Life on “the Hang”
The child of a college professor, John Bertram moved up and down the Pacific Coast as a child. In 1968, he was a college student at the University of Washington when he was drafted to the Vietnam War. He ended up joining VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a branch of the AmeriCorps program. He was trained in New York and was sent to Idaho for service. With an interest in urban planning, Bertram asked to be placed in the largest city in Idaho. He found himself living in a house on Lee Street in the River Street Neighborhood living next to Rosa Tigner (Click Here if you want to hear about Rosa Tigner’s life in River Street).
“’69 was still a time when River Street still was kind of the other side of the tracks. It had a fairly predominant African American population…There was a pretty large white community here during that same time” (Bertram 2014).
Working in River Street, Bertram was involved in a lot of programs. He worked with the food stamp program in Boise (Al Ada Community Action Network) and helped demonstrate the poverty that existed in Boise. He helped found a park in the neighborhood as well. Working with a student group at Boise State University, he helped paint a number of houses in the neighborhood. His job was to serve those in need.
“Boise is a good community. If you ask for a paintbrush and a bucket of paint for a good cause, people will give it to you” (Bertram 2014).
Bertram recalls that the focus of research has been on the African American community in Boise, but minorities have a long legacy in the neighborhood. He notes that immigrants and minorities had
He worked on several development plans for the neighborhood that focused on building more and improving existing residential housing. You can view a copy of his 1970s work here. His plan involved accentuating the residential aspect to the neighborhood, but commercial development interests were frequently at odds with Bertram’s plans. He recognizes that “you didn’t need a car to live here” because there were stores and other amenities that made the neighborhood walkable. Unfortunately, commercial properties were built along the riverfront, essentially cutting River Street off from the Boise River. Some of his plans did become a reality. The River Street community donated some of its redevelopment funding to help make the Greenbelt become a reality and a community park was built during Bertram’s tenure. His advocacy also helped turn the 8th Street Marketplace into a historical commercial development, the 8th Street Bridge was saved, and some of the residential buildings were built.
The demise of local grocery stores such as Zurcher’s and Pearl Grocery came around the time Bertram arrived to the neighborhood. During the 1960s, large stores like Smith’s Food King and K-mart spelled the end of small local stores. Bertram recalls, during the early twentieth century, skilled professionals and tradespeople used to live in the neighborhood. The grandfather of Charles Hummel, one of the architects that designed the Idaho Capitol, lived in the River Street Neighborhood on 13th Street. It is likely that these professionals moved away when the neighborhood was zoned for industrial development.
Bertram came back to River Street after his VISTA service was over. He worked for the 8th Street Marketplace for a few years and bought a house in the neighborhood. Bertram moved in and began improving the house over the next few years. He raised a family and kept the River Street house as a rental.
Living in River Street was living life in “the Hang”. “The Hang” was the community that made African Americans feel welcome in the River Street Neighborhood. Bertram recalls that black Job Corps kids and military soldiers used to come to the neighborhood and just hang out because they felt more comfortable there than in the rest of the city. He believes that, today, the entire town is open to blacks in a way that used to not exist.
“What was really lovely about the neighborhood was most of my neighbors were African American and they were closer to me than most of my current neighborhood neighbors that I live with. Again, we didn’t have Thanksgiving together, but there was a rapport and there was a trust…” (Bertram 2014).
The troublesome thing about River Street today is that a lot of this camaraderie has been lost. He believes that a good neighborhood is composed of people of all different races, ethnicities, and classes. However, other residents do not feel that way. Currently, there is a homeless shelter in River Street and Bertram laments the fact that property owners are walling their properties off because they do not feel comfortable with the presence of homeless people.
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