Among the anniversaries that passed unnoticed this year was one on November 21, the 75th anniversary of the 1941 death of a Portland city commissioner of the 1920s and 1930s. You think you don't know his name, but you do, and if you own a Portland house that was built before 1931, his work is on your wall. He was Asbury Barbur, first elected to the council in 1920. One of his pet causes was to clean up Portland's system for naming streets and numbering buildings. I should say "systems" instead of "system," for Portland's naming and numbering plans included not only the elements of the Great Renaming of 1891, but also the systems of Sellwood and St. Johns, annexed to Portland afterward. (A remnant of the Sellwood system survives in the Clackamas County portion of the Garthwick neighborhood.)
Portland was plagued by similar and confusing street names, such as Tenth Street, North Tenth Street, East Tenth Street, and East Tenth Street North. Intersections were similarly confusing: for example, from their intersection 42nd Avenue SE ran east-west, and 42nd Street SE ran north-south. The post office misdelivered 2000 letters a day, and streetsigns often didn't match the streets they were on.
Commissioner Barbur spent 10 years persuading the rest of the council to adopt a single unified system of addresses and numbers. In 1931 the council, having been cajoled, wheedled, inveigled, and bullied into joining the modern era, adopted the Barbur plan, which with slight modifications is what we enjoy today. In the Barbur plan, odd numbers were on the west or north sides of streets, even numbers were on the south or east sides of streets, all streets ran east-west, all avenues and places ran north-south, and all boulevards were scenic (he missed the mark on Holgate). Burnside, the river, and Williams Avenue became the baselines, and we adopted the five quadrants of North, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest as directional prefixes. Numbers increased by 100 per block and 2000 per mile. You could tell from an address such as 4010 SE 40th Avenue that it was on the east side of SE 40th Avenue, 2 miles east of the Willamette River and 2 miles south of East Burnside Street.
Few politicians are brave enough to advocate a plan that would inconvenience every registered voter in the city. Commissioner Barbur took some of the sting out of changing everyone's address by having the city hire a company to manufacture hundreds of thousands of numbered ceramic tiles - the classic black-on-white "Asbury Tile" -- and then hiring crews of the unemployed to go from house to house to install the tiles on the front walls of every building in Portland. They completed their work in 1933. If you have an old house within the 1931 city limits, you probably have Asbury tiles next to your front door, courtesy of the city council.
Another part of the Barbur plan was to rename streets, not just to get rid of the duplicate and confusing names that had accumulated since 1891, but to give continuous streets a continuous name. The most prominent roadway to be renamed was a highway that ran south from downtown, along bits of roadway named Fourth Avenue Extension, Witham Street, and Miles Street. It's now called Barbur Boulevard, and it honors the man who gave you your address.