Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The Bates Motel: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Nat Cole's "Route 66." Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Lucy and Desi's Long, Long Trailer. After World War II Americans hit the road in record numbers, and the pop culture machine couldn't help but take notice.

In 1940 the CSAA (predecessor to AAA) posted membership at 100,000. By 1958 it had quadrupled to more than 400,000. In order to accommodate all this new tourist traffic, motor hotels sprouted like mushrooms -- and rural communities, which had been suffering economically for years, were given renewed hope as they profited from this emerging tourist industry.

From the outside, at least, the Alamo Plaza Courts resembled a stucco Spanish mission.

These cabin camps, cottage courts, motor courts, highway hotels and roadside inns were often jazzed up with elaborately stylized signage and architecture that took advantage of regional styles -- and, occasionally, stereotypes. Owners also employed adobe, stone, brick, or whatever else was handy, to attract guests.

This all changed with President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which aimed to tie the nation's major cities together with a system of superhighways. By 1960, more than 10,000 miles of new asphalt were in place. It was by these new routes that Americans would reach the future. The grand old highways, and the hundreds of small communities that survived because of them, were bypassed and left to wither away.

Some of the roadside inns continued to eke out a living, taking in the occas
ional tourist or trucker, but most were abandoned or converted into residences. As a result, though Americans in general were enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, their rural neighbors were beset by economic gloom.

Enter Alfred Hitchcock.

For an interesting study of the effects that the Highway Act had on rural communities, see his 1960 film Psycho. After escaping Phoenix, Arizona, Marion (Janet Leigh
) accidentally turns off of the newly built main interstate onto the older U.S. Highway that leads to the Bates Motel. This exchange follows:

You have a vacancy?

We have twelve vacancies. Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies. They moved the highway.

I thought I'd gotten off the main...

I knew you must have. No one stops here anymore unless they do.

Look closely when she signs the motel register, and you'll see that The Bates hadn't taken in a single guest in over eight months. Imagine the Bates' feelings when they were, in effect, put out of business by the new interstate that rerouted travelers away from their m
otel. No wonder Norman had an attitude problem.

In fact, it could be argued that the real evil in Psycho is not Norman Bates at all, but those forces in our society that scuttled the American Dream for countless small town communities across the nation.
Swanky sign. Not so swanky clientele.

In 1960, Portland, Oregon, (my hometown) could still be called a small town. U.S. Highway 99 ran through the middle of the city and served both as a highway and a main artery for city traffic.

Then, in the mid-'60s, U.S. 99 was replaced by Interstate 5. The portion of the old highway that runs through the north end of Portland was renamed Interstate Avenue. But when completed, the I-5 freeway, built several blocks to the east, offered precious few off-ramps to bring travelers to the businesses that had been built in hopes of serving this new generation of travelers.
North Portlad soon earned a reputation as a working-class community hopelessly on the wrong side of the tracks. This is the neighborhood I grew up in.
By the time I'd come along, the motels along Interstate Avenue had fallen into neglect, taking in guests who had reasons for renting a room by the hour.

The house that I grew up in during the '70s and '80s was one block off of Interstate Avenue, and it wasn't uncommon to see prostitutes in front of the Rose City Motel, or to see a police car lurch into the parking lot of The Viking Motel. The enormous sign of a local church warned passersby that "The wages sin pays is death" in brimstone-worthy gothic lettering. Interstate Avenue was a neighborhood full of potential -- or, who knows? literal -- Norman Bateses.

Miraculously, the vintage motels are still there. And their signage is a flamboyant theme park of neon and painted tin. Las Vegas in miniature. If they haven't been protected under the Historic Register Act, they should be. These signs harken back to an era when automobile travel was practiced as if it was a constitutional right, part of our Manifest Destiny.

There's the Westerner Motel, an enormous metal plank topped by a jaunt
ily tilted neon cowboy hat. I imagine a boy from another era persuading his parents to stop here for the night. After tucking their son in to bed, they sneak across the street to the South Pacific island-themed Alibi Restaurant for a cocktail in the Tiki Room, a lounge that features wooden Tiki idols and imitation grass roofs. It is dark and exotic and underworldly. You half expect Jack Lord to emerge from the men's room.

The Palms Motor Hotel crouches behind a neon sign that is perhaps 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It features palm trees, monkeys, and a massive yellow illuminated arrow that points you toward the lobby. As a bonus, prospective guests are promised FREE TV. Not to be outdone by The Palms, the nearby Mel's Motor Inn offers wayfarers DIRECT DIAL PHONES and COLOR TV.

By 1975, over 42,000 miles of superhighway had been built, relegating nearly half of the older U.S. Highways to the status of "bypass" or, worse, were decommissioned altogether. For many small towns that struggled for their existence even under the best conditions, the superhighway system was the final blow to their survival.

Independently owned motor courts were further marginalized by corporate chains like Motel 6, which opened its first location in Santa Barbara in 1962, attracting budget travelers at $6 per night. The thrill of discovering the unique atmosphere of a local road
side motel was eventually replaced by the bland assurances of sameness and efficiency.
At one time, Paul Bunyan welcomed all travelers to Portland.

The motels along Interstate Avenue are a reminder that prosperity is brief. For the residents of North Portland in the postwar years, the American promise of financial abundance was as empty as the grin on the Paul Bunyan statue at the corner of Interstate and Denver; the Great Dream as unattainable as a mirage on an Arizona highway.

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thebard's_paramour said...

US Route 30 runs from Chicago IL, through to Portland. It is a two-lane that is still favored by truckers when the interstates close due to blowing snow, and is a more scenic trip west by any mean.


B.Rem said...

Good post. I'm a resident of NoPo, fully aware of the history of my neighborhood but unable to really appreciate it. Interstate Ave. is so clogged with cars, MAX trains and storefronts that have fallen into disrepair that it's hard to get a good impression of it. However, the kitschy landmarks that dot this (now seedy) stretch of road are a thought-provoking reminder of the area's past. Your conclusions serve a similar purpose. Hard to believe the historic 'interstate highway' was almost renamed.

Unknown said...

do you have any known information along with the name about a cabin motel built on sandy blvd. in portland oregon that has since been taken down? thank you.