Vanport, Oregon: The Long History of an Ephemeral City


  • Uwe Lübken



American history, race, environment, memory, displacement


On Memorial Day 1948, the Columbia River achieved what neither the Portland Housing Authority nor the city government had been able to do, i.e. to end the short history of Vanport, Oregon. Vanport had been created in 1942 as a huge public housing project to accommodate thousands of workers who had flocked to the region to work for the wartime industries, most importantly the Kaiser Shipbuilding Corporation. Erected between the city limits of Portland, Oregon, and the Columbia River on reclaimed bottom lands, Vanport was entirely inundated by a flood in 1948 and never rebuilt. At that time some 18,000 people, down from the wartime peak of 40,000, still lived in Vanport, many of them African Americans.

This paper looks at the history of Vanport and the site where the city once stood from a socio-cultural and environmental perspective. Thus, it traces the fate of those flood victims who had to settle in Portland’s Black neighborhood Albina, it highlights cultural encounters with the legacy of displacement, and it elaborates on the recent surge in memory activism. A particular focus will be directed to the role that the river environment played for the history of Vanport. It will be shown why Vanport was located in a floodplain and how environmental conditions have influenced the construction work and the daily activities of Vanport citizens.


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