Washougal Art & Music Festival

Vanport Mosaic’s flood of events

The ninth annual festival remembers the flood that wiped out the city of Vanport on Memorial Day 1948 and carries the vanished city's history and vital cultural significance into the present.

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A few of the faces of Vanport, Oregon’s most racially diverse city before floodwaters washed it away in 1948. Photo: City of Portland Archives
A few of the faces of Vanport, Oregon’s most racially diverse city before floodwaters washed it away in 1948. Photo: City of Portland Archives

Vanport Mosaic swings into its ninth annual Memorial Day season festival on Saturday, May 18, and continues through June 1 with an array of music, theater, film, and remembering. Its attractions stretch from a new solo show performed by festival co-founder Damaris Webb to An Afternoon for Rooting and Re-storying, a culminating afternoon June 1 in Delta Park of free “memory activism, tours, performances, pop-up exhibits, and screenings on the Indigenous land where Vanport once stood and where nearly 4,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated.”

Why Memorial Day? Because on Memorial Day 1948 floodwaters from the still free-flowing Columbia River burst through a railroad berm that was acting as a dike and inundated the “instant city” of Vanport, killing fifteen people and essentially wiping the town off the map.

Vanport, which stood in the flats between Portland and the Columbia River now occupied by Delta Park and Portland International Raceway, was born in August 1942 as a massive project to house World War II workers and their families who arrived from all around the country to work in the wartime Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

In almost no time at all it housed 40,000 people, making it the second biggest city in Oregon in the 1940s — and a great number of its inhabitants were Black, Asian, Hispanic, or otherwise non-white in what at the time was one of the least diverse states in the union. With the war’s end work in the shipyards slowed down and many Vanport residents left town in search of work and life elsewhere: By the time of the flood, the population was down to about 17,500.

As suddenly as it began and as suddenly as it ended, Vanport had a lasting and significant effect. While it was no multicultural utopia, people of all colors and backgrounds lived and worked and rubbed shoulders together, shifting the prevailing concept of an all-white culture. After the flood, for instance, many Black Vanport refugees settled in North and Northeast Portland. A dwindling number of former Vanport residents still live in Portland. More of their children and grandchildren do, making up a vital segment of the city’s memory bank and continuing culture.

Vanport Mosaic co-founders Damaris Webb (left) and Laura Lo Forti.

It’s the purpose of Vanport Mosaic to remember the mostly forgotten history of Vanport and bring it forward to the present, examining its role in the growth and identity of Portland and the evolving nature of the city’s cultural identities.

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That includes, once again, the Sunday, May 19, walking tour of historically important Black sites in Northeast Portland, led by Kent Ford, co-founder of the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party: Monica Salazar wrote here for ArtsWatch about Ford’s 2020 walking tour, noting that “he serves as a link between Black Portland’s past, present, and future, keeping alive what’s happened and teaching new generations through his walking tours.”

Precipice: re-membering, forgetting and claiming home — a new solo play performed and conceived by Webb, written by Chris Gonzalez and directed by Olivia Mathews — is “a magical-realist, fluid poem that tenderly holds place, house/home and mementos as doorways to connection” and “presses against the boundaries of media reports, geological truths, legacy, DNA reports, and the value of listening to the land as a third-generation Black Portlander and Oregonian,” Laura Lo Forti, co-founder with Webb of Vanport Mosaic, says.

Lo Forti also speaks highly of The Portland Assembly Center Project, conceived by Chisao Hata in development with Heath Hyun Houghton and being performed at the big finale in Delta Park on June 1. The play “explores the lives of Japanese Americans who were subjected to the consequences of Executive Order 9066, including historic, economic loss, forced imprisonment, and cultural reckonings.  Through this examination, the Project exposes the racial dynamics that continue to govern how we share the lands we call Portland, Oregon.”

Chisao Hata, conceiver of the new performance "The Portland Assembly Center Project," looking at the rounding up of Japanese American citizens during World War II.
Chisao Hata, conceiver of the new performance “The Portland Assembly Center Project,” looking at the rounding up of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

“Damaris’ and Chisao’s new projects are so beautiful and necessary,” Lo Forti said.

Among other potential highlights:

  • Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts. A screening of a new documentary film by Dru Holley exploring the often-contradictory role played by Black soldiers in American History.
  • The Music of Miracle City. Public historian and ethnomusicologist Kelly Bosworth shares her findings from years of archival exploration of the music of Vanport. Featuring a performance by vocalist Marilyn Keller, with George Mitchell on keys, Ben Jones on bass, and Brent Follis on drums.
  • Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through The Voices of Its Residents. A screening at The Historic Alberta House of short oral history documentaries, part of the Vanport Mosaic living archive, with special guests from the Vanport Community, and songs by the Northwest Community Gospel Chorus. Also onsite are large watercolors by the late, great artist Henk Pander from his series The Climate Refugees of Vanport.

Vanport Mosaic 2024

  • When: May 18-June 1
  • Where: Multiple locations, including Delta Park and the Historic Alberta House
  • Events and schedule: See the festival’s list of events, with times, dates, locations, and ticket information, here

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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