Vanport Mosaic: Memory Activism

The short version: During World War II there was an urgent need for ships; Kaiser Shipyards needed workers to supply that need, and they came from all over the country.  Kaiser, working with the federal government, built homes on a flood plain that became Vanport (between Vancouver, WA (Van) and Portland, OR (Port)), homes meant to be temporary. Although the need for ships dwindled after the war, about 4000 people remained. Vanport was Oregon’s largest city and the nation’s largest public housing, a thriving community until May 30, 1948 when the flooding Columbia River demolished it in 45 minutes.  For the long version, see this OPB hour long program.

In 2014, recognizing that the place and the flood were fading from the collective memory, Laura Lo Forti began interviewing and videotaping Vanport residents still alive. In 2016 Co-Directors Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb (with the help of many) presented the first Vanport Mosaic Festival.  I attended that first one and learned the history, missed the second, then attended the greatly expanded version this year.

The bus tour took us around today’s golf course and race track to show us where buildings had been. The guide for the tour I traveled with had lived in Vanport as a 6-10 year old; he had many stories to tell.

The only tangible remnant of Vanport is the foundation of the theatre.

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Besides the tour guide, there was another passenger who had been a resident. They searched a school photo to find themselves.

a Vanport residents

The tour started from the Expo Center; inside were impressive exhibits created by middle school students. First the Vanport sequence.

a overviewa WWII ship 2a Vanport women 2

Several students pointed out that the school was integrated, but the living assignments were segregated.

Two  other middle school projects concerned the Japanese incarceration during WWII. This is related to Vanport in that some Japanese people returning –whose homes had been either destroyed or occupied by others–moved into Vanport homes vacated by ship workers whose work was over. And so they were dispossessed twice: by the internment and by the flood.

One project dealt with peoples’ experiences, each student summarizing, illustrating, and reflecting on one person. Here is one sample, Jack’s history:

a Jack's experience 2

And the student reflection:

a Jack student reflection 2

Another told of a Japanese-Peruvian man, an aspect new to me. For a fee (I think it was 2 million dollars) U. S, housed Japanese-Peruvians in the centers. At the war’s end, U. S didn’t want them, Peru didn’t want them back, so they were sent “back” to a Japan they had not known.

The other project explored the various concentration camps.

It included a description of the temporary holding center, here at Expo Center, where people were held until the internment centers could be constructed.

a relocation text 2

At the Expo Center there is a permanent memorial, several torii with metal tags for each person imprisoned here and on the poles, embossed replicas of various news articles related to their forced leaving.

a Torii at Expo Center 2

Memory Activism: Remembering in order to honor and to act differently.

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5 Comments

Filed under Portland OR

5 responses to “Vanport Mosaic: Memory Activism

  1. Wow I did not know about this piece of history, thanks for this interesting reading sharing your experience at the exhibit!

  2. If only more of our leaders remembered in order to act differently!

  3. That’s really interesting. I’m presuming that Vanport was never rebuilt as a town. I’d never heard of it.

    • Correct. In fact some of the buildings were being demolished as people left. Others were inhabited by the Japanese, as mentioned, and returning vets and the African Americans who weren’t immediately able to relocate to Portland. Eventually they settled in the Albina district.

      The area is a flood plain, so not being residential is probably wise. It is now a race track and golf course.

  4. This is fascinating and poignant piece of history, thanks for sharing. It’s hard to imagine that a whole town could just disappear so quickly. There must have been so many lives affected.

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