THE HOUSES are gone. The theater, the recreation center, and the churches have all been destroyed. Walking through Delta Park, you'd never guess that the second largest city in Oregon once stood there.
Most accounts of Vanport emphasize the flood of 1948—and in fairness, an entire city wiped out by a flood in a single day does cry out for its own disaster movie. Houses getting destroyed, people drowning, and general destruction is way more exciting than, say, informal discrimination on the part of a municipal housing authority, or migratory industrial labor during World War II. However, that non-action-movie-type stuff is arguably more important to Portland history than the flood. Vanport, and the issues surrounding it, changed Portland. Its story is one of politics, NIMBYism, and more than a little racism and xenophobia.
The Birth of Vanport
WWII had an immense effect on the demographics and economics of the United States, including Portland. The Kaiser company wanted to turn the Rose City into a shipbuilding center, churning out a constant supply of support vessels for the Pacific fleet.
"The reason why the Portland region was getting the demand for the 24/7 workforce was that we had the cheapest electricity in the country," says Tanya March, a researcher with a Ph.D. in urban studies who's focused on wartime housing projects. "That's why we could outcompete the East Coast. We could run these factories off the Bonneville Dam. We had cheaper power than everybody."
Assembling ships for the war effort meant a huge influx of new laborers to Oregon from around the country—and Kaiser's old advertisements sound almost desperate to the modern reader. "Previous experience is not necessary," says one ad from 1942. "Training will be given on the job. Willingness to work and a desire to do that work are what will do the maximum good." Kaiser's solicitations appealed to workers' "patriotic viewpoint," and advertised a base pay of $0.88 an hour, just over $12.76 in 2014 dollars.
Workers from around the country answered Kaiser's call. According to the late Manly Maben, author of Vanport, the only states not eventually represented in Vanport were Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and Delaware. Portland, a muddy Western river town, suddenly became host to Americans from across the continent. That large migratory population included a fair number of African Americans—a group heretofore underrepresented in Stumptown. The African Americans who followed up on Kaiser's offer of employment were going into unknown territory. The 1940 census recorded that less than one percent of Oregon's population was black.
"A lot of established Portlanders didn't like poor white people or poor black people coming here to work," says Portland State University professor Carl Abbott, author of Portland in Three Centuries. "There was race, there was class, there was regional prejudice."
An Oregonian headline in 1942 read "New Negro Migrants Worry City," and Portland's dominant daily wrung its hands over how the new black workers were "taxing the housing facilities of the Albina District... and confronting authorities with a new housing problem."
In another 1942 article, Mayor Earl Riley was quoted saying, "Portland can absorb only a minimum number of Negros without upsetting the city's regular life." An editorial in the Daily Journal of Commerce decried that a zoot suit "imported directly from Harlem" had been spotted in Portland, and cited it as a clear sign of some kind of invasion.
Dr. DeNorval Unthank, one of Portland's few professional African Americans at the time, was distraught over the treatment that blacks received in the local press.
"Accept these people as citizens of Portland, worthy of the same respect as any other group of incoming people," he wrote in a lengthy Oregonian letter in 1942. "Begin to practice here in Portland some of the principles we all claim to be fighting for."
According to other press from the time, Albina was full to bursting. People were sleeping in bars, cars, churches... wherever they could find shelter in between shipbuilding shifts. Portland, though, had turned down a substantial amount of federal housing money in 1938, leaving it the largest city in the US at the time without some kind of federal housing program.
"The city decided not to participate in the new federal housing program," says Abbott. "Basically it was the resistance of the real estate industry and landlords who didn't want the competition." March is a bit more blunt in her assessment. "It was perceived as a socialist program," she says.
That changed after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. "By that time, it was patriotic to have worker housing," says Abbott. The newly formed Housing Authority of Portland signed off on 4,900 housing units, but Portland was projected to need approximately 37,000 new units.
Kaiser, along with the federal government, ultimately made an end run around the city. In late 1942, the company and the federal government began construction of a town called Kaiserville on unincorporated land just north of the city. Portland was not consulted about the sudden project abutting its borders. Abbott says the city was "surprised when the bulldozers started roaring." The self-aggrandizing name "Kaiserville" was eventually changed to "Vanport," citing laws that cities could not be named after living persons.
Construction of Vanport was cheap, and rushed. The units made to house the workers were temporary wooden cookie-cutter constructs that lacked solid foundations, and would end up being called "cracker-box houses" by the locals. The administration of the new town was turned over to the Housing Authority of Portland, and it was widely understood that Vanport would not be standing after the war.
Workers immediately streamed into the new town. Vanport, a city built in reaction to Portland's failure to provide public housing, was the largest housing project in the US during WWII—and immediately became the second-largest city in Oregon with about 40,000 people.
Go Back Home
During the war, Vanport buzzed with activity. Kaiser's shipyards operated 24 hours a day, and workers were constantly commuting between Vanport and the industrial centers. The shipyards built vessels in record time, taking only about 40 days to build a cargo vessel. One ship, the Joseph N. Teal, was finished in less than two weeks. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself paid a visit to see the swiftly built ship, and no less than Winston Churchill called the nation's productivity a "record beyond compare."
