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Vanport was a promising place in the 1940s, but a flood destroyed it; the Vanport Mosaic Festival examines its history

COURTESY PHOTO: SHALANDA SIMS - Part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, "Vanport the Musical" will examine many aspects of the city destroyed by flood in 1948, including families and community. The musical was made by Shalanda Sims, whose family lived in Vanport.The story of Oregon's lost city should not begin and end with the one catastrophic event in 1948, said Laura Lo Forti, the co-founder of Vanport Mosaic Festival.

"The story became much larger than the flood," she said.

Eighty years ago, Vanport rose from nothing between Portland and the Columbia River to become the second largest city in the state, thanks to local wartime jobs at a shipyard and a lot of people of different ethnicities, races and backgrounds wanting to live together in a newly created community of homes — not necessarily with the goal of harmony, but to carve out respectable and satisfying lives.

"It is a story of hope," Lo Forti said.

A self-described "story midwife," Lo Forti has spent the past several years interviewing Vanport survivors and family descendants and compiling research about Vanport, which was located where Delta Park and Portland International Raceway sit now. She has worked collaboratively with others, including with Damaris Webb and S. Renee Mitchell, fellow co-founders of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, which became an offshoot of everybody's work. She's the festival organizer/director.

In fact, as the title describes, the Vanport Mosaic Festival has become a collection of things to show and tell the bigger picture of the city and its people. It's an ever-evolving project, as new stories add to old stories, interpretations add to fact, perspective adds to historical narrative.

COURTESY PHOTO: SHALANDA SIMS - World Stage Theatre put on "Vanport the Musical" in 2013 for only two shows. It's coming back in 2022, telling the story of the lost city in the Vanport Mosaic Festival.It's called "memory activism" and it's an exercise of story manifestation by historians, artists, activists, educators and, in Vanport's case, former residents and family.

The Vanport Mosaic Festival begins May 20 and goes through June 7 with various programs — artistic performances, including "Vanport the Musical" and "From Vanport to Maxville," screenings, presentations, exhibits, tours, dialogues, commemorations and celebrations.

Said Lo Forti: "It's sharing history, but it's acknowledging that history is now and stories are not from the past. It's a continuation, 'We will write this story together.' We all have a role in creating history, and we all need a better story. … Our entry point is to tell many silent/invisible histories; our mission is to amplify them."

Lo Forti said it's not about revisionist history, but filling holes in stories.

"Our goal and purpose is not to tell a specific story that erases someone else's story, but to create space to gather around the complexity of stories," she added. "We don't rewrite stories, we don't push one against the other, we have the largest collection of oral histories with Vanport — I think, in the country — and we're still recording stories."

Lo Forti said Vanport had stories of racism and oppression and also "there were elements of utopia, but there were elements that were very concrete, a city built in less than a year to address a housing crisis. What does that story tell us today while we're still in a housing crisis and humanitarian crisis? It tells us it can be done. That's the memory activism part."

For complete details, including a schedule of events, see www.vanportmosaic.org.


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