Citizen Dollars and Municipal Space: The Case of Portland’s River Baths

Naomi Adiv, University of Toronto

The Willamette River is at the heart of Portland’s geography, and the history of the city’s development. One conflict that has long marked the river is over whether or not Portlanders ought to be allowed to swim at its banks, largely a question of safety, due to drowning and pollution. But as with all determinations of whether urban spaces and practices are indeed ‘healthy’ or ‘safe,’ this story also points at questions of social control associated with access to the water. In June 1902, the City of Portland built a floating bath in the Willamette River. Common in many North American cities, a floating bath was a wooden enclosure built into the river, with dressing rooms and walkways built around the swimming tanks; cities like New York and Chicago had had them since the late 1870s. Creating a public bath was a way for the state to intervene in a landscape of health and of interaction with the water. One notable characteristic of the way the bath was built in the Willamette was the fundraising campaign associated with it, in which citizens were enlisted to become ‘subscribing’ donors, instead of the city simply issuing a tax or bond. This leads me to ask: what does it mean for the state to enroll citizens in financing state spaces through channels outside of taxation? Who does it serve and how does it influence a sense of ownership over state spaces, as well as who gets to make the rules? How is state provision of amenities through citizen enrollment different from charity? By addressing these questions, this paper intervenes in the literature on public private partnerships and the history of financing public spaces in cities.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 154. Public Finance in the Local Context