Unofficial segregation was the norm for Vanport. The Housing Authority of Portland placed African Americans in specific parts of the town, with whites in others. The units were virtually identical, and there was no stated policy of discrimination—but segregation existed in practice. Maben notes that several documents, such as police reports, make passing references to the "colored section" of Vanport.
But in some ways, the company town was a bit more integrated. Vanport's school superintendent insisted on integrated education in the city. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office (which acted as a de facto police force for Vanport) appointed black law enforcement officers.
Vanport as a whole, though, was segregated and separated from Portland. Outward declarations of racism in Portland were not terribly common before WWII (mostly due to a small black population), but during the 1940s businesses in Portland did start to advertise their racism, such as a shop that prominently displayed the sign "we cater to white trade only."
The end of WWII meant massive layoffs for the one-industry town. No longer necessary to build ships, Vanport's residents were told to move on, and after the war the population was only about 18,500, with approximately one third of that number being African American. In early 1948, the still-extant but now diminished Vanport City was considered something of an eyesore. Despite the poor state of the houses, though, it was still in use. Several returning veterans lived there until they could get better housing in Portland, and Abbott notes that because of racist lending practices, many African Americans could not buy or rent better homes in the city proper.
"By 1948 most of the African American [population] was still there," he says. "When the flood comes, it heavily impacts [them] because they'd essentially been stuck in Vanport."
Lester Granger, an advocate with the National Urban League, called Vanport a "nasty, segregated ghetto" in the Oregon Journal. Tanya March says Portland officials "made every opportunity to make sure that it was temporary, and that it stayed temporary. They did not want competition after the war. They wanted the African Americans to go home, and they wanted the housing gone."
In May of 1948 the Columbia River swelled with runoff from the Cascades. The wooden, hastily built city rested behind a dike that had, so far, shielded it from the river—but 1948's seasonal flooding was proving to be more dramatic and more damaging than any other year in the city's short life. As the waters rose, the authorities urged Vanport's citizens not to panic. Bulletins distributed read: "Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don't get excited."
The dikes, to their credit, did hold.
On May 30, 1948, the Columbia River burst through a railroad berm and into Vanport.
"It was a railroad embankment that actually failed," says Abbott. "It had not been built as a flood-control dike, it hadn't been engineered for flood-control expectations."
A wall of water ripped the city off its shallow foundations, and the "cracker-box houses" never stood a chance. Every single one of Vanport's 447 buildings was destroyed. Remains of the rapidly built structures, along with splintered timbers, littered the soaked city. Denver Avenue, the main road from Portland to Vanport, was almost immediately choked with a traffic jam of residents attempting to flee.
Fifteen people died as a direct result of the flood. The rest of Vanport's survivors were destitute. They had lost their homes, jobs, possessions, everything. The migrant workers who'd moved to Portland for a new life suddenly had that life ripped from them.
After the flood, Portland had to cope with what can best be described as a refugee crisis. The newly homeless and jobless were set up in trailers on Swan Island. March describes the trailers as cramped and inadequate. The makeshift housing did not do well with heat or cold, and thousands of people suddenly lived without direct plumbing facilities.
"It was horrendous. A lot of people didn't even want to talk about living in those trailers," March says. "There were protests at city hall calling them kennels on wheels.... What I think is insulting is that they had to pay $35 a month to live there."
In time, most of Vanport's population moved into Portland proper. The vast majority of the project's African Americans moved to the Albina neighborhood—still the only area where blacks could obtain reliable housing. They were, eventually, official Portlanders.
An Act of God?
After the waters receded—and the site of industry, productivity, and ships built in record time was a swampy wasteland—Portland puzzled for years about what to do with it. Eventually Vanport's land became Delta Park and the Heron Lakes Golf Course. The name "Vanport" lingers on in a few places in Portland, most prominently TriMet's Vanport MAX stop and the Vanport Square shopping center, but the city is entirely a memory. The old photos of high water, destroyed buildings, and general disarray are trotted out fairly reliably by Portland media (including the Mercury), but those old pictures only speak to the single issue of Vanport's death. In actuality, Vanport transformed Portland.
"In 1945, we had more federal housing than Chicago or New York," says March, "even though they had housing since the 1930s."
"In many ways it became a defining moment in the city's history, especially for the city's African American population," says Abbott. "It's a symbol for African Americans. They were the people who left... and suffered the consequences of being displaced into an inhospitable city."
March expresses annoyance that so much of the history focuses on the flood.
"I think the flood is a copout," March says after some hesitation. "If everyone blames the flood, they're blaming an act of God.... If you look at [other housing developments in the region], Portland officials continued, through acts of man, to destroy the rest of the public housing that was available.... [The flood] takes the blame off of human nature and racism."
In other words, one way or another, Vanport was doomed.