Vanport flood

A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

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Painting Vanport into the picture

The Vanport Mosaic Festival and artist Henk Pander delve deeply into the ripple effects of a 1948 disaster that destroyed an Oregon city

Seventy-one years ago next Thursday, on May 30, 1948, a railroad berm on the Columbia River gave way and the waters swept in, wiping out the city of Vanport in an overwhelming flood, killing at least 15 people and leaving roughly 17,500 homeless. It was an epic disaster, destroying what during its boom years had been Oregon’s second-largest city, built during World War II to house workers in the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families. And in an almost completely white state, forty percent of its population had been African American.

For the past four years, the Vanport Mosaic Festival has been commemorating the short and fascinating life of the city that was washed away, and its continuing influence on the shaping of Portland. This year’s festival continues through June 5, with events ranging from self-guided walking tours and narrated bus tours of the former Vanport site (it stretches across what’s now Delta Park and other areas) to oral history documentaries about everyday life in Vanport, screenings of documentaries about the murder by white supremacists of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw 30 years ago and the MAX Train killings by a white supremacist two years ago, the performance Gambatte: An American Legacy, and more.

Henk Pander, The Call (Vanport interior before the flood), 2019, watercolor, 40 x 60 inches

And for the second straight year, artist Henk Pander will have a major show at Cerimon House of paintings about the Vanport Flood. Building Memories: Recent Watercolors, which opens Friday and continues through June 2, follows last year’s War Memories, Liberty Ships and the Climate Refugees of Vanport, much of which later traveled to the Newport Visual Arts Center on the Oregon Coast.

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Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Vanport Mosaic

Remembering the destruction of a city and its culture, Brett Campbell's music picks, arts in Wilsonville, kabuki, and more

Sixty-nine years ago today, on May 30, 1948, a 200-foot section of dike burst in the lowlands south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, and the untamed river’s waters burst in, inundating the city of Vanport and killing 15 people. Almost overnight what had been the second-largest city in Oregon, with a population of about 40,000 at its peak, was no more. People fled in a panic, a more orderly evacuation made impossible because up to the last moment the Army Corps of Engineers and the Housing Authority of Portland had assured the city’s residents – many of them black or Japanese American, almost all of them working-class – that the dike was safe, and there was no need to worry.

Shipyard workers and Vanport residents, with their paychecks. City of Portland Archives.

Today there is little evidence of Vanport, which in its six brief years of existence had been a thriving “instant” community built to house wartime workers in the Kaiser shipyards and their families. Up to 40 percent of the population was African American, and although the neighborhoods were segregated, the schools and after-hours social life were not. Vanport was hardly a Utopia of cultural and racial harmony, but at the time it might have been the most socially progressive community in an almost completely white state.

All of that ended with the floodwaters, almost in a blink. But the memory lingers on. People who lived there or were born there are still alive; others are their children and remember the family stories. And the annual Vanport Mosaic Festival, a four-day event that this year ended Monday and marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the city’s birth, helps keep the flame alive.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, where much of the action took place (the center’s upstairs galleries hold a nice exhibition on Vanport’s history and culture) to see staged readings of two plays that were central attractions of the festival: Michael A. Jones’s Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water and Don W. Glenn’s American Summer Squash. Both are by African American playwrights, and both are about the displacement and trauma and readjustment of people caught in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 flooding of vast African American neighborhoods of New Orleans, an event that echoed the Vanport flood in both its environmental and its cultural effects.

Overturned cars and other devastation after the Vanport deluge of 1948. City of Portland Archives

There was, in spite of the tracing of vibrant African American cultures being shattered at least temporarily, and the lingering cultural and political questions about exactly why and how that happened, a feeling of hopefulness in the dramas and a sense of joy in the event itself. These are our stories. They are good to tell, and good to hear. That two stories of New Orleans were told in a celebration of the legacy of Vanport seemed fitting, somehow: the widely known disaster of Katrina, which cost at least 1,200 lives across the hurricane’s broad path, and the smaller, lesser-known destruction of Vanport seem like intimate cousins, forever linked. The texture of the tales also seemed to bleed into Portland’s ugly current events, in particular the murder of two men and serious wounding of a third in a racially charged crime on a MAX light-rail train, allegedly by a white supremacist who was threatening two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. There are the floods – the flashpoints – and the long-simmering circumstances in which they strike. Performances of the two plays repeat this weekend, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at IFCC. Catch a slice of important history, and some engaging theater, if you can.

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