In the 20th century, the truck-served industrial park largely replaced the urban switching district.
The switching district, although powerful, was largely on its way out of favor by the mid 20th century. The development of the freight truck and the tractor-trailer rig ate away at the need of smaller industries to locate along urban rail corridors. Larger industries, meanwhile, were rapidly growing, thanks to principles of economy of scale, and rarely could find the necessary room to maintain their 19th century locations. Postwar, new industries spurred by the region’s cheap hyrdo-electricity were more likely to choose suburban or even exurban locales to cite their facilities. Industry after the Second World War was more likely to call the industrial park home than the urban switching district.
Although industry shaped and made the Portland region, very few preservationists have done much to halt the passing of its memory. The local preservation movement is strong, but focuses on houses and notable commercial architecture, not on industry. The old industrial building stock of the urban core has in recent years become material from which developers could create new residential and retail complexes.
Some, like the old Henry Weinhard’s Brewery (once served by the SP&S 12th Street line) have survived rather well. Converted from 1999 to 2005 into a retail, office, and residential project called the Brewery Blocks by developer Gerding Edlen, the buildings retain much of their integrity and industrial flavor.
Many urban industrial structures, such as the Crown Flour/Centennial Mills site along the old NPT Front Avenue district, face uncertain futures.
Others, however, languish. The old Crown Flour/Centennial Mills complex (once served by NPT on Front Avenue) sits mostly empty, a decaying shell. Although there are plans to redevelop the building into something resembling the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, the economic downturn of 2008 has put a serious crimp in those plans. It’s impossible to know if the redevelopment concepts for the buildings will now ever come to pass.
More ambiguous still are the traces of industry written in the streets. Since this project began in Spring 2008, more and more of the remaining rails of Portland’s switching districts have fallen victim to repavement and construction. In some cases, sewer improvements have forced repavements that covered over the old rails. In other cases, more modest improvements by building owners and tenants have resulted in small patches of concrete or tarmac. Fewer tripping hazards, perhaps, but also fewer clues to the industrial heritage of the city. There is likely no logical preservation tactic for such artifacts, and once the traces of street trackage in the city are gone, they will never be back.