Eighty years ago, in August 1942, a massive housing project began in the flats between Portland and the Columbia River, where Delta Park and Portland International Raceway now stand. Less than a year later, it was an almost instant city of 40,000 people. Five years after that – on Memorial Day, May 30, 1948 – floodwaters from the Columbia burst through a railroad berm that was acting as a dike and inundated the city, killing fifteen people and essentially wiping it off the map. It was never rebuilt. A scant six years after it began, Vanport was no more.
And yet, its legacy lives on. Vanport was built at a time of national crisis, shortly after the United States entered World War II, when the Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., were begging for workers to build warships. Thousands poured in from across the country, taking up lodging with their families in the new city. Once the war ended, many left again, their jobs done: At the time of the flood, Vanport’s population was 17,500.
At its peak, Vanport was the second largest city in Oregon, which was much more sparsely populated than the state is today. And it was easily the state’s most racially and ethnically diverse community, partly because exclusionary policies kept most non-white citizens from living inside the Portland city limits. Roughly forty percent of Vanport’s population was Black, and many Asian Americans lived there, too. A lot of white people also lived in Vanport; after the war ended they tended to be the first to move out. As imperfect as it was, Vanport in its brief life was a remarkable multicultural achievement, a glimpse of what might be possible in the future. And in its way it’s still with us. A few people who lived as children in Vanport are still in Portland. More children and grandchildren of Vanporters live here, carrying family memories into their everyday lives.
Seven years ago the Vanport Mosaic Festival sprang into being, building on memories of Vanport to expand upon its meanings in contemporary life – including, this year, the harsh realities of a housing squeeze that has sent rental rates skyrocketing and been a key factor in Portland’s houseless crisis. Emergency housing, as it turns out, was one of Vanport’s core accomplishments. Yet, unlike the swift construction of 1942 and 1943, Portland’s push in 2021 and 2022 to create affordable housing has been timid, slow and faltering. This year’s festival, coordinator Laura Lo Forti says, will partly “reflect on crises in housing, and also a lack of hope and healing. [In the history of Vanport] we are looking at the story of an entire city being built in less than a year as a result of a housing crisis, and of course also of racial exclusion.”
The first Vanport Mosaic Festival was a Memorial Day Weekend event at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. This year’s festival, which opens May 20 and continues through June 7, has grown into a citywide event lasting several weeks in various venues, and including several collaborations with other organizations. Unlike last year’s festival, which because of pandemic restrictions was a hybrid of live and online events, this year’s will be almost all live, and spread across the city in places as varied as the Oregon Historical Society, Northwest Children’s Theatre, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Northeast Portland’s newly renamed Alberta House, and the sidewalks of the Albina District, the traditional center of Portland’s Black community.
The range of events in the festival’s half-dozen years has been rich and varied. In that first festival, relative newcomers to Portland mingled at an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia of Vanport with older people who had lived there and were touring the show with their children or grandchildren, pointing out scenes of their previous lives.
The years since have seen events ranging from plays (including Rich Rubin’s boxing drama Left Hook, set in the 1970s era of urban renewal, when the city’s vibrant Albina Black neighborhood was largely clear-cut for a hospital development that never occurred) to music, to guided neighborhood tours, to art exhibitions such as Henk Pander’s show of large paintings of everyday life in Vanport and of the city’s people struggling through the upheaval of the floodwaters. (Eyewitness to History, Pander’s recent suite of four large paintings from 2020’s downtown Portland standoff between protesters and local and federal police that’s just finished its run at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, will move to Alberta House for the duration of the Vanport festival.)
This year’s festival pushes farther yet into what Lo Forti calls the continuing “spirit of Vanport,” exploring race, economics, housing, environmental issues, food sources, and cultural memory. “The festival has become, really since Covid, a little bit of a playground, a little bit of an unusual beast,” she says.
