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planpdx.org: Interview with Don Sterling

This interview was completed just a few weeks before Don died. Although he was weakened by his illness, he was still quick of mind and articulate to a fault. Don was an important part of this part of the world for many decades. His honest appraisals and high ethical standards are a good example for us all. Portland will miss this man.

Date of Interview: March 2000
Interview By: Ernie Bonner
Location: Don Sterling home in Portland, Oregon

DS = Don Sterling
EB = Ernie Bonner

EB: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Oregon Journal in Portland?

DS: The original backers of the Oregon Journal decided to try to keep the paper going, so they went to Pendleton and they recruited Sam Jackson, who had become a successful publisher of that relatively small paper, the East Oregonian, and he came down to Portland in July of 1902 and took over as publisher of the Journal.
The Journal's first home was on Yamhill Street. It remained there until it could build its own building, which is the one currently referred to as the Jackson Tower at Broadway and Yamhill Street.
The Journal was published from what we now call the Jackson Tower, then called the Journal Building, until the end of World War II, roughly 1947, by which time it had outgrown its space in the building at Broadway and Yamhill and had bought a two-and-a-half block long concrete building at the foot of Yamhill Street.
That building was built during the Depression, and it was built - I don't have the figures in my head - it was built by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, as I understand it, for the purpose of collecting the public market stalls that had been operating on Southwest Yamhill Street and putting them in one place. The idea was that the farmer would rent space in the building, and the housewife would come down out of the rain, she would have a place to park her car, and she could go buy her rutabagas and her eggs and her milk, all in one place.
Like so many well-intended plans of humankind, the housewife didn't like that arrangement. She much preferred parking where she could along Yamhill, Fourth, Fifth, and going into the old public market buildings, which were just one-story buildings. She knew where to find Jasper the fruit man and others who had long become established as institutions in the market. She could do her shopping and be on her way.
So as a market building, this two-and-a-half block long building did not succeed, and through processes that I'm not familiar with, went into financial collapse, and during World War II, was used by my understanding by the United States Navy as a storage building. It was a huge building made out of solid rein-forced concrete.
By another process that we don't need to get into, the number of newspapers in Portland by the end of World War II had dwindled to two, the Oregonian in the morning, and the Journal in the afternoon, and they were about the same size in circulation. And they both needed new plants, which they both opened at the end of World War II, the Journal in the building by the waterfront, the Oregonian in the building that still exists at Southwest Broadway and Jefferson Street.
That building, the Oregonian building, was built specifically by the Oregonian for its own purposes, and has been under constant reconstruction through almost all the time that I've worked there (about 43 years) because of the ways that newspapers have changed and grown.
But the Journal moved into this waterfront building in about 1948 and published there until 1962. In that period the competition between the two Port-land papers became increasingly fierce, and in 1962 the Journal was bought, at least indirectly, by the Oregonian and combined under one management, and that is the management of the Newhouse family, the family headed in those days by Samuel I. Newhouse, whose headquarters was in the East, and who had collected about 28 newspapers, a number of magazines including New Yorker, Vogue, I believe Harper's Bazaar. They had become a very large publishing operation, which operated in an interesting way, with great autonomy for each of its component members, each newspaper, each magazine managed, so far as I know, more or less separately.
When the two papers were combined, the ownerships were combined, there was no need for two separate printing plants, and a newspaper printing plant is an expensive operation because you have to staff it and maintain it 24 hours a day. So in 1962 the operation of the Journal was moved to the Oregonian building at Broad-way and Jefferson, and what by that time we were calling the Journal Building, the one on the waterfront, stood empty.
You're interested in the creation of Waterfront Park, and I'm not capable of describing all of the twists and turns that led to the decision by the State to buy that property, but in the end the state Transportation Commission, or Highway Commis-sion, I believe it would have been, bought those two-and-a-half blocks with the building that stood on it with the intention of turning it into a park on the waterfront.
This was very much at the instigation of Glenn L. Jackson, who was the dynamo chairman of the State Highway Commission and was just determined that this was going to happen. One of the reasons that Jackson was interested in doing this was that at that point there was a four-lane highway that ran right along the west side waterfront, the west side Willamette River waterfront, separating the Journal Building from the river, and very effectively cutting off public access to the river from the west side.
The City of Portland and the State Highway Commission, the Transportation Commission, whatever they were then calling themselves, were interested in getting rid of that barrier on the west side, creating a new freeway loop that would go around downtown instead of right through the middle of it, and they found a way to do this by buying the Journal Building, tearing it down and extending the park right down to the river.
The publisher of the Journal at that point was William W. Knight. His son, Philip, is the person who built the Nike shoe empire. At this point I was editor of the editorial page of the Journal and I would meet with Bill Knight every morning. Bill was very much amused, in a way, to watch the agony that the State had to go through to tear that building down because as a part of his responsibilities as publisher of the Journal was to take care of the fabric of the building and the maintenance of it, and he continually had to listen to building engineers telling him that the building was falling down, that it was developing cracks, and that he was going to have to spend a great deal of money tearing down and repairing that building.
The wrecking ball that tore that building down literally must have swung for three or four weeks down on that waterfront, banging away. I've been told that the fragments of the building, big reinforced concrete fragments, maybe five to ten feet in diameter, were used for fill to extend the south end of Willamette Park down near the Ross Island Bridge. If you go down there, I think you can see these big chunks of concrete sticking out of the west bank of the Willamette River, and that's the old Journal Building.

