Vanport was a city of public housing — hastily planned and built — in Multnomah County, Oregon. The second largest town at the time in Oregon, and the largest public housing project in the nation, it was constructed in ‘43 to house workers of the Kaiser Shipyards during wartime, and was home to over 40,000 people, almost half African American. After the war ended, more than half of Vanport’s residents moved on, but many remained and an influx of WWII vets helped the makeshift city hang on.
Dramatically, and without warning, Vanport was roundly destroyed by flood this day 65 years ago when a section of the dike retaining the Columbia River collapsed during a flood. Fifteen people were killed and the city itself was completely underwater by nightfall, leaving all of its inhabitants homeless.
Oregon has a gnarly history of racist housing discrimination, and that legacy lives on today in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. At the time that Vanport existed, its cultural, racial and linguistic diversity rivaled that of present-day New York City. It was an anomaly, a firecracker, a happy accident, a big mistake, a setup for disaster, and, predictably, not well-protected by its government. The lack of care and attention paid by the county when Vanport flooded mimics the much-derided bumbles of our federal government when Katrina hit New Orleans.
The city, now vanished, has an incredible and rare history — read up on it today when you have some time, and let us know what you think, or if you were there and you have a story, send it along. For more in-depth reading, swoop up a box set of Oregon History comics by Know Your City (formerly the Dill Pickle Club) — Portland’s Black Panthers, Oregon feminism and the history of Chinatown are yours for the learning.