A Flood of Remembrance

At a Groundswell listening party and oral history workshop, Laura Lo Forti shows videos she helped produce in the Vanport Multimedia Project.
“It was only supposed to be a couple workshops, but now it’s something else.”

Laura Lo Forti,

a native of Milan, Italy, who only came to Oregon three years ago, might not be the most obvious person to shine a light onto a disappearing piece of Portland’s past. But the self-proclaimed “story midwife” and workshop director of the North Portland Multimedia Training Center has made a career out of sharing stories and connecting communities, and the story of the Vanport flood was in danger of dying out.

Built for shipyard workers and their families between Vancouver and Portland along the Columbia River in 1942, Vanport was the largest housing project in the United States. It was among the most racially diverse areas in the region, and former residents paint a picture of a peaceful, working-class oasis in the midst of a largely segregated region. But a dike along the river broke and an enormous flood washed the city away on May 30, 1948. More than 18,000 residents were displaced, 6,000 of them African-American.

Lo Forti and the North Portland Multimedia Training Center set out to gather fading recollections of residents from long-ago.

Vanport before the flood.

“The survivors are now in their 80s and 90s, and this really tries to validate their memories,” Lo Forti said. “It’s a local story, but it’s a story of migration. It echoes the whole nation.”

The Vanport Multimedia Project conducted two video workshops, training 22 students and community members and producing stories on 12 survivors of the long ago flood. The stories were first shown at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, a historically black church in North Portland, chosen specifically because Lo Forti wanted to “return the stories to the community.”

“We were expecting maybe 30 people to show up, including friends and family. We had 100 people. It was standing room only. Then we showed the project at the Oregon Historical Society, and we expected maybe 50 people. We had 300.

“Each time more and more people bring their own stories. They really take a life of their own.”

Destroyed houses washed together by a flood on May 30, 1948.

Now the word is spreading, and even artists have written songs and poems about Vanport. Lo Forti said that there has occasionally been some push-back in the community; one person brought up the term “Columbusing,” implying that white people “discovered” something that had already existed. But Lo Forti denies any claim of cultural appropriation.

“This is a process of realizing who we all are, but you have ownership. We interview you, but it’s still your story.”

Archival footage filmed by a Multnomah County Sheriff’s officer.
Photographed for the Vanport Multimedia Project, Jim Thompson shows the “Paradise” football jersey he wore on the day of the flood.

Lo Forti calls herself a “recovering journalist,” and emphasizes that she is taking a different tack than many traditional journalists would. Lo Forti only wants to provide the tools for her subjects to tell their own stories, keeping them and their experiences front and center after so many years.