EB: It came to a good end, then.

DS: So to recap a much too long story, that property went from being general dock property prior to about 1920, roughly speaking, to this large reinforced concrete public market that failed, to a newspaper production plant that did not fail as a newspaper production plant but became surplus when the two papers were combined, and back to open land as a public park in order to create public access to the river.

EB: I've got some pictures here - let me show you a couple - that I got from Rod O'Hiser. One's early, when it was a market. It's a pretty good picture of the actual building. Like you say, that was a strong building. It looks strong.

DS: You can see cars parked under the roof and the sloping ramp coming up the south end of the building.

EB: Right. And this is a later one. This is about '63, or '64; would have been about the time that you guys moved to the Oregonian building. So that's probably about the time that it was vacant. Looks like there were some cars parked on the roof, though.

DS: Yeah, well, there were always cars parked on the roof. If it wasn't market customers, it was newspaper employees. That roof was used a lot. Looks to me as if in this picture you can see the new Morrison Bridge has been built there.

EB: That's right. So the Journal was there from approximately 1948 to 1962, thereabouts.

DS: Approximately, that's right.

EB: About 14 years there. I like the story about the helicopter.

EB: But they only used the helicopter for about a year, is that right?

DS: That's right.

EB: They certainly were ahead of their time.

DS: When I first joined the Journal it was down on the waterfront. I had a couple of summer jobs at the Journal when I was in college, so I literally did do some payroll work in the Journal building. But by the time I went there as a full-time reporter in 1952, it was on the waterfront.

EB: Well, to pick up a little bit on the Journal after they left the waterfront, what are some of the big issues you remember in the '60s and the '70s that Portland was struggling with at the time?

DS: I'm a little reluctant to get into that because my memory is not that great on some of those things, but the issues of transportation were very important in those days: how to get into and through Portland. I can illustrate them by showing how they came out. We wound up with a freeway up Sullivan Gulch, with a freeway loop around the west side of town, and with a complicated set of freeway ramps on the east bank of the Willamette. And those are all issues that had to do with how was Portland going to grow. Somewhere in there the development of the Lloyd Center must have become an important factor. And so did the coliseum. And that was an issue, that was a big issue going back into the earlier part of the '50s. We voted on building the coliseum and voted to build it, and then there arose an argument over where to put it.
The question was whether to put it--on the west side down by the south auditorium project, which is where the city fathers I think thought they were going to put it, and there was a faction headed by a kind of a wire-haired guy named Joe Dobbins, a used car dealer who was determined that it was going to be built on the east side. And he managed, as I now remember it, to tie that issue up in court for - if not four years, two years, anyway, and maybe to anther vote. So that issue was going on. We were trying to get a hotel built in Portland. Portland needed a convention hotel and got one in the Hilton, but they did it by running what amounted to a public charity campaign where people were organized in the usual block, you know, teams of captains and lieutenants who went out and sold bonds to get the hotel built. They formed the Metropolitan Hotel Corporation, and the Metro-politan Hotel Corporation issued bonds, and the businesses of the town, like Meier & Frank, bought bonds. And with that money, they built the Hilton Hotel.

EB: Of course, all through the '60s, too, the things that were happening with respect to the downtown retail, the Lloyd Center opening and shopping centers starting to open, retailers downtown getting more and more concerned, and the parking - of course parking then was a big problem.

DS: Yeah. Generally speaking that's right. How to keep downtown Portland alive was the same problem that every city of any considerable size has had.

EB: I'll tell you, I was truly amazed that the Portland Planning Commission and the City Council would turn down that parking garage proposal by Meier & Frank. I was amazed at that. That happened just before I got here, but I remember the Journal, of course, was very much in favor of having a park down there. Doug Baker was a columnist there; he wrote several columns about it. I think the Journal editorialized about that.

DS: You were surprised the Journal - well, you were not surprised that the Journal supported the idea of a park on the waterfront?

