To Know Portland, Get to Know Vanport

Photo from the Smithsonian Magazine

In December 2015 I wrote about Portland’s past and future. Or: why Vanport matters. Vanport (“Vancouver + Portland”) was Oregon’s most racially diverse community. On Memorial Day in 1948, the Columbia River breached the railroad embankment that served as a dike and, in a matter of minutes the resulting flood destroyed the entire town. The displaced residents, many of them African-American, dispersed into the homogenous city of Portland. Some former Vanport residents settled in Albina, a redlined neighborhood and the only part of Portland where African-Americans were allowed to live. Many were then displaced again during subsequent gentrification.

In the days after my post in 2015, many of you in the business community recognized that understanding our city’s past was critical to creating a better future. You donated to help raise the final $3,000 needed to collect and archive Vanport residents’ stories. With that successful fundraising campaign under its belt, the Vanport Mosaic Project birthed the Vanport Mosaic Festival.

This month, on Memorial Day weekend, over 2500 Portlanders will gather at the Vanport Mosaic Festival’s four day celebration of the city’s history and diversity. The festival offers screenings, oral history recordings, theater performances, exhibits, an educational workshop, a reunion for former Vanport residents, narrated bus tours, self-guided walking tours via map or app, and a bike tour. All of these activities are free or low-cost to the public. The message is simple: Portland’s history matters. With our city’s history in mind, we will build a better and more inclusive future.

The organization we founded shortly after putting out that initial request for help with the Vanport Project, Business for a Better Portland, was born out of this overwhelming positive response. Together, we are building bridges between businesses, policymakers, and grassroots organizations to address critical issues of equity and prosperity in our city. The Vanport post was was our first unofficial call-to-action, a model we’ve since continued monthly.

A year and a half later, I’m writing to ask for your help again.

This month, join us as we remember and celebrate Vanport.

  1. Attend the Vanport Mosaic Festival. There are dozens of events over the Memorial Day weekend that will enrich your understanding of our city’s history and inform the decisions that we will make as a city going forward. We will hold an informal social hour for our members at The Waypost on May 27 at 5:00 pm before heading over to the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church for a screening of Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through the Voices of its Residents. (Separate registration required, and tickets are limited).
  2. Sponsor The Festival: Please read here about the festival’s “abundance campaign” and make generous donation. Let’s support this community effort to provide dozens of free or low-cost events for the public to learn about our community’s history.
  3. Learn more. Karen Gibson’s Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Divestment, 1940–2000 is an excellent overview. Also, here’s a story in Slate, “When the Neighborhood Gentrifies and the Elementary School Doesn’t”.

Thank you for your support in our efforts to build a more prosperous and equitable city.


Mara Zepeda
CEO, Switchboard
Founding Board Chair, Business For A Better Portland

PS. We’re so thrilled that after just three months, BBPDX has its 101st member! If you haven’t joined yet, please do so today. You’ll be in great company!