BY BOBBY BERMEA
MEMORIAL DAY, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was underwater, and some 18,500 people were left homeless.
This Memorial Day weekend, May 23–28, the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area, and community engagement activities.”
It will be citywide, stretching from the Expo Center to Delta Park to City Hall to the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church and is supported by some 30 sponsors, funders, and partners. The festival, like the nonprofit organization from which it gets its name, is “artist-led” but “community driven.” In other words, the festival is less about artists taking inspiration from an event and making work that satisfies their own creative impulses, and more about providing a platform for stories that don’t often get heard or are, in fact, silenced.
Perhaps the most significant part of the Vanport Flood’s legacy is that it forced integration—of a kind—on Portland. Vanport was located where Delta Park and the Port-land International Raceway are now. (The name was a portmanteau of Vancouver and Portland.) At its peak during the war years, Vanport had a population of 40,000, of which about 6,000 were black.
By 1948, the total population was down to around half that, with the number of African-Americans holding steady. Many white families left as soon as they could, but because of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies, Black people found themselves with nowhere else to go. Postwar Vanport’s population also included Native Americans, Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps, and veterans returning from the war. Thus, the majority of Vanport—poor, of color, or both—were unwanted by greater Portland. Vanport Mosaic co-founder and Co-artistic Director, Laura Lo Forti, characterized Vanport as a city of “undesirables.” These undesirable stories, before and after the flood, are exactly the focus of Vanport Mosaic.
But what exactly is the Vanport Mosaic?
As the name implies, the Mosaic is many things, many pieces, and each piece has different facets. It’s a festival that commemorates a far-reaching tragedy. It’s a year-round nonprofit that celebrates human resiliency. The Vanport Mosaic, as Lo Forti describes it, is “memory activism”—it uses history as a living tool to lay the groundwork for a more tolerant and just future. It seeks to “capture stories” while at the same time, freeing them “to do their work.” It rewrites old narratives using the lived experience of the people who were actually there, with the hope of making Portland the city that it strives to be.
In the words of Lo Forti, “This is history from the bottom up. It’s a piece of history that is not being told because it’s an uncomfortable story.”
There is a painful dichotomy, Lo Forti believes, between Portland’s view of itself as a progressive, liberal, nice city, and its frequently white supremacist history. “Our past is ugly. You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. People are still struggling with the legacy of policies and decisions that were made about where people could live and not live.”
When Lo Forti, a native of Italy, first moved to Portland about five years ago, she was shocked by the homogeneity of the population. It became imperative for her to find out the various causes of this “unhealthy environment.” When she started researching the racial dynamics of Portland, the story of the Vanport Flood immediately started to emerge and fascinated her. With the help of the Skanner Foundation, Lo Forti, a self-described “story midwife,” started collecting oral histories. She enlisted and trained people in the community to interview on camera a family member, friend, neighbor, or an elder from Vanport. When these rough documentaries were shown at libraries and churches, dozens of people would attend.
“What happened,” remembers Lo Forti, “was that every time we did these screenings, someone else came forward and said, ‘I have a story’ or ‘What about the Japanese-Americans? We were there too.’ ‘What about the veterans?’ It became kind of a collective inquiry of trying to put the pieces together of a story that’s being told in a very limited way.”
Collecting these oral histories brought Lo Forti into contact with theater artist and activist S. Renee Mitchell. Mitchell at the same time was also working on a staged reading of a new play, Cottonwood in the Flood, written by local playwright Rich Rubin and directed by Damaris Webb.
Webb had recently come home after spending several years working as a theater artist in New York. “About a year after I’d returned,” remembers Webb, a Portland native and a multifaceted theater artist, “Rich Rubin contacted me via email to see if I might consider directing one of his plays for Fertile Ground. So he sent me a few possibilities. One of them was Cottonwood in the Flood, and I was like, ‘What? What happened? There was a city that—what?’ You see, growing up here, I had never even heard of Vanport. That struck me.”
Lo Forti saw Cottonwood in the Flood, and Mitchell introduced Lo Forti to Webb. Thus, a formidable partnership was created. Webb and Mitchell immediately recognized the need for the kind of work that Lo Forti was championing and aligned their own expertise, both as members of the community and as artists, with a view of social justice that all three women shared. That was three years ago. Today, Lo Forti and Webb are artistic co-directors of Vanport Mosaic, and Mitchell is on the board.
Right from the beginning, the Vanport Mos ic served as a mechanism for connecting the dots. Both Webb and Lo Forti are adamant in declaring that they aren’t the first ones to try to tell these stories. Essentially, what the Vanport Mosaic did (and continues to work at today) is to take all these disparate voices—and more besides—and bring them together, put them in conversation with and riffing off one another, and elevate them.
Something else happened, too. Other ignored voices found a natural outlet in the Vanport Mosaic. The flood led organically into a history of the Albina district. Confluence, an organization that focuses on collecting and preserving Native voices from the Columbia River basin, is taking part in the festival this year. Kent Ford, who founded the Portland chapter of the Black Panthers, will conduct a walking tour of Northeast Portland where he’ll talk about the history of that civil rights organization in the Rose City. There will be a screening of Priced Out, a documentary about the local history of gentrification. There will be a forum about disaster preparedness and community resilience. There are exhibits and bike tours and bus tours, each curated in such a way for one to lead to the other one.
“That’s why it’s a mosaic, right?” says Webb, “It’s so many little gems and pieces.” Indeed, gems and pieces that when viewed as a whole, tell a powerful story. The idea, according to Webb, is that a normal person with normal energy can, if they so desire, experience everything going on at the festival over the course of the four days.
Everything, except one thing. There is one closed event, a dinner with music, that is simply a reunion of survivors of Vanport. These are people in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s. Some will be coming from different states to see people they haven’t seen in years and may not ever see again. A woman from Colorado will be bringing a diary her father kept about Vanport. They will share their stories, memories, and lives with each other. This is the essence of the Vanport Mosaic.
As Webb says, “The story stays their story all the way through, and it remains in the community.”