Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Centennial Mills

Interesting column in the Oregonian this morning about the Centennial Mills, a complex of mostly-derelict buildings owned by the Portland Development Commission and not doing much at the moment except rotting. Attempts have been made to renovate and reuse the buildings, perhaps for some type of foodie paradise (a very contemporary-Portland aspiration), but thus far all have failed.

The history of the buildings is a fascinating one. The site began as a single structure, serviced by clipper ships and producing flour from eastern Oregon farms. It survived the Depression years and boomed during the 1940s and 1950s, mechanizing in the process. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, foreign competition operating under less-stringent health and safety regulations rendered Centennial Mills noncompetitive. The city bought the 150,000-square-foot site in 2000, old office furniture, machinery and even grain stores intact.

Since then, the site has moldered. The barriers to successful reuse are clear; this is a huge complex, with old buildings and numerous safety issues. As a historian, however, what I find most intriguing--and troubling--about the history of Centennial Mills is what it indicates about our changing economy and the unintended consequences of a structure favoring lower costs above other factors.

This was a thriving industrial site that produced something of unquestionable good: flour. It did so according to American health and safety regulations; far from flawless, to be sure, but superior to many that replaced it. It gave Americans jobs, provided safe food, and contributed to the infrastructure not only of Portland's industrial and shipping economy but eastern Oregon's agricultural economy. In its place, the strongest proposal to date would have substituted new additions to the service economy. Yes, a local focus would have provided truck farmers with work, and this is a good thing, but it would feed yet again into a burgeoning population of relatively well-to-do Portlanders while continuing to fail in providing services to longtime residents in the poorer sectors of the community.

There is something broken here. I hope we can find ways to fix it.

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