PHOTO: Polina Olsen, center, introduces participants in her July 9 walking tour to the original South Portland library building. The tour, based on her book "A Walking Tour of Historic Jewish Portland," served as a benefit for P'nai Or of Portland. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)
By ROCKNE ROLL
Few people know Portland’s original Jewish neighborhoods as well as Polina Olsen. She literally wrote the book on them.
Olsen, the author of “A Walking Tour of Historic Jewish Portland,” led participants on just such a tour on Sunday, July 9, as a benefit for P’nai Or of Portland, taking attendees through South Portland and recalling what was while examining what remains.
In its heyday in the early 20th century, there were around 6,000 Jews living in an area roughly bordered now by Interstate 5, South Barbur Boulevard, South Bancroft Street and Southwest Hall Street. That number constituted about a third of the total neighborhood, the rest were mostly Italian.
“It was a close and largely self-contained neighborhood,” Olsen said. “There were kosher butcher shops and bakeries, a Jewish orphanage and an old age home. social activism, an immigrant benevolent society. There were schools, a library with Yiddish books and the Neighborhood House, which was the community focal point.”
Olsen moved to an adjacent neighborhood while working for Hewlett-Packard and became curious about the area, which she knew was historic but could find little information about. She borrowed a digital camera from work, made a collection of images from the area and looked for someone who could help her make sense of what she was looking at. That put her in touch with Gussie Reinhardt z”l.
“I ended up seeing her every week or two for the rest of her life,” Olsen said, “and she told me all about the neighborhood where she grew up.”
Reinhardt was just the first interview. A small batch of these were incorporated into her Walking Tour book, which she successfully self-published in an age before digital distribution and on demand printing. Another hundred conversations were distilled down into her next volume “The Immigrants’ Children: An oral history of Portland’s early Jewish and Italian neighborhood.”
Her tour begins at the Lair Hill Bistro on Southwest First Avenue, the site of a former grocery store whose original owner Olsen interviewed. Winding around the corner, Olsen points out the original home of Congregation Kesser Israel, an apartment building which housed newcomers from a North Dakota Jewish commune, and the former Neighborhood House, which offered citizenship classes, Hebrew lessons and youth activities.
Though the area’s Jewish population began to disperse after World War II, urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 405 spelled the end for the historic neighborhood. More than 50 blocks were condemned, including a number of synagogues, and the center of Jewish life in Portland migrated west to Hillsdale.
While the buildings are, in many cases, gone, Olsen worked with original maps from Sanborn Map Company and historic copies of city directories to pinpoint what used to be where.
“I went to the neighborhood that is left and the neighborhood that doesn’t exist anymore, and mapped out where the all the old places were,” she said.
After the publication of her second book, Olsen began writing a history column for The Jewish Review, a compilation of which was her first commercially published book. She wrote another book about Portland’s counterculture movement in the 1960s while also giving her first in-person walking tours as fundraisers for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. She’s now joined P’nai Or and decided to put on another event for the congregation.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve given tours but I wondered if they would like that, and also to see if there’s still interest in the community and going on the tours,” she said. “They were quite popular.”
The maps and details are all in her books, but there’s something moving about going in person as a way of preserving a memory.
“This is where Shaarie Torah was, this is where Moses’ Bakery was,” Olsen said, describing a section of map, “and what’s there now is gone. Just nothing there.”
Another tour is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 5. Tickets available at givebutter.com/m6A38d.