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Chain Link Fence: Portland History or Disposable Fencing Material?

Washington Park Reservoir Chain Link Fence After saving your money, researching options and talking to your neighbors, you’re almost ready to replace that utilitarian chain link fencing around your yard. You’re just waiting on one thing: the building permit for removing your chain link fence. Portland’s bureaucrats will surely rubber stamp this application, you tell yourself. But they don’t. Instead, they reject your plans, saying your fence is protected by historical preservation ordinances. You can’t replace the boundary marker with anything other than chain link fencing, they say. To do otherwise would be to destroy the cultural context of the neighborhood.

Admittedly, this kind of story hasn’t yet popped up in Portland, but a similar series of events recently occurred in Old Town Alexandria, VA, as reported in the Washington Post. A homeowner there, Anita Hall, replaced her old chain link fencing with an aluminum fence. After examining the new fence (which had been erected without the proper municipal permits) city historic preservation staffers reported that by taking down the chain link fence, Hall “would be removing an important contextual clue to the original occupants of this neighborhood.”

Of all fence materials, Portland and Alexandria homeowners alike would likely be in favor of replacing chain link fencing with more visually appealing alternatives. Yet the Alexandria officials wrote that chain link fencing “played an important role in the development of mid-century vernacular housing and their cultural landscape.” For now, officials have allowed Hall to keep her fence, but because it was put up too close to the sidewalk, Hall may need to replace it in order to comply with public right-of-way laws. And if she does move the fence, she’ll have to swap it out for something “less ornate, such as a crimped wire or double-loop fence,” as John Kelley reports in the Washington Post.

Can you think of a local, historically important chain link fence, Portland residents? We’ve found a couple of examples of how chain link fence materials, Portland history and historical preservation may be linked:

A six-foot chain link fence protects Washington Park Reservoir.

This fence is meant to protect the city’s water supply. After all, Portland’s open reservoirs are at risk of being tainted with hazardous materials. Culturally, the Washington Park chain link fencing could represent the historical friction between residents who want to enjoy Portland’s stunning reservoirs, and public health officials who are tasked with protecting residents’ health.

Portland’s chain link fencing is associated with working class families.

In his book Greater Portland, Carl Abbot describes the city’s outer boroughs, such as Parkrose and Lents, as places where immigrants from the foothills [are trying] to recreate rural lifestyles on the edges of the city.” He comments that these are “areas of mobile home parks, self-built houses, unpaved streets… wealth stored on wheels in old automobiles and trucks and boat trailers and campers, Rottweilers behind chain link fences.” Many Portland denizens would agree with this association between chain link fencing and the less affluent areas of the city.

Yet Abbot also describes stable, working-class families in the same area who have “a house well kept and newly painted, but still behind its chain link fence. Residents have fierce pride in what they do for themselves.” In this way, Portland’s chain link fences represent the independent approach hardworking homeowners took to protect their families.

On a national scale, the chain link fence tells the story of post-war industrialization. Chain link fencing was one of the first fence materials to be built on an industrial scale. This fence material swept across the nation in the 1950s because it was inexpensive, practical and fairly easy to erect. In this way, chain link fencing represents the American story of the rising middle class, pulling itself up by its bootstraps.

Should Portland follow Alexandria’s suit and begin rejecting applications to replace chain link fencing? Or do you believe that this movement toward historical preservation is poppycock? Weigh in below about the advantages and disadvantages of the historical preservation of fence materials, Portland homeowners.

[ photo by: tattooedme, on Flickr, via CC License ]


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