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Seeking out the legacy of Bill Naito

Understanding the civic leader and entrepreneur’s contributions to Portland is key to truly knowing the city of today.

A portrait of Bill Naito in 1990 shows a kind looking, elderly man wearing large glasses and a watch. He poses leaning his chin, covered in a low beard, on top of his stacked fists.

From the Portland Saturday Market to Art in the Pearl, you find ways that Bill Naito bettered his city everywhere you look.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education

City editor Ben here. I’ve lived in Portland for almost six years. In an effort to understand my home on a deeper level, I’ve gotten to know various places and events that shaped the Rose City: the Vanport Flood, redlining in the Albina District, urban renewal, the list goes on.

Somehow, I only recently discovered the legacy of Bill Naito, an incredible person whose name goes way beyond the street signs that carry it. Maybe you were similarly unaware, or perhaps you crossed paths with him — we’d love to hear that story — but his was a life worth learning from.

Dozens of people look at flowering trees covered in pink blossoms with a bridge in the background.

His efforts to beautify Portland are memorialized at the Japanese American Historical Plaza.

Photo by Ben McBee, PDXtoday

In 1925, William “Bill” Naito was born in Portland to parents Hide and Fukiye, Japanese immigrants who made the journey to the PNW in 1912. Initially unable to find a job, his father Hide instead established his own successful retail and wholesale business. When the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the threat of internment to Japanese Americans, his family was forced to uproot and move to Utah.

Upon graduating high school, Bill Naito joined the Allied forces as a member of the famed 442nd Infantry Regiment. After getting an education, he returned to Portland in 1952 and joined the family import business. Eventually they opened Import Plaza in Old Town/Chinatown’s Globe Hotel and would go on to protect more than 20 of the neighborhood’s historic buildings. He famously said, “We have stopped the bulldozer. Now the only direction is up.”

Children play in the Bill Naito Legacy Fountain beside the Portland Saturday Market.

The Bill Naito Legacy Fountain is a popular spot to cool off on sunny days.

Photo by Visitor7

Bill’s other notable impacts include:

  • Founding the Urban Forestry Commission, leading an effort to plant 10,000 trees
  • Being instrumental in development of the MAX light rail system, the Portland Transit Mall, and Portland Streetcar. He also advocated the acquisition and preservation of Union Station.
  • Creating the Galleria, downtown Portland’s first shopping mall
  • Opening the first Made in Oregon store at the PDX
  • Spearheading fundraising for the Japanese-American Historical Plaza

To read more about this self-described “local busybody,” pick up “Portland’s Audacious Champion: How Bill Naito Overcame Anti-Japanese Hate and Became and Intrepid Civic Leader,” the biography penned by Bill’s granddaughter Erica Naito-Campbell.