Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of the River Street Neighborhood

The South Side of the Tracks Becomes A Community

River Street has always been slated for development. From its earliest days, real estate speculation was central to this location as a vehicle for expanding downtown Boise. The arrival of the Oregon Short Line Railroad launched development in the section of Boise that would become the River Street Neighborhood. The initial land owners, including John McClellan, subdivided and platted this area in hopes that the railroad would spur development. During the first half of the twentieth century, a collection of residential houses were built along the streets between the railroad tracks on the north, River Street on the south, Sixteenth Street (present day Americana Boulevard) on the north, and Tenth Street on the east. Warehouses occupied the area east of Tenth Street all the way to what is now Capitol Boulevard.

Click Here to learn more about the early history of River Street.

By the Roaring Twenties, the River Street Neighborhood was poised for growth. It was filled with relatively new housing stock. The number of warehouses along the “spur” were expanding, which provided jobs for local residents and commerce for the city. The population of Boise was rapidly growing. Between 1900 and 1920, Boise had grown from approximately 6,000 residents to over 21,000. River Street remained a working-class neighborhood with Basque and European immigrant population. The first African Americans also moved in at this time. River Street and Boise City were on the upswing.

The pendulum had gone the other way by the 1970s. While Boise’s population was rapidly increasing in 1970, growth had stalled during the 1960s. Suburban expansion across open desert and former farmland was absorbing most of the population growth. New people living in new houses wanted new shopping malls. Older buildings in downtown Boise were decaying and many of the houses in River Street were over 50 years old. Many of the absentee property owners in River Street had let their rentals decline and the neighborhood was seen as an eyesore for Boise city officials. Crime crept into the neighborhood and the Civil Rights Movement abolished the real estate restrictions that had kept African Americans and other non-whites from leaving the neighborhood. Those that could afford to left River Street. The City’s solution to this decay was urban renewal. Basically, Boise was deciding whether they should rehabilitate older buildings in the urban core or demolish them and build something new.

River Street traversed a turbulent period during the mid-twentieth century and, by the 1970s, much of what once was had been lost. Houses had been demolished. Businesses shuttered. New, large condominiums and apartments were built on top of the previous small, detached, single-family dwellings. Attempts at historic preservation had failed. The future of the River Street Neighborhood is not clear, but one thing still remained throughout all those changes: community.

Terrell family children take a bike ride in River Street (n.d.)River Street during the War Years

Most of the houses in the River Street Neighborhood were constructed during the 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s (Demo 2006). Most of these buildings were intended to be rented out from their construction and a range of “ready-built” houses— standard dwellings that were made in factories and shipped on railroad cars to a town where they were assembled based on enclosed instructions. Demo (2006:32) explains: “By the early 1900s, the grandiose architectural plans for “cottage” and “bungalow” were scaled down by enterprising home-building companies as they responded to huge demands for affordable, quality housing from a growing American working-class that was more than willing to settle for small, uncomplicated, and unadorned homes.” During the first decades of the twentieth century, companies compiled plan books where potential home buyers could select home plans and select which home they would like to buy. The house was delivered to the lot where it was to be erected and workmen or the home owner assembled the house.

At the same time when residential buildings were being added to the neighborhood, warehouses and commercial buildings were also added to the community. The neighborhood was zoned as “unrestricted” in 1928, which meant the existing residential buildings would remain but industrial and commercial growth could continue on all sides (Osa 1982:2; Stacy 1995:9). This zoning was bad news for River Street because it immediately diminished the desirability of the neighborhood. Those homeowners that lived in the neighborhood started moving away, either renting out their homes or selling them outright.

Around this time, River Street the arrival of more European immigrants and non-Euroamericans to the neighborhood increased. The first Basques arrived in the neighborhood in 1902 and were followed by a few more Basque families and sheepherders during the 1910s. Most of the Basque congregated around Lee and Ash Streets and on Lover’s Lane (Demo 2006:105–106). European immigrants from other countries also arrived during the first decades of the twentieth century: most notably Greek and Croatian individuals and families (Demo 2006; 108–109). Discrimination faced outside the neighborhood increasingly forced immigrants into River Street; however, within the neighborhood people were friendly, helpful, and neighborly (See what former residents had to say about the neighborhood. Click Here).

