When journalist and historian Laura Lo Forti moved to Portland from New York in 2014, she wanted to discover more about the new city she’d call home.
What she found was the history of Vanport.
In 2016, Lo Forti teamed up with several creators in the area to launch the Vanport Mosaic Festival. It started as a four-day tribute to the city and its people.
“It was this idea of communities honoring each other, and doing it for the community, with the community,” she said.
Now, the festival runs six days long as part of a year-round nonprofit, with a variety of activities like tours, film screenings and an annual reunion of surviving Vanport residents and their families.
“There is a big interest, and I would say a visceral need, of gathering around histories and learning from them and honoring those who experience these chapters of the past that still influence our city and our region and, I would say, our country,” Lo Forti said.
Vanport was a temporary housing project completed in just 110 days in 1942. It was located in present-day North Portland and was intended to ease housing shortages by housing the thousands of shipbuilders and their families who came to the West coast from the South for work during World War II.
In particular, Vanport was home to families of color, who were then unwelcome in Portland’s white neighborhoods. Black, Japanese and Native American families lived alongside poor white families in the slipshod development, eventually becoming the second-largest city in Oregon, peaking at 40,000 residents. It had its own movie theater, schools and grocery stores.
On May 30, 1948, after an early snow melt filled rivers and lakes to their bursting points, a dyke along the Columbia River broke. Vanport was essentially underwater within an hour.
It’s unknown how many lives were lost that day. Approximately 18,500 people, most of them people of color, were displaced.
Lo Forti said it’s more important than ever to remember the city and its residents.
“In a way, this is a history that keeps repeating itself and it still impacts our city dynamics. It’s a story that has many current lessons for all of us, and in general, how communities become invisible, and in that way, it’s easy in a way to erase them, right?” she said. “It’s very easy to make policies and decisions that impact them in a negative way. But if I tell you a story of a vibrant and a strong community, then I give that community the power that is already there.”