Building Upon a Firm Foundation of Previous Research
The River Street Digital History Project is not the first time researchers have focused on the neighborhood. It was little mentioned in newspapers or Boise City studies prior to the 1960s, but, during the Urban Renewal boom, Boise planners focused several studies on the neighborhood. From the 1960s to the 1980s, River Street was the focus of several redevelopment schemes and, because it was zoned as industrial land, commercial development was encouraged. Newspaper articles from this time describe the various ways development was slowed in River Street and the fact that the neighborhood had become “blighted”. Of course, the people that lived in River Street saw things differently. They were more interested in gaining access to funding that would allow them to repair and rehabilitate their community. Some research was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s that focused on figuring out ways to revive the community.
By the 1990s, research was conducted in the spirit of preserving what was left of River Street. This research concentrated on documenting the remaining buildings and determining their historical value. This work continues today.
The River Street Neighborhood has been the subject of at least five research projects including an oral history project, a historic property inventory, a college class paper, and a graduate thesis. In 1981, Mateo Osa conducted oral history interviews with several African-American neighborhood residents with the intent of documenting the history of the Lee Street area in order to make recommendations for historic preservation. The interviews provided a background for the neighborhood from the perspective of its African-American residents and formed a baseline for what is known about the neighborhood’s social dynamics.
Osa also documented 23 homes along Ash and Lee Streets. At the time (1980–1981), this was a relatively intact portion of the River Street Neighborhood that was being encroached upon by commercial development. Osa noted that it was one of the oldest, intact areas of Boise. The houses along Lee and Ash Streets were built with the anticipation that they would house working class Boiseans. This condition had not changed by the 1980s. Describing Lee Street in the early 1980s, Osa wrote: “Lee Street is lined with mature trees and fences separate the yards from the sidewalks in front of the houses. Set in the midst of a warehouse and urban redevelopment district as it is, Lee Street stands out as an unique and self-contained neighborhood. It deserves attention, not only as the traditional home of a segment of Boise’s black community, but also as an area of virtually unaltered vernacular residential architecture. Also, noteworthy, is the degree of continuity in relationship to the rest of the community since, unlike many neighborhoods, it has not altered its basic character over the years but still provides basic low-income housing close to downtown.” Some of the photos taken by Osa can be found at the Idaho State Historical Archive. You can see them below:
Views of Lee and Ash Streets: 1981 and 2012
Transcripts of the conversations recorded by Osa and photos of several inventoried houses are on file at the Idaho State Historical Society Archives in Boise. The text of his final report “Survey of Lee Street Neighborhood” is on file at the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office also in Boise. You can download a partial copy of Osa’s report here; however, the names and addresses of Osa’s informants and details of the private properties surveyed have been redacted.
The River Street Area Survey was conducted in 1995 to evaluate neighborhood buildings under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). A continuation of the effort to preserve buildings in the neighborhood that was initiated by Osa, this report “River Street Area Reconnaissance Survey” (1995) (Idaho Historic Properties Survey Report No. 222) was conducted and written by Susan M. Stacy. The survey was prepared for the Boise City Historic Preservation Commission and covered an area of 300 acres. The survey evaluated 151 buildings between Americana Blvd. on the west, Broadway Blvd. on the east, W. Myrtle Street on the north, and the Boise River on the south. This evaluation failed to create a historic preservation district within River Street. Stacy explains that the neighborhoods south of Myrtle between Broadway Blvd. and Sixteenth St. (Americana Blvd.) were mature by 1915 and were largely dedicated to house working class Boiseans (1995:9). In the years between World War I and II, a warehouse district matured along the railroad tracks between Ninth and Sixth Streets. This district continued expanding for the next few decades, consuming many previously residential properties. World War II saw an influx of residents to this area, given the fact that it was largely rental properties. River Street was occupied by a large number of African American soldiers and their families at that time. The 1960s ushered in a period or urban renewal and Boise City officials and planners sought various ways to redevelop River Street, as it was considered a blight on the city’s landscape. Many residential dwellings in the neighborhood were destroyed at this time, although most of the urban renewal in Boise focused on blocks in downtown Boise.
Stacy’s inventory provided preservation recommendations, although she did not conduct exhaustive research on each and every property evaluated. Her report states that the River Street Neighborhood was unique because of its identity as Boise’s black neighborhood and acknowledges Osa’s recommendation to preserve the Lee and Ash Street portion of the neighborhood. Stacy writes (1995:13–14): “About 1980–1982 the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office undertook a survey of the “Lee Street Historic District,” [Osa 1981] 22 houses located on Lee and Ash Streets. The survey analyst and the SHPO office concluded that the area was eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. When Boise City objected to this conclusion, the survey and report were sent to the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS agreed with the SHPO and issued a forma determination that the district was eligible. The significance of this decision is that any agency proposing to impact the area adversely and use federal funds to do so (such as Boise City Community Development Block Grants or other federal resources) will be obliged to mitigate such impacts according to a plan negotiated with the SHPO. This requirement derives from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.”
