13 February 2020

Vanport, And All That Came After

Last evening we saw an oral history presentation at the Midland Library called "A Place Called Home: Vanport to Albina", presented by the Vanport Mosaic project.

It was quite an experience.

I expected an informative Portland history experience, and that's what I got. Got more than that, though, much more. The presentation was well-attended, and a great many in the audience had histories stretching into Vanport ...

Vanport is a thing that can be Googled and read about in books. It was, for a short time, one of Oregon's largest towns. During the years of 1942-1948, it housed literally tens of thousands of people who came to Portland from all over the USA to work in Henry Kaiser's shipyards. What it physically was was a housing development on the floodplain of the Columbia River between the Columbia Slough and the river's south bank and running east from the railroad embankment to Denver Avenue and today's Interstate 5. The footprint of Vanport (so named because it was shimmed between VANcouver and PORTland) is still visible between the river and the slough, the railroad embankment and Denver Avenue; some of the streets of Vanport were evolved into parts of the track at Portland International Raceway.

At the end of May, 1948, the railroad embankment - which was holding back a historically-swollen Columbia River - gave way, letting waves of floodwater rush in. The buildings making up the houses of Vanport - inexpensively constructed, on inadequate foundations - floated about like toy boats in a bathtub. In just a few hours, Vanport became a "Dead Memory of Portland" decades before such a thing became cool. The residents, a large percentage of whom were not white, suddenly found themselves having to sink or swim, socially and economically, in a city that to this day is still renowned for being Caucasian AF. Discrimination and redlining put them in the North Portland neighborhood known as Albina and set the tone for decades of race relations in Portland.

The presentation was one of stories. Stories from those who survived the flood and went on to forge lives in Oregon and Portland. They were personified in the flesh by Velynn Brown, a granddaughter of Vanport survivors and a grandmother now herself; she told the story of community handed down through the generations with warmth, emotion and undeniable passion, family, and basketball rivalry ... the longstanding crosstown struggle between Portland's Jefferson and Grant High Schools being a contest that would stand up in furiosity against any big-league tug-of-war.

The real impact for me was all the living history in the room. There was an elderly Japanese-American couple there; they not only were interred during World War II but landed in Vanport because, as Americans of Japanese descent, it was the only place that they could go. Harvey Garnett put in an unexpected appearance: it was he who owned and operated the only black-owned movie theatre in Portland (and perhaps America), The Alameda, which we know today as the Alberta Rose Theater at NE 30th and Fremont.

In the 1970s, the Williams Avenue commercial district was displaced when the Portland Development Commission's plans to allow Emanuel Hospital to expand throughout that area were executed, a move that destroyed Oregon's black downtown. It's one thing to read about this thing, but it's a palpable thing when all those descendents of Vanporters are watching too. They're seeing their own pasts and it's as though all those people who lived in those times were there with you too, eager to tell their stories to those who would listen.

After the event, oral historian Velynn Brown converses with
Harvey "Mr. Alameda" Garnett

There were just three white men in there, and I was one-third of that. Never fear, White America, one of us White Men bravely and compassionately informed the presenter that it's also important to remember that there were people of other skin colors and while the black experience was important, maybe from here we could all move forward as one. That is to say, he brought nothing; the presenter handled him with respect and graciousness. I just wanted him to stop talking. From this I received the takeaway that while life may offer one numerous opportunities to speak out, it offers us infinitely more opportunities to constructively shut the fuck up.

Velynn Brown and Harvey Garnett

This also taught me another thing. Vanport Mosaic is practicing what they call memory activism, which seems to be the idea that remembering what happened to those who came before us can actively reshape the present.

What I really learnt tonight that was valuable was not only all that I've maundered about but also this: listening to marginalized voices is resistance, and remembering their stories is a political act.

I recommend it to those who wonder what they can do in these times of great dexterity.

The Vanport Mosaic Project's online home is https://www.vanportmosaic.org/.

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