How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day

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How Oregon's Second Largest City Vanished in a Day
Aerial view of flooded area. Oregon Historical Society // Photograph © Oregon Historical Society
How Oregon's Second Largest City Vanished in a Day
Aerial view of flooded area. Oregon Historical Society // Photograph © Oregon Historical Society

The mere utterance of Vanport was known to send shivers down the spines of “well-bred” Portlanders. Not because of any ghost story, or any calamitous disaster—that would come later—but because of raw, unabashed racism. Built in 110 days in 1942, Vanport was always meant to be a temporary housing project, a superficial solution to Portland’s wartime housing shortage. At its height, Vanport housed 40,000 residents, making it the second largest city in Oregon, a home to the workers in Portland’s shipyards and their families.

But as America returned to peacetime and the shipyards shuttered, tens of thousands remained in the slipshod houses and apartments in Vanport, and by design, through discriminatory housing policy, many who stayed were African-American. In a city that before the war claimed fewer than 2,000 black residents, white Portland eyed Vanport suspiciously. In a few short years, Vanport went from being thought of as a wartime example of American innovation to a crime-laden slum.

A 1947 Oregon Journal investigation discussed the purported eyesore that Vanport had become, noting that except for the 20,000-some residents who still lived there, “To many Oregonians, Vanport has been undesirable because it is supposed to have a large colored population,” the article read. “Of the some 23,000 inhabitants, only slightly over 4,000 are colored residents. True, this is a high percentage per capita compared to other Northwestern cities. But, as one resident put it, the colored people have to live somewhere, and whether the Northwesterners like it or not, they are here to stay.” ….

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