Stacy continues to state that the the Lee and Ash Street area remained (in 1995) one of the few places in River Street where older homes were still standing. She recommended that other historic houses be moved to the Lee and Ash area to fill in vacant lots, which would strengthen the likelihood of preserving the place as a historic district.
Also in 1995, a student paper titled “The River Street Neighborhood” was written by Jeffrey D. Johns for the History Department at Boise State University (Johns 1995). This work was another continuation of research pioneered by Osa and provided an improved historic context for the Lee and Ash Street area. Johns’ discussion of the effects of urban renewal on River Street and his systematic inventory of the houses along these streets are useful updates to the 1981 inventory. A copy of Johns’ paper is on file at the Idaho State Historical Society Archives in Boise.
The seminal work on the River Street Neighborhood was published in 2006 as a Master’s thesis. In 2006, Pam Demo wrote “Boise’s River Street Neighborhood: Lee, Ash, and Lovers Lane/Pioneer Streets: The South Side of the Tracks” as part of her Master’s Degree in Anthropology for the University of Idaho. This thesis focused on the architectural history and social environment of Lee and Ash Streets and is the culmination of over 30 years of research in this section of River Street. Demo brought together the existing data on the neighborhood and integrated Osa’s oral histories, Stacy’s and Johns’ building surveys, and other historic resources into her rich recollection of life in River Street. Acknowledging the dynamism and diversity of River Street’s historical population, Demo writes: “Residents who arrived poor, were of color, or spoke no English, left when they could afford to and others moved in to take their place. Some stayed in the neighborhood finding security, friendship, and a sense of community. They invested in their homes, raising families, and by their continued presence they contributed to the social fabric that connected streets and neighbors.”
Demo’s thesis is housed at the University of Idaho’s library. She has also been known to distribute PDF versions by request.
In addition to these documents, other websites have been created that discuss the digital history of River Street. In 2011, the website River Street Neighborhood: Changes in the Physical and Cultural Landscape 1863-1970 was created by students of a Public History class at Boise State University. This website provides an excellent description of the way River Street’s landscape has changed since the 1860s.
Portions of the River Street Neighborhood are included in the visually stunning Boise 150 virtual tour Remnants of Boise. This project was sponsored by the Boise City Department of Arts and History and the virtual tour includes places in the River Street Neighborhood including Lee Street.
Urban Renewal Studies on River Street
What to do with River Street? This has been a lingering question in the minds of Boise planners for decades. Beginning in the 1960s, the City of Boise began conducting urban renewal studies in order to investigate the effects of demolishing older buildings in downtown Boise and constructing new ones in their place. Initially, the focus of this renewal was a huge swath of downtown Boise north of Myrtle Street. The buildings in downtown Boise were getting old and began showing their age. Also, the city’s growth was oriented toward the suburbs. Investment in old downtown was waning. The city was looking for ways they could encourage growth in the Boise’s aging core.
The central tenet of Urban Renewal was: Tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones. But before the old buildings were torn down, cities usually sponsored feasibility studies that would provide an idea as to what the impacts would be after the existing buildings were torn down. Public meetings accompanied these studies and, in most communities, historic preservation and social justice advocates fought back against urban renewal. This is generally how the urban renewal process went in Boise.
While the initial studies focused on Boise’s downtown core, city officials soon set their sites on the River Street Neighborhood. Redevelopment studies on River Street were initiated during the 1970s and continue to this day. Below are a sample of the many urban development plans conducted on the River Street area:
n.d. River Street Neighborhood Plan: A Comparison of the Neighborhood Development Project and the River Street Design Center Plan. Document on file at the Boise Public Library.
Although this short report has no date, it must have been published sometime around 1975. This report summarizes the Boise Redevelopment Agency (BRA) and the River Street Community Design Center plans. The BRA plan was criticized because it failed to adequately take low-income and minority interests into account this report concludes by recommending: the maximization of investments in public utilities, curtailing sprawl, saving open spaces (parks and the Greenbelt), encouraging the creation of low-income housing, and adopting a transportation policy that promotes neighborhood cohesiveness. You can read the report here:
