After Vanport was destroyed, many of the flood victims were given temporary housing in dilapidated war surplus mobile buildings at Guilds Lake in northwest Portland. But after more than a month of living in these circumstances, the residents organized a caravan to Salem to Protest their conditions. Photo by Allan DeLay, July 7, 1948.)
When Hurricane Katrina stuck New Orleans in 2005, people across the country watched as residents of the city had everything stripped from them by floodwaters, only to struggle with government agencies that seemed indifferent, if not outright callous to their plight.
But 57 years earlier, a corner of Oregon, not unlike parts of New Orleans that were so devastated, experienced a similar catastrophe that left thousands homeless and forlorn.
At the height of World War II Portland was home to shipyards that feverishly churned out vessels for the war effort. The prospects of easy work attracted people from all over the country.
Portland quickly experienced a housing crunch, which lead the creation of the Housing Authority of Portland. The newly-created agency built Vanport in 1943, the largest public housing project in the country at the time, to accommodate the influx of workers.
Vanport, named for being midway between Portland and Vancouver, attracted a motley group of people from regions as far away as the Ozarks, the Sierras, and the Great Plains.
Many residents of Vanport were African Americans from the south who migrated to the Northwest in search of a better life. Shortly before it was washed away, about 40 percent of its residents were black.
“Like locusts, they had moved in upon… before, and had nibbled up all the shelter in sight. A population from many regions, they were exiles from better homes, exposed to new conditions, new climates and new work, and not yet integrated with any community, presents many problems, not only of physical housing, but of human values as well-health, education, recreation, safety, and morale,” read an article from the Oregonian when the project was opened up in 1943.
Overturned vehicles and other debris are left in the wake of the 1948 flood that destroyed Vanport, a multicultural community north of Portland’s city limits. The town was Oregon’s second largest city before it was destroyed.
Life in Vanport was gritty. Grocery stores, parks, libraries, shopping centers- all the amenities common in Portland neighborhoods nowadays- were slow to be developed. It was noisy from constant construction, crowded, and far-removed from Portland and Vancouver.
For much of its existence, Vanport had a transitory environment. People lived there because they weren’t able to find housing in Portland or Vancouver, or were simply priced out. As the war was winding down, 100 families a day were leaving the project.
“We feel that most of the Vanport residents would not be living in a housing project if there were any other living quarters available,” said Harry Jaeger, the general manager of Vanport, to the Oregon Journal in 1947.
But shortly before Vanport was destroyed people began to grow roots in a place that HAP had created in the middle of nothing, with no existing community to connect to.
By 1947, it had its own schools and libraries, and Vanport College opened its doors to meet the growing educational demand of returning veterans.
One of the most remarkable things about Vanport was the racial integration that marked the city, especially when the rest of Oregon had adopted the racist public accommodation practices of the Deep South.
HAP never made segregation its official policy. And while housing in Vanport was never entirely integrated, public places were-including the schools. The library even hired a black assistant librarian.
But Vanport wasn’t exactly a paragon of racial harmony. A study that appeared in a 1946 edition of the American Sociological Review found that a top complaint from white residents was the racial integration of Vanport. For blacks, it was discrimination.
But the experiment was washed away in 1948, when a leak in a dike turned into a flood that forever destroyed the city and left thousands not unlike the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It was common knowledge that Vanport was built on a flood plane, and HAP had to periodically reassure residents of their safety.
Just a week before the May 1948 disaster, a HAP flier read, “DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY. YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON’T GET EXCITED.”
A human chain is formed to help rescue survivors of the Vanport flood of 1948.
In addition to being in a naturally unstable area, Vanport was viewed as an impoverished and undesirable place to live by many Portlanders, who stigmatized people who lived there as backward bumpkins who drifted in from various parts of the country. After the flood, the government’s response was harshly criticized for not acting swiftly to help displaced residents from a part of the Oregon that was viewed as a neglected backwater.
Some Vanport evacuees had to live in substandard mobile homes, not unlike the infamous FEMA trailers Katrina victims were funneled into.
But freshly-displaced black residents from Vanport faced an additional layer of discrimination in a state that had largely widely Southern-style segregation.
“If it is necessary to bring in large numbers of Negro workers, locate them on the edge of the city. . . It would be much better for all concerned. If they are allowed to fan out through the city it soon will [be] necessary to station a policeman on every corner,” said the president of the Central East Portland Community Club in 1942.
Many blacks from Vanport had money, but the racist environment in Portland severely restricted their housing options. Albina soon became the only part of town displaced African Americans could find a place. Interestingly, some people viewed Vanport’s destruction as a positive development since it pushed the black population in closer vicinity to the rest of Portland, preventing the creation of a far-flung ghetto common in the East and South.
However, the community created by survivors of Vanport has been shaken. This time the flood was the building of Memorial Coliseum and steady gentrification.