Anniversary Posting: May 30, 2023, marks the 75th anniversary of the flooding of Vanport, a settlement that had been quickly constructed during the Second World War to house tens of thousands of wartime workers. The rollercoaster ride of Vanport memory, this contribution argues, is closely tied to how migration and displacement have shaped the history of this place.
Before the United States entered World War II in December 1941, no one had imagined that within less than a year an entire city for up to 40,000 people with 16 playgrounds, 19 miles of paved roads, a library, and its own fire department and hospital would be erected on the banks of the Columbia River, just north of Portland, Oregon. In the mere six years of its existence, Vanport was not only the biggest housing project in the entire United States but also Oregon’s second biggest city, after Portland. No less remarkable than the war-induced birth of Vanport City was its sudden end. On May 30, 1948, a flood washed away the entire settlement in less than an hour, killing about a dozen people and displacing thousands.1
While the flood made national headlines, the knowledge about Vanport and the people who had moved there soon faded away. It almost seemed as if the town had never existed. When in the summer of 1959 the Oregon Centennial Exposition took place on the former site of Vanport, its visitors could enjoy themselves in a Bavarian beer garden and marvel at the water ballet of the International Water Follies. Nothing reminded them of the fact that these activities were happening upon the grounds of a “lost city.”2 Until the end of the twentieth century, Vanport memory was by and large limited to a few speeches and newspaper articles on the anniversaries of the disaster. This historical amnesia as well as the more recent surge of memorial activities can both be traced to how migration and displacement have shaped the history of the city.
The Miracle City
The city of Portland had gone to great lengths to prevent the construction of any new public housing project in the city. Vanport only came into being as a result of the immense wartime pressure to house workers in the defense industries and because the Kaiser Corporation took matters into its own hands when it, with the help of the federal government, purchased land in the floodplain and built Vanport. Within a few months, Vanport also turned into the biggest Black settlement in Oregon (although it always was a majority white city). However, what is remarkable about this development is not so much the large number of Black Americans moving to Vanport but the low number of Black people living in the state at that time. The settlement of Black Americans, Chinese immigrants, and other minorities in Oregon was for a long time hampered by several exclusion laws banning these groups from settling in the state, from holding real estate, and even from signing contracts. Thus, by the turn of the century, Black Americans made up less than one percent of Portland’s population. On the eve of World War II, 2,000 Blacks were living in Portland – still a small number compared to other West Coast cities.3
A Transient Home
Vanport was not made to last. Ephemerality, it seems, was literally built into the city’s fabric – from its function as a quick fix to the housing crisis to the poor quality of the apartment buildings (“crackerbox houses strung together fast and cheap,” in the words of a former resident),4 the location of the city in the floodplain of the Columbia River, and the supposed lack of “emotional ties” of the residents to the place.5 The city, in the end, seemed to have been made to perish. It is also fair to assume that for most of its inhabitants, Vanport was a transient place.
The end of the war seemed to seal the fate of Vanport. About half of its population left and the city’s demographic composition changed, especially because there were special barriers thwarting many Black Americans’ desire to move away. Black Americans were often the first to be laid off at the end of the war because they did not benefit from the seniority protections of the unions like their white co-workers did. Moreover, it was nearly impossible for them to find housing in Portland because of the city’s de facto segregation. Nor was a return to the southern United States particularly attractive since economic, social, and cultural conditions there were often no better than in Portland for them.6
But Vanport also had a resilience that is often overlooked. The city not only survived the end of the war. It even managed to carve out a future for itself by focusing on two resources that were in high demand in the immediate aftermath of the war: housing and education. Housing was abundant in Vanport because many Kaiser employees had been laid off and moved away. Educational opportunities were made available in 1946 when the Vanport Extension Center was founded, a two-year college catering especially to returning GIs. Vanport College survived the flood disaster by relocating eventually to downtown Portland (literally a case of the migration, or rather displacement, of knowledge). This then gradually developed into Portland State University, which, it is claimed, is the most diverse university in Oregon.7
Many of the 18,000 or so residents who were still living in Vanport after the end of the war, or who had newly moved there, considered the town their home. Vanport also became a place of opportunity. It was no coincidence that the first Black teachers and police officers in Portland had been hired in Vanport.8 So, even a transitory place, a place that nobody expected to last for more than a few years, could be transformed into a permanent home. Vanport, quite miraculously, given the obstacles it had to overcome, made this transition from a temporary settlement to a city with the foundation for an excellent future. Yet the Columbia River terminated Vanport’s existence on May 30, 1948, when a poorly constructed levee (previously a railroad embankment) collapsed under the weight of the floodwaters.
