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 order to accommodate all this new tourist traffic, motor hotels sprouted like mushrooms—and rural communities, which had been suffering economically for years, were offered 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 employed adobe, stone, brick, or whatever else was handy or distinctive 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 was in place, propelling Americans into the future at high speed and no stops along the way. The grand old highways, and the hundreds of small communities that survived because of them, paid the price of this progress. Bypassed, their gas stations, motels and diners withered.

While some of the roadside inns continued to eke out a living taking in the occas
ional tourist or trucker, most were abandoned or converted into residences. Americans in the cities and suburbs were enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, but 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 departing Phoenix, Arizona, for 
the fictional Fairvale, California, Marion (Janet Leigh) accidentally turns off of the newer main highway onto the decommissioned artery that leads to the Bates Motel. (Point of fact, filming took place on US Route 99 between Gorman and Fresno, with a stop in Bakersfield, where she traded in her car. The highway goes nowhere near Phoenix.) This exchange says all you need to know:

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 it 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 highway that rerouted travelers away from their place of business
. No wonder Norman had an attitude problem. In fact, it could be argued that the real villain 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.

After leaving Fresno, US 99 twisted up through the rest of California and up into Oregon, where it passed through Portland, my home city. In 1960, it could still  be called a small town, and the highway ran right through its middle to serve as a main drag for city traffic. But by the mid-'60s, that section of 99 was replaced by Interstate 5, which had drilled a concrete canyon through neighborhoods several blocks to the East. The piece of the old highway that once ran through North Portland was renamed Interstate Avenue. And the new, more efficient, I-5 offered precious few off-ramps to bring travelers to the businesses that had been built in hopes of serving this new generation of travelers. Judging by the design style of their signage, these motels were still living on their original coat of paint when the welcome mat was pulled out from underneath them. 

Before long, North Portland—a blue collar community from the beginning—acquired a new reputation, hopeless and hapless, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. This is the 'hood I grew up in. By the time I came along, the motor inns along Interstate Avenue had fallen into neglect, offering guests rooms by the week, the night and 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-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 hark 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'd sneak across the street to the South Pacific island-themed Alibi Restaurant for a cocktail in the Tiki Room, perfectly preserved with vintage Tiki idols and imitation grass roofs. 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"—if they weren't 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 a California highway.


PDXsays 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.