World War II brought a large number of African American soldiers to the military bases near Boise: Gowen Field and Mountain Home Air Force Base. Many of these black soldiers were allowed to bring their families, but faced few housing options in Boise. River Street was the only place they were allowed to rent homes (Osa 1982:5; Stewart 1980). It was the only place African Americans could buy homes, which contrasted with other parts of the country where blacks were not allowed to buy property. Long-time African American River Street resident Bessie Stewart recalls convincing her husband to purchase a house in the neighborhood. They immediately rented it out to black soldiers with families and didn’t move into the home until after World War II (Stewart 1980) (See the transcript of Stewart’s oral history interview. Click Here). The Stewarts were not alone. A number of other black Boiseans were able to purchase homes in the River Street Neighborhood. Many of these individuals lived in River Street for decades.

This is the former Blackjack's Barbeque, a business operated by notable River Street African American entrepreneur "Pistol" JohnsonDecline: the 1960s and 1970s

After World War II, the surge of black renters in the River Street Neighborhood subsided but it remained a predominately rental neighborhood. The neighborhood demographics changed sharply during the 1960s when African Americans in Boise began pushing for their civil rights. African American activist Dorothy Buckner recalls that the push for civil rights was spearheaded by a small part of Boise’s black community. Most blacks were against upsetting the status quo even though they were excluded from living in most of the city. There was discrimination in Boise, but it wasn’t even close to the way things were in other parts of the United States (Buckner 1981). Boise’s schools were integrated. African Americans were allowed to own businesses and homes. Violent racism was rare. For most blacks, this wasn’t great but it was good enough.

In the 1960s, a number of civil rights marches were held in Boise and representatives from the NAACP and Urban League conducted studies and held public meetings to discuss the status of African Americans in the city. African Americans were no longer restricted to living in River Street after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and, as happened after the 1928 zoning of the neighborhood, those that could moved away from the neighborhood.

During the mid-twentieth century, the River Street Neighborhood also became known for illicit activity. It is not clear if this new identity corresponded with the surge in African American residents during World War II or if it was the result of a real increase in crime. It is known, however, that certain parts of the neighborhood became known for gambling and prostitution. Residents continually say that this type of activity was concentrated on Pioneer Street (today’s Pioneer Walkway). Nevertheless, Boiseans began to view the entire neighborhood as a place of vice.

Interviews with former residents have acknowledged the presence of illicit activity on Pioneer Street (Buckner 1981, Madry 2014, Terrell 2014). Several of the businesses on Pioneer had legitimate business street fronts while the back of the shop housed gambling and other activities. One example is the Blackjack Barbeque Restaurant that used to operate at 500 S. Ash Street. Today, this is a neighborhood center but, according to Dorothy Buckner (1981), it doubled as a gambling hall. Blackjack’s was operated by African American entrepreneur “Pistol” Johnson. In addition to operating the barbeque restaurant, Johnson also repaired houses in the neighborhood and acted as a rental agent for absentee property owners in River Street (Buckner 1981).

The tales of Pioneer Street as a red light/gambling district are widely known in Boise lore, but residents have always wanted to stress that River Street was much more than a place to have a good time. It was a close-knit community where residents overlooked skin color and judged each other based on the content of their character.

River Street as a Community

The River Street Neighborhood has always been a multi-ethnic community. From the European immigrants of the 1910s to the African immigrants that live there today, life in the neighborhood has always been characterized as hospitable. Interviews with former residents highlight this fact.

African Americans in the neighborhood were close friends, but they also had good Euroamerican friends that were willing to lend a helping hand whenever necessary. Doris Thomas recalls that people of all races made homes and founded businesses in the neighborhood. Businesses in River Street, such as Zurcher’s and Pearl Grocery, did not discriminate. Residents of all races were welcome to come in and shop. Ellen Perkins lived in River Street for decades and, even though she was black, was able to own her own home. When her husband passed away, she recalls Euroamerican neighbors coming over immediately to offer a helping hand (Hear more about the lives of Doris Thomas and Ellen Perkins. Click Here). Other former residents recall playing with neighborhood children of all races. Many of these friendships even continued while attending schools located outside the neighborhood.

