Few Oregonians know much about Vanport, a multicultural city that once sat on the swampy land where Delta Park, Portland International Raceway and the Heron Lakes Golf Club stand today. The nonprofit Vanport Mosaic, in partnership with the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (UO SOJC) and others, hopes to change that.
To commemorate the 68th anniversary of the devastating flood that wiped Vanport off the map and out of mainstream Oregon history, Vanport Mosaic is hosting the inaugural Vanport Mosaic Festival this Memorial Day weekend, May 27-30, at sites throughout north and northeast Portland. The four-day event will feature a photo and artifact exhibit, a reunion and community celebration with former residents, self-guided tours, a play, lectures and an academic symposium, poetry and musical performances, and screenings of a series of community-produced documentaries.
“Vanport is more than the story of the flood, and people who lived there are more than the victims of a natural disaster,” said Laura Lo Forti, story midwife and director of Vanport Mosaic’s community-based oral history project. “The firsthand memories that we will share during the festival create a rich and elaborate ‘mosaic’ of the vibrant community that was formed there.”
The documentary series, “Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through the Voice of Its Resident,” is the result of an ongoing collaboration with A Fourth Act, Portland Community Media, The ReBuilding Center, and the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC). The short multimedia oral histories feature former Vanport residents sharing memories of their lost city and the flood that displaced them. Through archival footage and photographs as well as first-person narratives, this collection of short films tells the story of the community of Vanport through the voices of its residents.
Among the documentarians working on the project are a number of SOJC Multimedia Journalism master’s students, who produced a video about Mrs. Carolyn Hinton, a former Vanport resident who was 13 at the time of the flood, for the program’s fall 2015 Oral History seminar.
According to Darnell, the assignment gave her not only professional practice and connections, but a profound personal experience as well. “As an African-American transplant to Portland, I felt this would be an exciting opportunity to learn more about the racial history of the city and Oregon,” she said. “In a way, learning about black history here connects me to this place and keeps me connected in a spiritual sense to my dad and home, where learning about our history began for me.”
Darnell, who is also assisting with public relations for the Vanport Mosaic Festival, is the first student to pursue a simultaneous double-master’s in the Multimedia Journalism and Strategic Communications programs, both of which are based in the SOJC’s George S. Turnbull Portland Center.
“Both programs allow me to express my creativity in different ways and draw from past experiences in my work,” she said. “In Strat Comm, I’m learning the tools to craft messages to achieve a desired outcome for a variety of stakeholders. From there the question is: How do I execute the message and what channels do I deliver it through? MMJ answers that question. There is real power in being able to both formulate a communications strategy and bring that strategy to life through story in a way that resonates with the target audience.”
Tickets to the Vanport film screenings are free, although donations are encouraged online and at the door to support Vanport Mosaic’s ongoing efforts to preserve firsthand accounts of the town’s history. The schedule for the festival, including all three screenings, is on the Vanport Mosaic Festival webpage.
Story by Andra Brichacek
The town of Vanport was built in 110 days in 1942 to house the many migrant workers who came to Portland to build ships for the war effort in Henry Kaiser’s shipyards. At its peak, it was the second-largest city in the state and the biggest public housing project in the nation. Vanport supported schools, stores, a movie theater, and residences for nearly 40,000 occupants from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities who lived in full integration.
“Oregon was not necessarily a destination for black people migrating from the south because of the exclusion laws and the legacy of racist policies that made Oregon inaccessible to them,” explained Tiara Darnell, an SOJC Multimedia Journalism and Strategic Communications double-master’s candidate who collaborated on two short films for Vanport Mosaic. “Vanport became a city that defied that legacy. There were Japanese people, Native American people, black people and white people all working together in the shipyards. Vanport was segregated, but children went to school together, unlike in Portland, where segregation ran much deeper.”
Although many families left Vanport when World War II ended, about 18,500 residents remained by 1948. That spring was unseasonably warm, and an early snow melt filled the Columbia River to the brim. The low-lying city was surrounded by dykes, but Portland authorities assured residents they were safe and should stay put. On Memorial Day, May 30, however, one of the dykes broke, destroying the city within an hour and killing at least 15 people. After the flood, many Vanport inhabitants were left homeless and displaced, particularly the African-American residents, who were unwelcome in many Portland neighborhoods.