Displacement and Memory
In Portland, the large number of flood refugees – the entire population of Vanport had become homeless overnight – led to immense problems. The situation was particularly precarious for the Black Americans among them. Many were forced into the city’s few, small Black neighborhoods, most importantly, Albina.9 There, the memory of Vanport and the knowledge about its inhabitants were kept alive not only by the large number of flood survivors but also by cultural productions, such as the huge mural project that could be seen on the walls of the Albina Human Resources Center. Constructed in 1978 by a group of seven artists, all but one of them People of Color, the purpose of the mural was to celebrate Black history. Of the six panels, two were dedicated to the history of the flooded city and its inhabitants. In an interview with the curator Robin. J. Dunitz, muralist Isaka Shamsud-Din, who had come to Vanport with his family and 13 siblings in 1947 from Texas and had “lost everything, but a little white radio,” reflected on his motivations for the creation of the Vanport panels, the only murals with a local theme:
These murals, although they were on display for only five years, seem to have made a lasting impression. “People loved them,” Henry Frison, one of the seven artists, later noted. “They talked about those murals for years. I think the community really liked that it was our history and it was right in the ‘hood’.”11
In the postwar decades, Vanport refugees who ended up in Albina faced new sequences of displacements – through the construction of highways, sports and shopping centers, and hospitals. In Albina’s Eliot Neighborhood alone, more than 3,000 people were displaced by such projects between 1960 and 1970. More recently, Black neighborhoods in Portland, as in many other American cities, have been the site of “eco-gentrification,” the symbols of which are newly created bike lanes and organic supermarkets.12 Roslyn Hill, a re-developer and “urban blight fighter,” who was born in Vanport and has since witnessed several waves of displacement in Albina, remarked: “You’ve been removed, not only physically and mentally, but culturally.”13
Against this background, Vanport has literally resurfaced. Today, knowledge about a city that was shaped by migration and displacement is being unearthed through graphic novels, blogs, websites, and exhibitions. Several oral history projects seeking to capture and preserve the memories of those who lived in Vanport have tapped into their knowledge as migrants. Vanport survivors, who are in their 80s and 90s, meet annually at the Vanport Festival in Portland. Part of the appeal of remembering and celebrating Vanport, it seems, is that the city’s fate also serves as a foil for dealing with contemporary problems such as police violence, structural racism, gentrification, and the displacement effects of the climate crisis. Thus, the production of knowledge about Vanport and the current wave of memory activism is not just about reconstructing the “lost” history of Vanport; its goal is also, in the words of the most prominent activist organization Vanport Mosaic, “to reclaim and rebuild a civic identity rooted in equality, diversity, justice, dignity, and truth.”14
Uwe Lübken is Professor of American Cultural Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. With particular attention to American history, his work highlights the historical evolution of environmental changes, migration, and national responses to disaster. Among his publications is the co-edited book Rivers Lost, Rivers Regained: Rethinking City-River Relations (Pittsburgh University Press, 2017).
- Manly Maben, Vanport (Portland, 1987), 18. ↩︎
- Chrissy Curran, “Oregon Places: The Architectural Legacy of the 1959 Centennial Exposition,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 110 (2009): 262–79. ↩︎
- Carl Abbott, “Portland in the Pacific War: Planning from 1940 to 1945,” Urbanism Past & Present 6 (1980): 12–24, 15; Lucas N. N. Burke and Judson L. Jeffries, The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City (Seattle, 2006), 20. ↩︎
- Quoted in Rudy Pearson, “‘A Menace to the Neighborhood’: Housing and African Americans in Portland, 1941–1945,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 102 (2001): 158–79, 167–68. ↩︎
- James P. Kahan et al., From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years (Santa Monica, 2006), 38. ↩︎
- Portland Bureau of Planning, History of Portland’s African American Community: Albina Community, 1805 to the Present (Portland, 1993), 75–76; Burke and Jeffries, Portland Black Panthers, 22. ↩︎
- Gordon B. Dodds, The College That Would Not Die: The First Fifty Years of Portland State University, 1946–1996. (Portland, 2000); Portland State University, “History.” ↩︎
- Portland Bureau of Planning, History of Portland’s African American Community, 69–72. ↩︎
- Pearson, “‘A Menace to the Neighborhood,'” 177; Skovgaard, “Oregon Voices.” ↩︎
- Quoted in Robin J. Dunitz, “The Albina Mural Project,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 111 (2010): 486–508, 496. ↩︎
- Dunitz, “The Albina Mural Project,” 506. ↩︎
- Portland Bureau of Planning, History of Portland’s African American Community, 103, 109; Burke and Jeffries, Portland Black Panthers, 18, 45–46; Carter William Ause, “Black and Green: How Disinvestment, Displacement and Segregation Created the Conditions for EcoGentrification in Portland’s Albina District, 1940–2015,” University Honors Theses, Paper 269, Portland State University; Karen Gibson, “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940–2000,” Transforming Anthropology 15 (2007): 3–15. ↩︎
- Quoted in Ause, “Black and Green,” 2; Joe Treen, “Roslyn Hill, Urban-blight Fighter,” AARP The Magazine, January–February 2008. ↩︎
- https://www.vanportmosaic.org/ (9/21/ 2012) ↩︎