Seventy-five years ago, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, a 10-foot wave of floodwater swept through a burst berm on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway line and in a matter of minutes wiped out Vanport, which in a very different time was the second-biggest city in Oregon.
Sitting on land that is now part of Portland’s Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway, Vanport was essentially an emergency World War II town, built beginning in August 1942 to house workers at the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families.
At its height it had about 40,000 people. By the time of its post-war demise the population was down to about 18,500. Fifteen people officially died from the flood; the figure might have been higher but many residents were out of town for the holiday weekend. The holiday was a lucky break. On the morning of the day of the flood, the Housing Authority of Portland, which had some oversight in Vanport, issued this statement: “Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.”
Vanport was also something highly unusual in the Oregon of its time: a racially diverse city, containing workers and their families who were Black, Asian American, Hispanic, and white. It was that history of diversity in a prominently white city and state that prompted the formation of the Vanport Mosaic Festival eight years ago, an annual gathering that reflects on the memories of people who lived there — many are still alive, and many of their children live in and around Portland — and creatively considers both the legacy of Vanport and the state of racial and cultural relationships in Portland and Oregon.
This year’s eighth annual festival kicks off today, May 18, and continues through May 29. You can see the full schedule of events here. Among potential highlights are:
- a May 21 SOUL Conversation with the Albina Music Trust, bringing together veteran Portland Black musicians Mel Brown, Norman Sylvester, Ron Steen, Ken Berry, and Calvin Walker at the Historic Alberta House;
- a May 25 screening, also at Alberta House, of short oral history documentaries from the Vanport Mosaic collection, with Vanport survivor Ed Washington;
- a variety of events at EXPO Hall A and Delta Park on May 27 including artist and storyteller Chisao Hata’s new work The Assembly Center, exploring the history and memories of the imprisonment of 3,800 Japanese and Japanese American citizens during World War II while incarceration camps were being built; and
- festival-long exhibition at the Historic Alberta House of two series of drawings and paintings by the Portland artist Henk Pander, who died on April 7 at age 85 — one of scenes from the Vanport Flood, the other of downtown Portland’s social-justice protests and protester/police standoffs in 2020.
Schnitzer Hall gets too hot to handle
(UPDATE: A temporary air conditioner has been hooked up and the Oregon Symphoy is returning to the Schitz, Bennett Campbell Ferguson reports on May 20 in Willamette Week.)
As Kristi Turnquist reported in The Oregonian/Oregon Live, a sudden and massive failure of the air-conditioning system in downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall has forced the Oregon Symphony and other users to move their events. The abrupt failure on April 27 “totally came out of the blue,” Steve Faulstick, Metro’s general manager of visitor venues, told Turnquist. “We tried repairs, but it was deemed a complete fail,” and a total replacement was needed. That could take six months or longer, Faulstick added.
The breakdown, just as Portland weather is turning hot, has forced the Oregon Symphony, the Schnitzer’s prime tenant, to move several performances to the nearby Keller Auditorium.
This evening’s (Thursday, May 18) Literary Arts-sponsored conversation between actor/author Tom Hanks and Portland writer Jon Raymond has also moved to the Keller. (Side note: I haven’t read Hanks’ new and first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, which will undoubtedly be a major topic of tonight’s conversation, but I have read several of the stories in his short-story collection Uncommon Type: Some Stories; he’s a legitimately good fiction writer.)
Carlos Kalmar investigation
Meanwhile, as Willamette Week’s Bennett Campbell Ferguson and others have reported, Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony’s longtime former music director, is under Title IX investigation, which covers sex-based discrimination at schools and education programs, for allegations of “inappropriate behavior” at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is director of orchestral studies and has been a principal conductor since 2021. The investigation is ongoing, and no conclusions have yet been announced.
Kalmar was the Oregon Symphony’s music director and lead conductor for 16 years, replacing the popular James DePreist, who led the orchestra for 23 years. Kalmar was in turn replaced in Oregon by David Danzmayr, who was named music director in 2021.