When the streets had no names

"Sandpile," by Mark Rockwood
"Sandpile," by Mark Rockwood

When the streets had no names

In 1975, Queen Elizabeth knighted Charlie Chaplin, the Sex Pistols played their first gig, VHS and Betamax did battle, and these three young gents (top), today in their early 40s, had a world to conquer — as soon as they could decide whether they were beholding it from atop a mountain of dirty sand or sandy dirt.

It was a time when kids were full of piss and vinegar, not deficient of attention by diagnosis, so when you weren’t paying attention to what you were supposed to be paying attention to — namely, your parents — your ass got kicked outside to play in the dirt. Nobody imagined that any psychological damage would be inflicted on parent or child thereby. You could mount your bike without a brain bucket and cruise the neighborhood, one where cars were no less present than they are today, and after several hours of having responsibly avoided strangers, you’d wear your Kool-Aid mustache home for cheese, mac, and reddogs.

On view at Zero Station beginning April 10, Seeing Portland — 1972 to 1984 gathers together work by a host of important local photographers: Tom Brennan, C.C. Church, Andy Graham, Rose Marasco, Joe Muir, Mark Rockwood, Jeff Stevenson, Jay York and Todd Webb.

Co-curated by Graham, Anne Riesenberg, and Zero Station proprietor Keith Fitzgerald, the show began when Graham rediscovered a set of transparencies he’d taken back in 1975 at the Kennedy Park housing project, and grew into a broad cross-section of human encounters from a time worth being nostalgic about.

“Portland in the 1970s was a city on the brink of being reborn,” Graham wrote. “Nestled between the misguided urban renewal of the 1960s and the boom years of the later 1980s, it was a time of gestation and redefinition. A surprising number of young and talented photographers came of age using the city as subject matter for their creative explorations; documenting and making art.”

The work in the show reveals a “pre-technological, pre-gentrified Portland in both aesthetic and architectural terms,” he said.

“Pre-technological” — sure it was, in that phones had cords, but of course it wasn’t, either. As for “pre-gentrified,” this era was pre-condo, perhaps, but not pre-gentry. Those tags don’t fully hold up as historical truths, but they don’t have to, because that’s not the point of this project. Rather, such terms are polemical, curatorial jabs meant to direct our focus to a style of neighborhood life that’s been largely swept away as the forces of technology and gentrification took over.

Those forces changed the way our city blocks are inhabited. That’s what’s so striking to see in these photos: how the street was more than a place of transit; how it was an extension and expansion of the commons, an area the home opened onto, spilling out families and friends.

"One Man Ride," by Mark Rockwood
"One Man Ride," by Mark Rockwood

“More than mere nostalgic references, [these photographs] deepen our awareness of time and place,” the curators wrote. An image like “One Man Ride” (above) does exactly that. There are no go-karts on the streets of Portland anymore. Similarly looking backwards to imagine a future, French historian and critic Michel Foucault wrote in 1967, “In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”

For us, a parallel question, with the same stakes, is raised by this exhibit, most pointedly in this photograph: What happens to civilizations without go-karts?

— Chris Thompson

Seeing Portland — 1972 to 1984, opens Sat., April 10 (reception from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.) and continues through Sat., May 1, at Zero Station, 222 Anderson St., Portland. More images are available at zerostation.com.

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