New Prose by Anna Doogan
People don’t seem to talk much about Vanport anymore. They razed the remains, put Delta Park there. Added a sports complex. . . The Black families in Portland these days are still pushed North by gentrification. They cling to the edges of the Albina neighborhood, Killingsworth, MLK Boulevard.
The weekend before Christmas, we take our kids to see the lights at Portland International Raceway, near Delta Park. A drive-through display of animated lights and holiday scenes. We know it’s a mistake once we get there.
“We should have come earlier,” my husband mutters as we swing into the line of cars.
We’ll sit in the line for two hours, three kids in the back bouncing up and down impatiently. In the dark, the line of waiting cars swirls and snakes, twists back to the highway and doubles around again. Bored volunteers wave us through the line with flashlights, pass candy canes through the windows.
We don’t seem any closer to the entrance, and the kids are getting restless, now wired on sugar. I stare out the window at the black fields and marsh of Delta Park, try to make out the shapes of frozen trees.
“This used to be Vanport City,” I tell my husband. He nods. He already knows. We stare out at the blackness of the land, listen to the Christmas carols on K103.
Vanport City was a cheap and poorly constructed attempt at a federal housing project in the 1940s. The largest housing project in the country, the second biggest city in Oregon. A quarter of Vanport’s residents were Black, unable to find non-discriminatory housing within Portland’s edges.
When the Columbia River started rising, the Housing Authority told Vanport residents that they’d have ample warning before a flood hit. Time to move safely, time to prepare.
Instead, a 10-foot wall of water burst through Vanport later that same afternoon, destroying every building. Some killed, thousands permanently displaced. The entire city demolished by flood in one afternoon.
Displaced Black families moved to the North of Portland, Albina. The only area where Blacks could find affordable housing, redlined by banks as too risky for investments.
People don’t seem to talk much about Vanport anymore. They razed the remains, put Delta Park there. Added a sports complex. It has seven softball fields, nine for soccer. They put the Portland International Raceway there, host 5k runs and motorcycle shows. The annual Christmas light exhibit. The Black families in Portland these days are still pushed North by gentrification. They cling to the edges of the Albina neighborhood, Killingsworth, MLK Boulevard.
Our car slowly inches forward in line. I suddenly feel sick, waiting here to see displays of twinkle lights shaped like reindeer, like Santa Claus. All I can think about is hats and shoes floating on water. Black mothers rushing children through flooding streets, back alleys. Brown hands sifting through cold water. Belongings left behind, forgotten.
My husband rolls down his window, forks over eighteen dollars to the waiting attendant so we can drive in to look at the lights.
Underneath us, ghosts of parents and children and cities. Swallowed by rushing black waters, shoved far underground.