Bertram, John and Pat Walsh
1973 River Street Neighborhood Plan. River Street Community Design Center, Boise.
The River Street Neighborhood Plan was co-authored by River Street resident and long-time Boisean John Bertram (you can see a summary of John Bertram’s 2014 oral history interview here). This study covered the boundaries of the greater River Street Neighborhood, which extended as far east as Capitol Blvd. This survey area included the remaining residential area of the neighborhood and the warehouse district that exists to the east (the 8th Street Marketplace and Boise Public Library area today). This was the most extensive report published on the neighborhood at that time and it made several recommendations that have actually come to pass. For instance, the authors suggested that the City should complete the Greenbelt along the Boise River, craft the warehouses along Eighth Street into a historical commercial district, the construction of a new public library along Capitol Blvd., and should facilitate low-income housing in the River Street neighborhood. The neglect of buildings in the neighborhood was cited as a public concern and suggested the city should help revitalize homes in the area. Based on what has happened to this area since the creation of this report, it is safe to say that this report truly helped guide development in the River Street Neighborhood. You can download a copy here:
1975 A Rebuilding Process for River Street Neighborhood, Boise, Idaho. University of Oregon, Eugene. Document on file at the Albertsons Library, Boise State University, Boise.
Just like Bertram and Walsh, McCarter recognized the true value of the River Street Neighborhood was found in its proximity to the Boise River and the fact that it was a residential enclave adjacent to downtown Boise. McCarter’s vision for River Street included transforming the riverbank into an attractive park (the Greenbelt) and adding higher density housing to the existing housing stock. His ultimate goal for River Street was the creation of a mixed-use neighborhood with recreation and commercial venues located within walking distance from a variety of low to moderate-density residential options.
The scenario envisioned by McCarter can be seen through the forward-thinking drawings he created of this redevelopment project. Some of the elements of his plan have actually been completed, such as the Greenbelt, the construction of commercial offices along the Boise River, and the addition of higher density residential. You can download a copy of McCarter’s report below:
Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC)
2003 Pioneer Corridor Design Competition. Capitol City Development Corporation, Boise. Document provided by Pam Demo, Boise. Also available on the CCDC website: http://www.ccdcboise.com/
The Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC) has emerged as a major player in the development/redevelopment of the River Street Neighborhood. One of its goals is to transform the neighborhood into an attractive, livable place and the creation of quality public amenities is one strategy they have been employing. Transforming Pioneer Street (formerly Lovers Lane) into a pedestrian pathway has been promoted as a way the city can improve the attractiveness of River Street. In 2003, the CCDC held a design competition to determine how the Pioneer Pathway would become a reality. Here are the options they had to choose from:
2004 River Street-Myrtle Street Master Plan. Capitol City Development Corporation, Boise. Document provided by Pam Demo, Boise. Also available on the CCDC website: http://www.ccdcboise.com/
By the early 2000s, the River Street Neighborhood had been the focus of development/redevelopment plans for about 30 years. Several of the previously mentioned ideas had come to fruition by that time including the completion of the Greenbelt and the construction of commercial offices south of River Street (A topic discussed in newspaper articles from the 1980s). While low-income housing had been emphasized in the 1970s studies, transforming River Street into a flourishing urban neighborhood with a mix of shopping and recreation options became the goal for 2025. The CCDC has been hard at work of accomplishing one of the goals outlined in the 1970s studies: Building the Pioneer Walkway into an inviting pedestrian avenue that can be used for transportation and recreation. You can check out the CCDCs plan for 2025 by downloading the PDFs below:
Keyser Marston Associates, Inc.
2004 Economic Feasibility of the First Amended and Restated River-Myrtle/ Old Boise Urban Renewal District. Prepared for the Capitol City Development Corporation, Boise. Keyser Marston Associates, Inc., Los Angeles.
In order to accomplish the desired redevelopment goals, the CCDC had to calculate how much it would cost and how to pay for it. Here’s what they came up with. NOTE: This was published before the recession, so I’m not sure how accurate these numbers are anymore.
Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC)
2005 Capitol City Development Corporation Annual Report. Capitol City Development Corporation, Boise. Document provided by Pam Demo, Boise.
The Pioneer Walkway and the Smart City Initiative/Creative Cities are highlighted as among the CCDC’s 2004 successes. Smart Cities was created in 2000 to foster a more livable community that could lure creative businesses and professional to Boise. Recent research conducted by the Seattle Green Lab has demonstrated that historical neighborhoods like River Street are more amenable to creative professionals and have the potential to transform cities into creative centers. Check out the CCDC’s status in 2004:
The quest to redevelop the River Street Neighborhood continues today as does attempts to preserve its history. Fortunately, recent research has confirmed that places like River Street are more beneficial to cities than destroying old buildings to make way for new ones. In 2014, the Seattle Green Lab, a unit of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, published the report “Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality.” Their research concluded that: “All across America, blocks of older, smaller buildings are quietly contributing to robust local economies and distinctive livable communities.” The authors continue by demonstrating that older blocks have more active communities, contain a higher number of jobs per square foot, and host a greater density of minority and women-owned businesses. Basically, older places like the River Street Neighborhood are essential to the vitality and vibrancy of Boise’s community. You can download a free copy of this report here.
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments.