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Beyond the Flood: A Festival to Celebrate the History of Vanport

November 10, 2016

By Laura Lo Forti

Sometimes history gets stuck in one monolithic narrative. A single event, often a dramatic one, is repeated over and over, until it becomes the official story. This is certainly true for Vanport, an important chapter of Oregon’s past that is usually summarized in one sentence: a temporary city between Vancouver and Portland built to accommodate the influx of shipyard workers and their families and wiped out by a flood in a matter of hours on Memorial Day, 1948.


But who lived in Oregon’s second-largest city and why? What did they build? What did they lose? Where did they go after being displaced? What does this all mean today?

In 2016 a group of artists, educators, historians, media makers with existing projects addressing the lack of awareness on Vanport, came together to explore these very questions and launched the Inaugural Vanport Mosaic Festival.

On the 68th anniversary of the catastrophic event, over 2000 Portlanders attended this 4-day multi-disciplinary celebration that honored the 40,000 people who came from all over the U.S. to build a new life, attracted by job opportunities and affordable housing.

With a fully staged drama,“Cottonwood In The Flood”, we shared the African American experience in Vanport. At screenings of “Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through the Voices of Its Residents” we offered a collection of community-produced multimedia oral histories. These personal narratives shared the perspective of Japanese Americans vmf_reunion04returning from internment camps, of veterans attending Vanport Extension Center (that later became Portland State University), and of the mosaic of memories of daily life in the largest WWII public housing project in the nation. More layers were added by poetry, music, tours of the historic sites, an educational symposium, an exhibit of photos and artifacts. At the center of all former Vanport residents, now in their 80s and 90s, were celebrated with a reunion and with this community-driven and artist-lead effort to tell full story, one of community’s strength and resilience.

 OPB will be featuring the history of Vanport on an episode of the Oregon Experience series. The public is invited to a free screening event at McMenamins Kennedy School on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. and it will be airing on OPB on Nov. 14 at 9 p.m.

Save the date for Vanport Mosaic Festival 2017, May 26-30th.

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