EB: No, the square, where Pioneer Square is now. I wasn't surprised at the Journal. I was surprised that the City actually agreed, and they actually tabled that proposal while they started the Downtown Plan. That was an amazing act, I think, by a city. I certainly don't know another example of that. Under all that kind of pressure and the concern about having parking, that they were able to sort of ward that off and put a park there, that was an amazing act.

DS: You're a professional planner, and a noted one, and you would understand what you just said better than I did. At that point in the '60s, I was writing editori-als. There were no nefarious pressures being brought. It was just a question of what did we, the newspaper writers, think would be the best thing for the city.
The easier thing to do would be to go along with your big advertiser, and what may have been communicated elsewhere, I don't know, but I never heard of any real pressure put on by Meier & Frank.

EB: I don't think of it that way. I think of it more in terms of the pressure that would have been on the City Council and how much pressure must have been brought to bear on them.

DS: Of course, Bill Roberts was something of a pressure force of his own on the other side, and Ira Keller. Ira had a lot of clout. How he got it, I'm not quite sure. He was an advisor to Terry Schrunk as Mayor, and if you want to talk pressure, he had some to apply.

EB: You were probably in the City Club at the time, right?

DS: Oh, yeah. I was in the City Club as of 1954.

EB: Oh, really? So you're truly a veteran of the City Club. They seemed to be reporting out on things at very crucial times. One of those times was their report they had on the waterfront at the time that they were considering that expansion of Harbor Drive - you know, take the Journal down, expand Harbor Drive and so forth. That was a crucial report. The City Club seems to have been really important in this city, too.

DS: They'd be glad to hear that. I keep looking through here for pictures that illustrate the role of the newspaper and the building, and I'm going to quit, but I want to put a couple markers in here. There aren't any interior pictures here that I can see. But to kind of show you the geography of this thing. Here's a picture that shows the waterfront without the building. It shows Harbor Drive with just ...

EB: After the building had been demolished?

DS: No, before it was built.

EB: Oh, right. And so the helicopter landed right on this corner?

DS: Exactly. Right there.

EB: Interesting.

DS: I'm not going to offer to let you have that, but you can get that at the public library or at the Historical Society. [See "The Newsroom Dragonfly," the 26th annual Christmas book, published in December, 1947 by the Oregon Journal.]

EB: Can you say any more about Ira Keller? He was a very, very instrumental person in the Development Commission for sure.

DS: Well, I never knew Ira very well, and to the extent that I knew him, it was simply as a young reporter and editorial writer asking him questions about what he was planning to do about this and that. Ira's heart was in the right place. I don't think Ira had any nefarious intentions in any of the things that he had the Develop-ment Commission do. He was a very determined, tough guy. He did not suffer fools gladly. My neighbor across the street here for many years was Ned Look. And Ned was on Keller's first commission, Development Commission, and he has told me that in the first meeting of the Development Commission, Keller came in and said, "There will be no dissent in this commission."

EB: Well, later, Ned got in a fight with Ira over Pioneer Square, actually.

DS: Did he?

EB: Right. With respect to the issue about whether we should permit the parking garage proposed by Meier and Frank, Ned was basically saying "We need to recon-sider this, take some more time to consider it and so forth." He obviously was not very impressed with it, and Ira just came up all over him, saying that "The American way of life is to get into a car," things to that effect. Ira and Ned may have had a disagreement about the proposed parking garage.

DS: Well, that could be. Ned can tell you.

EB: I found myself in a conversation not too long ago - I'm pretty sure with Lloyd and Pauline Anderson. Many say that you couldn't build the South Auditorium Renewal Area today the way it was built in the '60s. And I'm sure that's true; I mean, you couldn't go in and bulldoze a neighborhood and lay it flat. But I don't what we would have gotten. I don't know that we would have been smart enough to reinforce the old housing, and I don't know that we would have wanted to, if you really thought about it.

DS: Well, I guess we could hope that we would produce a more seamless change from one completely different thing to another. That's about the only thing you could hope for because it isn't in the cards now--with our government and with our situation--that these changes won't occur. They will occur. Economic forces are so powerful, they'll make themselves known.
Maybe the opposite of that is that I wonder myself whether or not this citizen participation thing has sort of gone - not too far, exactly, but it's gone in directions where it no longer makes sense. You know, it doesn't make sense to me to convey power to a small group of people in an area and then treat them as if it's something important when that response comes back. They're becoming as much of an establishment out there as the downtown businessmen used to be.

EB: So things are changing.

DS: Educate me a little bit on the south auditorium project. There we are, for better or worse, with those half dozen high-rise apartment buildings. Is there some kind of a neighborhood association that represents that neighborhood the way the Southwest Hills Residential League represents this one?

