At the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, in a wide valley at the foot of the Cascade Range, the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, face each other across the Columbia River.
On the south bank is Portland, population 588,000. On the north bank is Vancouver, population 162,000.
According to the local joke, the city is Vancouver (not the one in British Columbia), Washington (not the District of Columbia), in Clark County (not the one in Las Vegas), across the river from Portland (not the one in Maine).
To the locals, Vancouver is “the Couve.”
When Europeans first arrived there in 1775, the area was inhabited by an estimated 80,000 Native Americans, mostly of the Chinook and Klickitat nations. By the time the Lewis & Clark expedition camped there in 1805, half the natives were dead from smallpox.
By 1850, smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza had reduced the native population to a few dozen miserable refugees whose land had been taken by the white settlers who brought the diseases.
But, hey — we Americans prefer to look forward, not backward, right?
Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Vancouver area was “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.” High praise from a guy who had reason to know.
The location isn’t perfect. Rain is a frequent thing, and occasionally, an ice storm will shut the city down.
On the other hand, heavy snow is infrequent, and the Columbia River has been neutered and doesn’t flood anymore. And when the clouds go away, you can look up and see Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Saint Helens, looming above in all their glory.
Today, Vancouver is a bona fide bedroom community of Portland, not only because of the relative sizes of the cities, but also for economic reasons.
In Oregon, the income tax is high, but the state levies no sales tax. In Washington, there is no income tax at all, but the sales tax is 6.5 percent.
Consequently, people shop in Portland to dodge the sales tax, and they live in Vancouver to avoid the income tax.
I got to know a bit about Vancouver in 2010, when I spent two weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and used Vancouver as my base of operations.
Downtown Vancouver is attractive and pleasant. A long stretch of the riverfront is public space — incredibly, green and undeveloped — and accessible to the water‘s edge. I wandered along the bank for quite a distance in the company of joggers, picnickers, and several kids wading in the water as their moms looked on.
One day, I had possibly the best meal of my life at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in downtown Vancouver. It was a divinely flavorful seafood soup.
I have a weakness for Oriental seafood soup, and that soup was as the nectar of the gods. Every spoonful was sublime — an almost religious experience. Even now, the memory of it gives me pangs of delight.
But I digress.
The Couve is a very walkable city. The same day I had that marvelous soup, I wandered for over an hour around Esther Short Park, Vancouver’s main public park and town square, which is about five acres in size.
After the trip, I did some research and learned a few interesting things about the city and the park.
For one, I learned that over the last couple of decades, Vancouver has faced two chronic problems: slow economic decline (everyone shops in Portland) and the presence of homeless people, lots of ’em, in the downtown area.
For another, I learned that the public square in Esther Short Park is the oldest in the state. It is anchored by the Salmon Run Clock and Bell Tower, which features (in addition to the salmon running around the base) a glockenspiel that goes off three times a day and relates a Chinook tribal legend.
The park is named for Esther Short, the founding mother of Vancouver and a colorful and fascinating character. She, her husband Amos, and their children arrived there in 1845 and established a farm near the British Fort Vancouver.
The British army and its corporate ally, the Hudson’s Bay Company, were not pleased with their new neighbors. The British wanted to confine American settlements to the south bank of the river. They wanted Amos and Esther gone.
At one point, while Amos was away, British soldiers rounded up Esther and her children and set them adrift on the Columbia River in an oarless raft.
Esther managed to beach the raft, and no one was hurt. Amos undoubtedly went bonkers when he returned, and, yes, the situation went downhill from there.
According to one version of events, the Shorts were squatters on British land. When the legitimate owner of the property went to California on business, he left his caretaker, David Gardner, in charge.
There was a confrontation. Amos shot and killed Gardner, then promptly went to court and filed a claim on the land in his own name.
A second version is that ownership of the land was unclear. Gardner, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, tore down a fence Amos had built and ordered the Shorts off the land. Shots were exchanged, and Gardner was killed.
Amos, then, was either a murdering claim-jumper, or he acted to defend his home and family. He was, in fact, tried for murder and acquitted.
Not long after the trial, Amos drowned when his ship capsized at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Esther carried on and did quite well. Over time, she opened a restaurant and a couple of hotels. She also donated several strategic pieces of property to the new city of Vancouver.
One piece she donated in 1855 was the land for Esther Short Park. Another was the long strip of undeveloped waterfront.
Fast-forward to the 1990s. By that time, Esther Short Park was old and shabby and largely populated by street people — the homeless, the mentally ill, hippies, panhandlers, bag ladies, eccentrics, and etcetera.
In 1996, a newspaper article named the park as “the nucleus of the majority of emergency 911 calls in the city.”
One day in 1997, while the mayor of Vancouver was attending an event designed to help make the park a more family-friendly place, he was rammed from behind by a street person pushing a shopping cart.
The angry assailant threatened the mayor and warned him to leave.
That did it. The man was arrested, and public support surged for efforts to take back and clean up the park.
My guess is, the police also began to crack heads and otherwise make the park less appealing to the “undesirables.”
Slowly, things turned around. By 2007, Vancouver and Esther Short Park were winning awards for excellence.
I should mention, however, that the park today is not transient-free.
During my afternoon stroll there in 2010, I noticed several unkempt or colorfully-dressed persons who were not tourists, business types, moms with strollers, or kids playing in the fountains.
In fact, for a solid half hour, one woman pushed her shopping cart slowly back and forth along the sidewalk while shouting at the top of her voice, addressing no one in particular. Profanities and incoherent babble rained down in all directions.
The moms and tourists and business types completely ignored the woman.
I suppose they can afford to be charitable. The park now belongs to them.