About the Project

 

 

During World War II, Vanport served as a federal housing project mainly for Kaiser Shipyard workers and their families.  By 1943, the population peaked to approximately 40,000 people, making it the second largest unincorporated city in Oregon.  Located in what is now the Kenton neighborhood, Vanport was washed away in a flood on May 30, 1948 displacing approximately 18,500 residents and killing 15. 

Today, all that remains are the memories of the survivors and their families, and a small piece of concrete foundation from the original Vanport movie theater.

In order to honor all those who lived and worked here, volunteers have initiated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization named the  Vanport Placemarking Project (VVP). The goals of VVP are to mark significant physical locations of the historic Vanport site to provide  a place  for individuals and communities to connect and share memories, stories, and their experiences of Vanport.

Alma an elder and former Vanport resident is standing in front of an existing historic marker, pointing to a historic B&W image that is significant to her memories.
Alma recalls her childhood memories of Vanport during the 2017 Vanport Festival bus tour.

Project Inspiration

In 2017, Vanport Mosaic led its first Vanport Festival narrated bus tour through the historic site, which now houses the Portland International Raceway (PIR), a municipal golf course, public parks, an arboretum, and wetlands. This narrated tour inspired the Vanport Placemarking Project. Many former Vanport residents had not returned to this site since the day they evacuated in May 1948.  Many other tour guests from the region had no idea that a city of over 40,000 people had once thrived on this 650 acres of land.

By marking this site with physical signs, we hope to share Vanport’s history, and the stories of those who once called Vanport their home will be more accessible. 

Early iteration of sign to be placed near the entrance of PIR.
Diagram of Vanport Placemarking Sign showing basic design and size.

 Project Scope

The first phase of the Vanport Placemarking Project will involve installing signage in strategic locations to highlight how Vanport’s history has shaped and impacted the environment, such as wildlife habits and diverse populations including the Black communities, women, and Indigenous peoples. Future phases will work to incorporate the historical relevance of the site for Chinese, Japanese, Native American, and Mexican communities.

 

A map of the current site indication with ghost signs where the 3 physical signs. Two of the signs are double sided.
Locations of signs to be placed around Portland International Raceway 2020-2021.

Augmenting Historical Reality

SERA Architects is a Portland-based architecture, interior design and urban design & planning firm that specializes in sustainable placemaking at all scales. SERA is working on an Augmented Reality (AR) app which will overlay Vanport structures  over the current site. The app can be downloaded to phones and tablets to let visitors experience what the built environment looked like in 1942.

 

Banner showing B&W arial images of Vanport on the left 1943 on the right flood of 1948.
Banner hung on Portland International Raceway grand stand in 2018.

 

In addition to physical signage, the Placemaking project team is exploring the possibility of developing an on-site interpretive center that models a typical Vanport residence and can serve as a venue for events that honor the history of Vanport. Our website supports these project phases by adding information about the site’s history and impacted communities.

The Vanport Placemarking Project is an effort to commemorate areas and create space for others to share and reflect on their own experiences of Vanport. We recognize that the development and ramifications of the Homesteading Act of 1862, the levee system, wartime housing projects, and the 1948 flood have all impacted local communities in different ways, especially for Indigenous, Black, and low-income communities ones.

Signs alone are not enough. This project helps visitors learn from each other’s experience. 

Projected Timeline

 

2018-2019: Project Plan Development

Formation of a Board of Directors; 501(c)(3) status obtained; scope of work defined; funding obtained through government and foundation grants and sponsorships.

 

View of Portland International Raceway (PIR) offices with two historic Vanport banners.

2019: Banner and Sign Installed at Portland International Raceway (PIR)

A sign has been mounted on the wall of the PIR Administration Office to offer visitors a brief overview of the site’s history. It includes photos and a map of what used to be Vanport.

A 7’ x 12’ banner has been hung on the back of PIR’s west grandstand to inform event attendees about Vanport, cira 1948.

 

2020: Phase I Begins

The first sign, funded by Prosper Portland, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Parks and Recreation, is developed and designed by a team of historians, community members, and graphic artists. 

A new website is created to offer more detailed information about the Vanport Places Project and the Vanport’s history. 

Development begins for an Augmented Reality app that will allow visitors to immerse themselves in scenes of historic Vanport, on site.

Project team works with the City of Portland, which obtains National Historic Site recognition for the Vanport site and the inclusion Vanport in the Portland, Oregon African American Multi-Properties Documentation (MPD) National Register.

Group touring Vanport site with a guide, they are standing on the foundation of the theater site.
Group standing on the only visible remaining Vanport structure, the foundation of the Vanport movie theater.
Two women by a fence at what was once the site of their home in Vanport.  They are holding a red sign with the text
Former residents of of Vanport Gayle Whitehurst and her sister Nancy indicating where they once lived. Sign reads: “Lille and Nicholas lived near this site with their three children Nancy, Richard, and Gayle.”
 

2021-2022: Phase I Continues

Additional signs will be designed and installed to highlight the influence of Vanport on Indigenous peoples, federal public housing policies, watershed and flood management, women in the workforce, and the heritage of Vanport firsts in Oregon history and more.

 

2023: Phase I Completion, Phase II Planning

The Vanport Places project aims to have all signs installed by May 2023 to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1948 flood.

A mix-ed race crowd standing on Denver Avenue looking at the destruction of the 1948 flood (flood is not shown).
Vanport residents and others standing on a bluff above the flood waters in 1948.

 

2023 Onward: Phase II Begins

Begin process for developing an interpretive center.