The Project

Switching lines create urban ravines, like this on near S.E. Third Avenue.

The Portland Switching District Project is a photo documentary of the disappearing traces of Portland’s historic, urban railroad lines. Sometimes known as “switching districts,” these lines were once the arteries of commerce for the city. The Gilded Age heritage of Portland — the wedding-cake cast-iron of Old Town, the great Victorian housing stock, the brooding Romanesque and gleaming Edwardian downtown, all of which we know and love so well — owes its existence to these, the industrial and warehouse districts of the city, districts that were aligned on and served by its railroad switching lines.

Unfortunately, the industrial districts have far less charm value, and so while many great buildings of Gilded Age Portland have been saved, the old industrial areas are often neglected or altered beyond recognition. The purpose of the Portland Switching District Project is to educate the public about the city’s industrial past through the photographic documentation of the remnants of rail heritage remaining in these areas.

More than a century has passed since the heyday of the switching district, and in Portland, as in many of the nation’s cities, their remnants are fading fast. The redevelopment of urban core industrial areas into retail, office, and housing is quickly sweeping away the fingerprints of the industrial age. Many of the subjects of these photographs , made in 2008, have since been removed, demolished, or paved over.

There are some unique visual characteristics of these districts that make them an interesting subject of photography. The tracks were almost always set in the streets, making for a delightfully confusing hodge-podge of railroads, vehicles, and people. Because they are urban, the streets constrained the buildings here, meaning that most of the larger industries had to go upwards. This resulted in an impressive urban form in some cases. Switching districts carry a gritty, mechanistic attitude on their shoulders. They are the expression of the city as a machine, and thus the ultimate legacy of iron-bound Industrial Age.

My goal with this project was very simple: to capture the remaining traces of the Portland region’s urban industrial past, concentrating my efforts on the railway switching districts of the city. Emphasis was on clarity and of illustration of the narrative of Portland’s now nearly-gone heritage of urban railroads.

To execute this project, I had to make some hard choices. I generally chose not to include as subject matter switching areas that were not located in the urban core. I also ignored a worthy but distant urban switching district in Salem. Railroad main lines were mostly excluded, as were the branches and shorelines who were also present within the urban areas, except where they became core switching lines.

As a documentary work, it is difficult to identify particular stylistic or artistic influences. In keeping with the ideas of Walker Evans, the goal was to remove the photographer from the scene and shoot it “straight” without commentary one way or another. In some cases, however, I have chosen to purposefully distort contrasts between elements in an image to better convey a sense of place. Overall, however, “non-style” was striven for, placing the project within the tradition of (though perhaps not influenced by) the New Topographics movement.

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