By Zeloszelos Marchandt
Vanport is becoming a household name again. On May 24th, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland City Council proclaimed May 30th to be the Vanport Day of Remembrance during a public signing attended by several former Vanport residents.
Depending on who you talk to about Vanport, the descriptions vary widely between painting a picture of utopian integration between Whites and Blacks, to a derogatory ghetto designed to serve the needs of World War II industry. Many races and ethnicities of the financially poorer classes lived in the area that became Vanport. Families, couples, groups and individuals came to work the Kaiser Shipyards, and it was Kaiser who petitioned the federal government to build the largest federal housing project in the nation in order to accommodate the lack of housing for the company’s workers. On December 12, 1942, the project was finished. It’s said that Vanport was built in 110 days, only to infamously wash away in a matter of hours because of a broken dyke during a spring flood.
“By supporting the voices of the ones who lived there and giving a platform to those in communities experiencing marginalization, the stories of resiliency, personhood and humanity can live on.”
Vanport, Oregon was quickly obfuscated under the then still-enforced red line laws in Oregon that barred Blacks from buying property outside assigned areas, and also under NYC consultant Robert Moses’s cosmopolitan plans to build freeways over neighborhoods so that more viable parts of a metropolitan area could be accessed easily. But Vanport has not been completely forgotten. It has lived on in the memories of its past residents and in the hearts of activists and historians who have dedicated an entire collective to remembering Vanport.
The Vanport Mosaic, co-founded and co-directed by Renee Mitchell, Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Web, is a labor of love that began in 2016 with the intent to preserve the legacy of Vanport. By supporting the voices of the ones who lived there and giving a platform to those in communities experiencing marginalization, the stories of resiliency, personhood and humanity can live on.
The Vanport Mosaic Festival, which ran May 26–29, is a free four-day event exploring the history of Vanport through live theater, documentaries, exhibits, lectures and tours. The festival has already won awards. Last year it received the Oregon Heritage Award, the Spirit of Portland Award and the Columbia Watershed’s Leadership Award for its grassroots and groundbreaking efforts to bring Oregonians together through history.
This year’s festival featured several mixed media presentations and staged readings. One such reading was Gambatte Be Strong, by Chisao Hata and Nikki Nojima Louis, directed by Chisao Hata, featuring Jenna Yokoyama. It spoke to the experience of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American relationships to Vanport from Japantown to the Portland Livestock Exposition, and from WWII concentration camps to the Vanport flood. Each aspect of the reading begged us to remember how—for every immigrant in Oregon and beyond—the road is paved with complexity and courage.
Also shown was an excerpt from Priced Out, a new documentary by Producer Cornelius Swart and Editor/Co-Producer Eric Maxen that gives an investigative yet personal look at how skyrocketing housing prices displace Portland’s black community and reshape the city.
Other performances featured in the festival were American Summer Squash, by Don W. Glenn, directed by Joceyln Said; and Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water, by Michael A. Jones, directed by Damaris Webb. Both of these new one act plays circle around aspects of the American Dream, displacement and Hurricane Katrina from the African American perspective. There was a curated post show conversation after the Sunday matinee, and a coordinating display at the Surge for Social Change exhibit.
ALBINA HISTORICAL RECORDINGS STORY HARVEST
If you lived in the Albina Neighborhood between 1950 and 1970, Vanport Mosaic would love to record your memories and digitize your photos for our ongoing oral history project.
To reserve a time slot to record, please call 971-319-0156, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zeloszelos Marchandt is a multi-media creative living in the Portland metropolis, with a background in Interdisciplinary Studies. They are the Evening News Director for KBOO 90.7 FM, covering local, state, national and international news.