It's impossible to miss the ornamental, seemingly ancient Chinese arches welcoming visitors to Portland's Chinatown. The city's oldest neighborhood is more than a borough for those of eastern descent, however, and is also referred to as Old Town.
The area was originally a virtual melting pot, home to Swedes, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Jews, and Norwegians who had moved west. Stretching from the banks of the Willamette River to NW Broadway near the Pearl District, Old Town marks Portland's beginnings. In addition to the unmistakable characteristics of Chinatown, Old Town is home to the Skidmore Historic District and the Historic Japanese District. While the Pearl may offer shiny new shops and eateries, Old Town's vintage charm and accessibility make it a gem in its own right.
The first Thursday of every month is an ideal time to visit. Galleries, resident artists, local businesses, and eateries open their doors to the public, welcoming shoppers — window and actual alike — to stop in and sample their work, whatever it may be. Whenever you go, download the walking map tour from the neighborhood's website (listed below) and educate yourself while shopping or sightseeing.
Old Town is also home to Portland's Saturday Market. On Saturdays, vendors fill the streets for blocks with food samples, art showings, and live performances. Ankeny Plaza, the site of Portland's oldest public artwork and the Skidmore Fountain (commonly used as a wishing well), is at the heart of all the action.
Be sure to schedule enough time to experience Old Town's Shanghai Tunnels. These underground corridors weave a maze beneath area streets, connecting the basements of hotels and bars to the waterfront of the Willamette. During Prohibition, literal underground bars attracted clientele here, the inspiration for many Portland legends and originally used to move goods from docked ships to delivery locations. The city is said to have earned the monikers of "Unheavenly City" or "Forbidden City" because the tunnels worked as traps for laborers to be kidnapped and sold as slaves. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Portland was known as the most dangerous port in the country.
But since, the history of the tunnels has become a relished secret of the city. Whispered about even today, exploring them is a unique activity for visitors who want to discover a side of Portland that certainly can't be seen above ground.
- • Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association: www.oldtownchinatown.org
- • Old Town/Chinatown on Wikipedia: www.en.wikipedia.org/.../Old_Town_Chinatown,_Portland,_Oregon