Anarcho-Urbanism

An Anarchist Discussion of Scowtown

A Discussion of Scowtown

Our city is beset by a crisis of property which manifests as a housing crisis. There are too few homes in this city because the wealthy and powerful have engineered a system of scarcity, one where wealth depends on hoarding of land. As a result, many of our friends and neighbors suffer and die from living outside. These deaths are partly due to neglect and malice from city government, who destroy tents and shuffle people around in the name of cleanliness. In this article, I want to illuminate a time and place in the past, when people in this city – most of whom were likely not especially anarchist– took what can be considered direct action to house themselves. I am talking here about Portland’s squatter community on the water: Scowtown.

Houseboats

In a city founded because of its advantageous waterways, it is no surprise that people have long been living on the river. There are still houses on the water today. These consist of both rich communities who have built their own houseboats or floating homes and dock in established marinas and those who are living in sailboats, but are free-floating. Scowtown is distinct, however, from these by its complexity, longevity, and its origin in the direct appropriation of the commons for the common people.

Scowtown

Scowtown refers to several successive communities on the water. One of the advantages of river living can be seen in the fact that Scowtown was destroyed by the City of Portland1 and also by various shipping and railroad companies2 several times only to reappear later at a different spot. At times, Scowtown referred to the entire community of scow and houseboat dwellers that ranged up and down several miles of Willamette river shoreline. Scowtown was, like communities on land, varied in its makeup – there were families living on the water as well as many single men who worked as longshoremen. Houses could be dilapidated and made out of reclaimed materials, or relatively fancy. Services could be non-existent, or there could be, as one article from a 1907 newspaper describes “a boat which is a veritable river store and which visits them daily with groceries, meats and vegetables...the best in the land.”

Creation of Scowtown

Scowtown grew out of two things – a desire to live cheaply, and a surfeit of materials. Barney Blalock in “Portland’s Lost Waterfront” quotes an Oregonian editorial that describes how in the so-called “Boneyard” where Portland’s wrecked ships went to decay, “there are various river crafts tided up or moored along...occupied by families whose cook stove smokes ever curl and blow.” Clearly, the desire to build a home for free out of reclaimed materials was a powerful draw. The houses themselves varied in quality and construction – as land houses do. Some were “well furnished" where "the occupants live(d) in comfortable style.” 3. Others were described by the, then as now reactionary, Sunday Oregonian as “miserable little hovels, with dirty, slatternly women presiding over them.” 4.

Scowtowners themselves felt that they lived well. An article in the Morning Oregonian describes how, when a group of high-society ladies dispatched a policeman (the police, then as now at the beck and call of the wealthy!) to Scowtown to ask if they could give any gifts, the Scowtowners replied that they had everything they needed, as they had good paying jobs and didn’t pay rent. They even had a grocery store-boat that came by to sell them fresh food5.

Why Discuss This?

The reason for my short discussion of this is because one of the key hurdles to affordable housing in this city remains the need to purchase land - this is true for the city and for cooperatives, corporations, and individuals who want to densify housing. However, by looking to the past we can see a large opportunity that people in the past have already taken advantage of. Floating neighborhoods on the Willamette, cleaner now than then, can be constructed cheaply out of reclaimed materials by groups and movements, like ours, that aren't flush with cash. A good house on the water is likely more possible now than in the past too, with distributed power generation, and advances in sanitation through applications of tried and true technology from RVs and off-grid houses. One part of the solution to the housing crisis is here and waiting for direct action to make it a reality.

  1. July 16, 1909 Morning Oregonian

  2. August 1, 1906 Morning Oregonian

  3. December 25, 1907 Morning Oregonian

  4. July 24, 1904 Sunday Oregonian

  5. December 25, 1907 Morning Oregonian

- 4 toasts