Park stops on yellow line of the MAX light rail. More


There are two elementary schools within Overlook, Beach Elementary School, and Trillium Charter School, and one middle school, Ockley Green Middle School. Jefferson High in the adjacent Humboldt neighborhood, to the east of I-5, is the closest public high school.

First designated as a park in 1930, Overlook Park boasts wonderful views of the west hills and downtown Portland along with a range of amenities–basketball court, play structure, baseball diamond, volleyball court, off-leash dog area, and reservable picnic tables to name a few. Mock Crest is a small park offering residents picture-perfect sunset views and a great spot for an afternoon picnic. There are additional parks just a short walking distance from central Overlook in adjacent neighborhoods such as Arbor Lodge and Peninsula Parks.

Though not a park, Willamette Boulevard is a treasured neighborhood corridor for runners, walkers, and cyclists. The road runs along the bluff from Overlook up to the University of Portland campus, offering beautiful views of the river, downtown and the west side.


Overlook has a rich history beginning with the formation of the bluffs it sits upon from debris washed down the Columbia River during the Missoula Floods. During the 1800s–before Overlook was a neighborhood–the area was part of the city of Albina, which incorporated with Portland and East Portland in the 1890s. Businessman and automobile enthusiast Earnest Henry Wemme was the first to invest heavily in real estate in the Overlook neighborhood in the early 1900’s. Around this time roads were laid throughout the area and streetcar lines followed development west and north toward St. Johns.

In 1916, the city accepted a proposal to combine Patton and Maryland Avenues, to form a new road called Interstate Ave. The idea behind the merge was to create a route connecting downtown to the new Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington, hence the name Interstate Avenue. Initially, the avenue stopped at the bluff overlooking Swan Island; it wasn't until nearly a decade later that the lower section of Interstate was developed down to the junction with Broadway. As automobile traffic steadily increased along Interstate Avenue service stations proliferated throughout the 1930s. This commercial development coincided with a housing boom that built many of the homes remaining in the area today.

Swan Island was the site of Portland’s first airport from the late 20s through the early 1940s when it outgrew the site. The airport’s need to relocate coincided with Henry J. Kaiser’s need for a site for his second shipyard in the Portland and Vancouver area. Kaiser had contracts with the US Government to build naval ships for the war effort. The influx of laborers to staff these shipyards played a major role in reshaping the social, political and economic history of Portland. 

Kaiser had been a contractor to the government on other large infrastructure projects namely building roads and dams–Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Bonneville–all heavy construction projects requiring thousands of laborers. Early on Kaiser realized the need for health and emergency medical services for his crews so he partnered with physicians to create a pre-payment plan for his employees. The Liberty Shipyards, as the three Portland and Vancouver locations were collectively called, used this model to provide care for the more than 100,000 workers they employed at their peak. When the war ended, Kaiser opened up this healthcare plan to the public.

In the late 1950’s Kaiser built a hospital in the Overlook neighborhood, on the slope above Swan Island. The hospital was named for Kaiser’s wife Bess and remained open until 1998. The property was subsequently purchased by Adidas to serve as the site for their US Headquarters.

A major change came to Overlook in the early 1960’s when the route for the I-5 corridor was approved to run alongside the neighborhood. Residents were displaced and traffic along Interstate Avenue plummeted. The Overlook Neighborhood Association formed in the 1970’s and began rebuilding the community that thrives today.

Points of Interest

Overlook House is a neighborhood treasure. The home was built in 1928 by Herman and Elvira Raven, owners of Raven Dairy then located in downtown Portland. The Ravens were a civic-minded couple, always welcoming charitable organizations and community groups to host meetings and fundraisers in their home.

When Mr. Raven passed away, his wife sold the Overlook House to the City of Portland for $1 with the intention that the house to remain a neighborhood community center. The city managed the property as such until the early aughts when Friends of Overlook, a subgroup of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, took over management of the property to protect and maintain it as a resource for neighborhood residents.

The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, currently managed by the City of Portland, was constructed in 1910 and operated as a firehouse up until 1959. Over 25 years later, the interior was fully renovated as a center for the arts with a 100-seat theater along with an art gallery, dance studio, and space for rehearsals or classes. Closed for a brief period, the IFCC is scheduled to reopen in 2018 and continue to serve its original mission to explore, preserve and celebrate diversity while honoring its history and roots in the African American community.

Exploring the Neighborhood

Killingsworth has always been a major commercial street in Overlook. Wandering the length between Interstate and Greeley avenues today you will find an array of services supporting neighborhood residents—a service station, a veterinarian, an acupuncture clinic, an auto body shop, and foot reflexology clinic—along with an array of restaurants and bars.

Head to the Northern outpost of Portland favorite Lucky Lab Brewing for lunch or to the sun-dappled back patio of Backyard Social–a bar and restaurant with solid fare and a PNW-focused tap list. Explore whiskeys from around the globe at The Old Gold–a friendly neighborhood watering hole. Hit up centrally located Milk Glass Market–a bright café and market serving breakfast and lunch plates with locally sourced ingredients–for all your farm-to-table needs. Take in a game shoulder to shoulder with locals at one of the old-school joints George’s Tavern or Greeley Avenue Bar & Grill. The options are limitless!

Venture east, across Interstate Avenue, on NE Killingsworth to try two of the neighborhood’s most recent additions: Garagiste Wine Bar serving lighter fare and wines from neighborhood winemaker Jan Marc Cellars, and a bar called Up North Surf Club with a laid back vibe and a dynamic tap list of beer and ciders.

There are still plenty of neon signs along Interstate Avenue–vestiges of the days when this was a major thoroughfare lined with motels, service stations and restaurants trying to draw in late-night customers–but there are also beloved Portland institutions like The Alibi Tiki Lounge, operating since 1947, where you can have lunch or dinner and do karaoke! The Interstate corridor has undergone extensive development increasing the number of apartments and condos available to rent. Along with residences, restaurants and services have popped up along the Avenue. There are now two yoga studios in Overlook, a tranquil spa called Blooming Moon Wellness, and Eisenhower Bagels a bagel maker and café.

If you’re up for an active afternoon, put on your sneakers and wander along Willamette Boulevard from NE Ainsworth, taking in the unobstructed views of the river and Forest Park. Continue along Willamette Boulevard through the heart of the neighborhood and turn right on N Concord Avenue. Continue across the Going footbridge, hang a right on N Skidmore Court and follow it to Mock Crest–a small park that is one of the best places in the city to take in a sunset. Retrace your steps on N Skidmore Court and continue on until you reach Interstate Ave. From here you have your pick of places to satisfy your hunger; grab bar snacks at Miho Izakaya, located in a 100-year old craftsman style home, enjoy a plate of spicy wings at Fire on the Mountain, or take the family to Patton Maryland for a Southern-inspired meal.

Meandering through Overlook’s streets you will find examples of architecture from every decade of the 20th century. Come and explore to find your favorite part of this beautiful, bustling neighborhood!  


Overlook at a glance

Population: 6,093

Households: 2,619

Owned: 1,700 (64.9%)

Rented: 919 (35.1%)

Household: 2.3 persons (average)

Census Data

Neighborhood Map

Overlook Neighborhood Association

Overlook Neighborhood PDX Facebook Group

North Portland Neighborhood Events