Journey to the Heart of Gresham


I took the MAX east to the end of the line and landed in Gresham for a bit of flâneuring on an afternoon that lent itself to it. Octoberish light, softened since summer's end, played on the dazzle of the season's leaves gone yellow-gold, ochre, maple red. Nothing in particular drew me there beyond beyond the perhaps curious fact that I had not ventured that way before despite having resided in Portland some eighteen years. Historic Downtown Gresham lies way the heck beyond the where the avenues peter out in the low 200s. My excursions hardly ever take me beyond SE 80th other than passing through on the way to the airport or out into the Columbia River Gorge.

By way of background, Gresham is Oregon's fourth largest city and the Portland metro area's second largest (pop. 107,065).

The community...was established in the mid 1800’s when Powell Valley was named after three pioneer settlers: James Powell and Missouri transplant Jackson Powell, who moved to Oregon in 1852, and Dr. John Parker Powell who moved to Oregon in 1853. Though they were unrelated, they chose to live in the shadow of Mt. Hood, at the site we know of today as the downtown core of Gresham. They had all endured rugged trips on Wagon Trains as they moved to the Land of Opportunity.

The first Post Office to be established in the area was called “Camp Ground” and it opened on July 12, 1871. The Camp Ground Post Office closed on June 9, 1884.

Other settlers and developers moved to the area and a new Post Office was established on May 15, 1884. The new town was named after Walter Quinton Gresham, United States Postmaster General. (PDXHistory.com: Gresham)

A few minutes stroll from the Gresham Central Transit Center took me to the historic downtown district that runs south on Main Avenue from 5th Street to E. Powell Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare. There on a quiet five-block stretch along Main, Roberts and Hood avenues to the east and Miller a block west I came upon a hodgepodge of bars and brewpubs, restaurants, thrift and consignment shops, and other small businesses, the sort of thing common to neighborhoods throughout Portland, albeit each with its own distinctive, quirky, and sometimes outright peculiar mix.

The Gresham History Museum on the corner of Main and 4th Street is in the building that was Gresham's first public library, built in 1913 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie, designed in English Tudor Revival style by Folger Johnson. Johnson was a native of Columbus, Georgia, who studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before coming to Portland in 1910.

In 1989, the library's collection had outgrown the building, and Gresham got a new library on the corner of 3rd and Miller, a block away. In order to move the last of the books from the old library to the new, the citizens of Gresham formed a Book Brigade stretching between the two buildings and handed the books down the line.

The Gresham Historical Society took the old building over. Over the course of numerous renovations...[the society] restored the building to its original appearance, complete with period-appropriate light fixtures. It continues to serve the public as the Gresham History Museum. (About Gresham Historical Society)

The two main exhibits on display featured the Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz and the Gresham Fire and Police departments. Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, and B.B. King have been among,the featured guest performers at the jazz festival, which began in1982 and is held at Mt. Hood Community College. The fire and police exhibit includes a sign from the strike by Gresham Fire Fighters Local 1062 in the 1970s (alas, I failed to make note of the year) and a 1951 Stephenson Resuscitator used by the fire department that has the nifty appearance of some futuristic contraption in an old science-fiction movie. The Master Clock from the Meier & Frank Department Store in downtown Portland and a cash register from the A W Metzger store dating to 1917 are other cool items.

The current public library, the Gresham branch of Multnomah County Public Library, is on Miller between 3rd Street and 4th, a block south of the original site. My eyeball estimate puts the size of the collection in the ballpark with the Hollywood and Northwest libraries. The building is nondescript on the outside, spacious inside, with a number of tables and cubicles in an expansive room whose openness is appealing.

All in all the district is pleasant enough but nothing transcendent. Pedestrians were not in abundant supply during my late morning and mid-afternoon visits despite the nearby transit center and a pedestrian friendly feel. Maybe there is more activity when people are drawn to bars and restaurants at happy hour and dinnertime.

South across Powell lies Main City Park (bordering Johnson Creek) and the charming Tsuru Island Japanese Garden, designed and built by Japanese farmers using boulders gathered from nearby streams. The garden was dedicated to the City of Gresham in 1975. Somewhere along the way it fell into neglect. Restoration was begun in 2011 and completed in the spring of 2014 by members of the Gresham-Ebetsu Sister City Association.

To get to Tsuru Island from the downtown district, proceed past the children's play area at the park entrance and on beyond the Coho shelter, then look for banners, signs, and the arching bridge that takes you into the small garden featuring sculptures, a variety of plants, a fountain, a pavilion, and a stream bed that make for one tranquil view after another. This contemplative oasis alone makes the trek to Gresham worthwhile — and will reward a return visit.

It was still a trifle early for a beer when I left the Japanese garden, so I checked out Cafe Delirium on the corner of Main and 3rd and found a treasure. I would be a regular there if it were not a long way to go for coffee — an hour each way by public transit. So what, you might well ask, sets Delirium out from the crowd of fine coffee establishments in a region whose denizens fancy themselves connoisseurs of the glorious brew? What makes for a good coffee den?

My highly personal criteria begin with a first-rate espresso and ample seating. Music if there is any must be of tolerable volume and genre. The place may be lively but never so loud that it is not amenable to conversation if a companion is present or to a session with pen and journal, poem, correspondence, or other writing adventure when alone. Such conditions are necessary but even in toto not quite sufficient. The best cafes possess some ineffable quality conducive to being at ease there. Whatever exactly that may be, Cafe Delirium has it.

The cafe is well lit but not too bright, spacious with seating for more than fifty without feeling cavernous and impersonal, comfortably busy during my visits but always with a few tables vacant. A minor quibble about the tables: many are at stool height where feet must be rested on the bottom rung of the chair or left dangling. My preference is for tables and chairs of conventional height where I can sit with my feet on the floor.

The clientele is a diverse mix of people my age, middle-aged, young, students, alone, in pairs and small groups, chatting, hunched over computers, reading. Walls are decorated with paintings and prints that are pleasant enough. Plaques with pithy sayings are cute but not annoyingly so, as for instance, "Drink Coffee / Do stupid things faster." Who would argue with that? There is even a bookcase that houses a small book exchange with the invitation to bring one, take one.

What accounts for that sense of being at ease in this place? Perhaps it has something to do with staff and customers not coming off so relentlessly hip as is sometimes to be found in other locales and venues. What was once a style and attitude signifying a willful outsiderdom has long since been commodified, merchandised, bought and sold, gone public on the market for whatever buck is to be made from it by the general run of hustlers, hucksters, charlatans, and greedheads who have brought the country to its present sorry state. Ah, but I digress.

I do not intend by the preceding rant to slight the cafe and its habitués by suggesting that they are provincial, bourgeois, or in some manner less than sophisticated. To the contrary they strike your oft humbled scribe as a pretty regular bunch, which is to say, an agglomeration of irregulars with all manner of types, styles, interests, and passions. Moreover they seem on the whole a courteous and civil lot, qualities not exactly in ample supply these days.

Baristas are attentive, pleasant, and approachable. As best I can tell they are not given to extended conversation with pals and quasi-celebrities of dubious scenes while lesser lights queue up behind hoping to place an order in the near future. According to the cafe's website new staff receive a month or more of training making drinks before they ever make a drink for a customer. It shows.

I made several subsequent visits to Cafe Delirium and found nothing to change the favorable first impression. The same holds for the downtown district and Tsuru Island. I feel at ease there.

Favorite Portland Coffee Dens (by no means an exhaustive list)

Accompanying photos can be found on the Gallery page of this website.

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David Matthews

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