Portland’s past and future. Or: why Vanport matters.

Mara Zepeda
Dec 14, 2015 · 4 min read

Last week I attended two Portland start-up events. You know the kind. We all meet up, eat snacks, and marvel at how lucky we are to live here. The undercurrent of these conversations often seems to be, “Keep fighting the good fight. Let’s keep the Bay at bay.”

Of course by “Bay” I don’t mean the transplants from San Francisco arriving by the truckload. I mean the ethos of disruption that destroys neighborhoods and communities, and leaves rampant gentrification and inequality in its wake.

There are many approaches we can take to stem this tide, but there is one I am asking for your help in supporting today. We can’t imagine Portland’s future without knowing its past. One of the most important stories from Portland’s history is that of Vanport (h/t Wikipedia for much of what follows).

If you don’t know what Vanport is you aren’t alone. On paper, it reads like a work of Marquez-esque magical realism. Over the course of 11o days in 1942, the Housing Authority of Portland built a city from scratch to house wartime workers building ships in the Kaiser Shipyards. These are the ships that would help secure the freedom we now enjoy. Vanport (Vancouver + Portland) became the second largest city of Oregon. Among the forty thousand residents in this planned community were 6,000 African Americans, many of whom came from the segregated South in search of a better life. Their arrival tripled the area’s black population. Vanport was one of America’s first integrated communities and its largest wartime public housing project.

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And then, on Memorial Day in 1948, the Columbia River breached the levee and, in a matter of minutes, the flood destroyed the entire town. The displaced residents dispersed. “The flood forced the overwhelmingly homogeneous city of Portland, and the state of Oregon, down the path toward interracial progress.” Reading that sentence blows my mind. Do you see this photo? This is the beginning of our city’s racial integration:

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Here’s the thing: the children you see above in their parents’ arms? They are still alive, and they have stories to tell. They remember Vanport. They remember encountering, struggling with, and overcoming racial tensions. They remember running from the movie theater to escape the wall of water, losing touch with their childhood friends, and moments of racial barriers being crossed to save lives.

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For the last year, The Vanport Mosaic Project, led by Laura Lo Forti, has been on a mission to preserve these stories. This passionate group of journalists, artists, producers, historians, academics, students, and community builders lead workshops that train community members on how to conduct interviews, edit audio, and produce video with the survivors of Vanport. These stories are then distributed to the public online, on DVD, in the schools, and at free public screenings, as well as archived at the Oregon Historical Society. Here’s Carolyn Hinton as she describes her move from Arkansas to Vanport:

I went to a public screening of these stories a couple weeks ago (you can, too!). You are just going to have to trust me on this, friends. When we think of a syllabus that will illuminate the path towards Portland’s racial diversity, we will look to these stories to understand where we came from. This group represents the inclusive community that will help us get to where we all want to go. This picture exemplifies the interracial, intergenerational, empathetic community I want to live in and that I believe we can all work together to achieve:

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Photo by Intisar Abioto

It turns out that this all starts by just listening to each other. “Last night I really felt like a celebrity. And I just came home so elated,” said Violet Young, who told her story to the audience. As she walked up the aisle people put their hands on her arms and shoulder “just recognizing me,” she said.

This holiday season, I’m asking you to join me and donate today so that the critical work of the Vanport Mosaic Project can continue. Your donation is tax deductible. They have three days left and $3,000 to go. We can do this. We’re in this together. Thank you for your help.

For further reading: “How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day,” Smithsonian Magazine.

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