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One Step and You've Left Mill Ends Park

Oregon: At 452 square inches, the world's smallest park fills a 2-foot circle meant for a light pole. In the same city is 6,000-acre Forest Park, the largest urban forest in the country.

May 06, 2001|AMALIE YOUNG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PORTLAND, Ore. — Take a step to the right in Mill Ends Park and step into heavy traffic. Step left and you're on the street again.

One foot in the middle and you'd stamp it out of existence.

Just two feet wide, circular Mill Ends Park--the smallest park in the world--sits quietly in the median on busy Front Avenue near the Willamette River. Pretty pansies and a miniature cypress tree sprout from the green ground. Occasionally, odd contributions of tiny advertising signs and a swimming pool for butterflies appear.

"It looks so sad," said Naima Kleeb, a 17-year-old Swiss exchange student strolling past the park. "Noise is bad for plants. How can anything grow here?"

And yet the park flourishes.

Years ago, journalist Dick Fagan gazed down from the old Oregon Journal building at an unusual hole in a median. The clearing was meant for a light pole.

When weeds, instead of a light pole, materialized, he planted some flowers.

"I decided it would be much better if there were flowers instead of weeds, and thus Mill Ends Park was born," he wrote in a September 1961 column in the Journal, once the Oregonian's main competitor.

The park was dedicated in 1948, and on St. Patrick's Day in 1976 it became an official Portland park. Incidentally, the city also boasts the largest urban forest in the country--Forest Park, with 6,000 acres.

"We have all the benefits of a large town," says Mayor Vera Katz. "And yet we have that cozy, familiar feel of a small town, with friendly people, community partnerships and 'pocket parks.' "

In 1971, Mill Ends was officially listed as the world's smallest park by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Over the years, Fagan, a proud Irishman, used his column to describe the goings-on in the park, presided over by head leprechaun Patrick O'Toole. Fagan was the only one ever to see O'Toole. As the story goes, Fagan assigned the little leprechaun to guard the garden.

"Sometimes he can be a very difficult man indeed," Fagan wrote of his companion. "He simply refuses to state at this date exactly what is to be done, but has made it fairly clear that he doesn't want to move."

Until his death in 1969, Fagan wrote about the park--including strange donations of a diving board for butterflies to go with a tiny swimming pool, various statues and a miniature Ferris wheel.

The park was often festooned with miniature signboards advertising such things as flower shows and political campaigns, Fagan wrote. Other odds and ends kept showing up--even a tombstone worth $150, which was reclaimed, and a pair of false teeth.

The park has served as a backdrop for weddings and other celebrations, including an annual snail race.

On St. Patrick's Day this year, the 452-square-inch plot was decorated with a tiny toy leprechaun leaning against his pot of gold and children's drawings of four-leaf clovers and leprechauns.

Phil Young, a gardener for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, has worked on Mill Ends Park for 2 1/2 years. He plants summer beds in the spring and pansies in the fall. During the hot summer months, he stops by with a sprinkling can at least once a day.

Young has been told it is his duty to keep the place pleasant so the leprechauns won't forsake Portland for greener Ireland.

"I don't know what to make of the leprechauns," Young said. "I only know what I've read. . . . I'm Scandinavian myself."

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