You can see the full listing of festival events here. Below are a few potential highlights:
Vanport: The Musical. Lo Forti calls this new musical-theater piece “a dream collaboration” among World Stage Theatre, which created it; Vanport Mosaic; and Northwest Children’s Theatre, where it’s being performed, and whose artistic director, Sara Jane Hardy, is co-directing. World Stage Theatre’s executive and artistic director, Shalanda Sims, has written and directs the musical. Derrick McDuffy is music director. Sims created the show “out of a quest to find out more about how, when, and why Black people emigrated to the Portland area.” May 20-June 5.
Dream Refuge for Children Imprisoned. San Francisco artist Na Omi Judy Shintani’s ongoing exhibit at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon is a fascinating installation of works about trauma among imprisoned and forcibly placed children, from those confined in Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II, to Native American children sent to government-run boarding schools, to contemporary Central American children separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border. Through Sept. 4.
From Maxville to Vanport. This multimedia concert of short films and live music from the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble links the stories two fascinating historical towns: Vanport, near Portland; and Maxville, a railroad and logging town in northeast Oregon whose population of about 400 in the 1920s and ’30s included as many as 60 African American citizens – some of whom moved to Vanport when the millwork shut down in Maxville. (See Brett Campbell’s in-depth 2019 story for ArtsWatch.) May 23 & 24.
Come Thru: Black and Indigenous Market. A marketplace offering food and artisan wares from Black and Indigenous farmers and makers. Entrance is free, and it’s at the Redd East Event Space, 521 S.E. Salmon St. May 23, May 30, June 6.
Poorlandia: a one act. This intriguing project features a pair of excellent actors – Vin Shambry and Matthew Kerrigan – in what’s called a “devised, traveling performance art piece … developed to engage audiences in a jazz-like conversation with artist Vim Shambry as he talks (and paints) about his experience as a Black man dealing with homelessness, whiteness, and the real Portlandia.” It’s also something of a reintroduction of its space, the newly renamed Alberta House, which was founded in 2009 as Cerimon House by the actor Randall Stuart, and where Shambry is now artistic director. A “casual gala” rebranding of the space will take place on June 4. 5131 N.E. 23rd Ave. June 6.
Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit. “Gambatte” means to triumph over adversity, and that’s the driving spirit behind this exhibition of photos from Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II and contemporary photos by former Oregonian photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. of the same people, many years later. Kitagaki, a Pulitzer Prize winner, began his many-years project after learning that the great photographer Dorothea Lange had made pictures of members of his own family as they were waiting to be taken to a detention facility in 1942. Oregon Historical Society, May 27-Aug. 7.
An Afternoon of Re-membering and Re-seeding. This free event at West Delta Park and the Expo Center will offer “ceremonies, tours, performances, pop-up exhibits, story circles, and screenings,” including some collaborations with land artists to “make paper and cordage out of blackberry vines as a way of honoring this place as it is now, thorns and juicy berries alike.” As a temporary detention center where more than 3,600 Japanese Americans were forced to live before being sent to U.S. incarceration camps during World War II, the Expo Center is “still a place of pain and injustice,” Lo Forti notes. And today it holds a significant position in the argument over how to solve Portland’s housing crisis. The city has proposed that a portion of the Expo Center’s acres of parking lot be used as a space for people living in RVs and cars. Metro, which administers the space, has objected to turning it into a “safe parking” site. May 28.
Notes from the State of Black Oregon. Two top talents – photographer Intisar Abioto and writer Bruce Poinsette – collaborate on this compelling-looking project drawn from their 2014 tour of Oregon, gathering photographs and stories of Black Oregonians from around the state for the Urban League of Portland’s “State of Black Oregon 2015” report. Alberta House, 5131 N.E. 23rd Ave. May 30.
The Albina Soul Walk and All Power to the People! Black Panther Party Legacy Tour of Albina. In the self-guided, mobile ap-aided soul walk, you can do a mile-long tour of the Albina district’s rich historical music hot spots of the 1960s-‘80s, meeting the likes of musicians Calvin Walker and Marilyn Keller and 1960s Cotton Club proprietor Willie Knauls along the way. May 21.
In All Power to the People, Mr. Kent Ford, co-founder of the Portland chapter of the Panthers, returns to lead a walking tour of Albina and talk about the group’s community activities. June 4.