Vanport

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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