EB: Yes, there's a Downtown Neighborhood Association, but it represents all of the downtown.

DS: Boy, that must be a contentious organization at times.

EB: It is. Plus, I think again it has some very powerful voices in it, and they pretty much - they're the ones that you hear. So there is a neighborhood association there.

DS: Well, our neighborhood has one that represents folks in pretty nice single-family situations mostly. I've been on that board a little bit, not lately, but I have been on it. We used to go kind of perfunctorily and do our perfunctory thing and go perfunctorily home again, but we never had anything really hot to handle.

EB: That's what usually happens: Something comes up that scares people, the neighborhood gets active, people get involved, go to a hearing or two, and then they float away to get on with their life. When another issue comes up, the process starts all over.

DS: I don't need to tell you that in the period that starts this period that you're talking about, the '60s, it was sort of a light industrial area down there along the west side waterfront. Calbag and some wholesale meat people. So one of the first things that must have had to happen was the relocation of a number of light industries.

EB: I think in many of those cases, underused structures were demolished and the vacant land was used use for surface parking. There are a lot of pictures in the early and mid '60s which show acres of cars parked on surface lots in that area.

DS: Well, in those days I lived with my mother further up on the hill here and would take the bus downtown in the morning and walk from the Public Service Building about six blocks down to the waterfront building. All along that route would be two- and three-story old fleabag apartments and hotels--the kind of thing that now we say we want to save, but that didn't look very save-able in those days.

EB: Well, they're still not very save-able, actually. There's a great deal of subsidy involved in that.
I never have really been able to understand how the downtown - I mean, I know Neil was very important in it, including some of the businesses, but I think it's been such an amazing, miraculous recovery it's hard to imagine, even when you can see it before your very eyes.

DS: I would venture probably the most naive comment to float through this city in the whole month of March 2000. It seems to me that one of the reasons for its apparent success - it seems apparent to me that there's a success - is that nobody was crooked, that there were a lot of people out trying to make a quick buck off whatever it was we were trying to do.

EB: I think that is very true. That is a fundamental part of it. That and the fact that just about everybody, just about every company that was involved was locally-owned. We had local decision-makers, they weren't crooks, and you had an honest government. And I'd add one thing to that: big federal bucks. Big federal bucks.

DS: Yeah, I suppose that's true. What was it - Neil Goldschmidt went back as Secretary of Transportation, but before that didn't he have some other federal post that involved HUD or - and this relates to the big federal bucks line - didn't we have some kind of--thanks to having, if you'll forgive the politics here, having a Demo-cratic structure in the city government--didn't we have a line on some federal money that we might not otherwise have had? I don't know.

EB: Well, we had our Senators, who were in important positions--particularly Hatfield. AuCoin came to have an important position in transportation dollars. Hatfield basically financed, I think, our light rail system. I think if anybody is singularly responsible for it, it would be Hatfield, who always was there at the right time to leverage a little money when it was needed.
I think Neil, though, was also some official in the National League of Cities. And of course, as most people who traveled with him will tell you, those bureaucrats in Washington loved him.

DS: Loved Neil?

EB: Yeah. He was smart, and he was glib, and you know, to them - they were also young, smart and so forth - he was such a welcome relief from the usual big city Mayors that he got a lot of attention, far beyond what he normally would have gotten as a mayor.

DS: Boy, it makes you wonder what happens in the next 25 years.

EB: Well, that's another reason for doing this. Looking back 25 years at what happened hopefully will remind you that what we are doing today will result in what we are at the end of the next 25 years. I think people need to be reminded of that because every once in a while I wonder whether or not we're seriously concerned enough about where we're going to be in the next 25 years. At the rate things are changing now, you wonder whether or not you could possibly predict what will happen in five years, let alone 25.

DS: And yet - I don't know whether "and yet" is the right linkage here, but I think we have as good a set of city fathers and mothers right now as we've ever had.
They kind of squabble and so on, but they're headed in a beneficial direction, I think.

EB: The only thing I worry about is how we're becoming distinctly owned by somebody else. I'm concerned about that.

DS: Yeah, I am, too. And without a really strong sense of where we're trying to go. We have certain ideas, and I'd hate to have to sit down and spend an hour writing them down, but I think we want to become stronger in the convention business. We want to remain a strong service center for a regional economy. And maybe that's as far as you could ever hope to have gone. If 50 years ago you asked that question, after they stopped laughing at the kid from the University of Chicago or whoever asked it, they'd say, "Well, we want to catch fish, and we want to cut down trees, and we want to extract what we can from this economy, and I've got my 40 acres, and he's got his fish cannery, and we're just going to work them as hard as we can."
And now we don't do it that way. I don't know quite what we're doing, but we don't do it that way.

[End of Interview]