John Bertram moved to River Street during the 1970s as a young man. He was attracted to the place because of the plight of its low-income residents and decided this was the place where he would work toward improving the neighborhood. He bought a house, a fixer-upper, and set to work repairing this historical home. He also began advocating for historic preservation and equitable development in River Street. Bertram recalls the strong desire River Street residents had to improve their neighborhood. A large segment of the population continued pushing against urban renewal plans that would see their homes reduced to rubble. They also joined together to push for the creation of the Greenbelt as a recreation area and worked to create a community center. Both of these goals were realized during the 1970s (See more about John Bertram’s life in River Street. Click Here).

River Street residents found themselves in a multi-ethnic community that was forged through discrimination. But, they were able to develop a community that looked beyond color and ethnicity. Neighborliness, hospitality, and cooperation characterized life in the neighborhood (Learn more about the role River Street played in the creation of whiteness as a racial identity in Boise, Idaho. Click Here).

Church and the River Street Community

St Paul Baptist Church was one of many churches that River Street residents attendedReligion was central to the folks that lived in the River Street Neighborhood. Some long-time River Street residents have remarked that a church used to exist within the neighborhood at the corner of 14th Street and River, but I have not been able to identify the name of this church and related information was not identified at the Idaho State Archives.

Generally, River Street residents attended church outside the neighborhood. African American residents fondly remember attending Bethel A.M.E. Church. I have not been able to identify when Bethel was built, but I did find two photographs of parishioners from 1930s and 1940s (see below). The best known church attended by Boise’s African Americans is St. Paul Baptist Church. Boise’s black community held church meetings in the back rooms of various businesses since 1908. In 1921, Rev. William Riley Hardy and members of the black community bought property at 124–128 Broadway Ave. and built a small church building and parish house. St. Paul remained at this address until 1998 when the building was moved to Julia Davis Park where it would serve as the Idaho Black History Museum. River Street residents fondly recall attending church functions at both Bethel A.M.E., St. Paul and other Boise churches.

Curfman, Eryn

2002 “Wall woes may force church to move.” Idaho Statesman, 1/12/2002. Statesman_2002_Church_May_Move

Stringfellow, Rosalie

1950 “Keys to St. Paul’s Church Parsonage Presented to Pastor.” Idaho Daily Statesman, 3/28/1850. Statesman_1950_St_Pauls_Parsonage

Whaley, Susan

2002 “Faith of a Congregation.” Idaho Statesman, 2/3/2002:1,7. Statesman_2002_Faith_of_congregation1

Wynn, Pat

1973 “The Role of St. Paul’s Church as Cultural, Spiritual Center.” Idaho Statesman 1/28/1973:4E. Statesman_1973_St_paul_cultural_Center

Urban Renewal: From the 1970s to the Present

What to do about River Street? That has long been the question plaguing Boise planners and officials.

The urban renewal movement in Boise started in the 1960s with studies conducted by the Boise Planning and Development Committee. Initially, the committee targeted a portion of downtown Boise between Front, Washington, 12th and 3rd Streets. This area surrounded the Idaho Capitol building and was full of older buildings, some of which had not been maintained. As was the story in the rest of the United States, Boise planners and officials felt that demolishing these buildings and constructing new ones in their place would attract new investment and businesses.

Development awaits this vacant lot in River Street (2012)The City of Boise entertained a number of development projects in downtown Boise during the 1970s including the construction of a mall and a conference center, the latter of which was actually built. A number of buildings were demolished in the process.

Planners also set their sights on the River Street Neighborhood at that time because of its reputation as a place of ill-repute and the large number of neglected homes. A number of feasibility studies were conducted at this time in order to decide what to do about the neighborhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, a some high-density residential buildings were built in the heart of the neighborhood. The floodplain of the Boise River south of River Street was finally developed during the 1980s.

Historic preservation studies were also conducted at this time and preservation was recommended for portions of the neighborhood. To date, these recommendations have not been heeded.

The result of this dialectic between development and preservation has stunted the development of the neighborhood. It is neither a historical district nor a high-density, urban enclave. Recently, property owners have begun repairing the historical homes that remain while multi-family apartment and condominiums have also been established. Today, River Street is an eclectic place that has the potential to become a quirky central neighborhood in downtown Boise—a livable place at the center of a vibrant community.

You can learn more about the effects of Urban Renewal and see studies conducted on the River Street Neighborhood. Click Here

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