The Legacy of Vanport

I learned to drive in a car with a three-speed, column-mounted – “three on the tree” – manual transmission. My father was my instructor. He would drive us out past Jantzen Beach, then still an amusement park, not yet a shopping destination for Vancouver residents to avoid paying Washington sales tax. When we found the abandoned streets of Vanport, we switched places, and I practiced where were still roads, and outlines of where buildings once stood, but nothing else. Vanport was named for its location on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, between Vancouver and Portland. The town was wiped out in the flood of 1948; that’s all I knew.

The first residents of Vanport, soon to be Oregon’s second-largest city, arrived in December 1942. Henry J Kaiser operated three shipyards in the Portland area, each working three shifts per day. Kaiser’s workforce totaled nearly 100,000. The wartime economy, with most able-bodied males in the armed forces, necessitated recruiting around the country for workers. The problem was that Portland had nowhere near enough housing to accommodate the influx.

Using Federal money, Kaiser built housing on a flood plain. In a matter of weeks, more than 9,000 living units went up, mostly prefabricated wooden structures of fourteen apartments. Population quickly exceeded 40,000, more than a third African-American. In 1940, Oregon’s black population was less than 1,800. The community, never incorporated as a city, had shopping centers, a movie theatre, hospital, schools and a college, and twenty-four-hour day care.

As World War II neared its end, ship construction slowed and Vanport was losing its residents. By 1948, population there were 18,500. Weeks of warm rain after a winter’s heavy snowpack and a failing dike on that Memorial Day inundated the town. After days of reassurance from authorities, residents had a half-hour ‘s notice to evacuate. The African-American evacuees concentrated in the Albina district of north Portland, as the city, by custom and ordinance and real-estate redlining, did not allow blacks to live in other areas.

The Vanport site is now Delta Park, Portland International raceway and Heron Lakes Golf Course. The Albina neighborhood has been thoroughly gentrified. Vanport’s African-America descendants are scattered about east Portland, beyond 122nd Avenue. Vanport College is now Portland State University.

Oh, and after twenty-two years away, I have returned to Oregon and have a new Oregon driver’s license, with the same number as I had before.

Amazon Effect – Part 2

Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen are competing to see who can make the heart of Seattle into his own vision. Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner Allen’s football stadium south of downtown and his Lake Union redevelopment Experience Music Center to the north are changing the face of the city.

Meanwhile, Amazon now occupies more than 25% of Seattle’s total office space. The all-things-for-sale behemoth filled 70% of new office space last year and is on track for the same in 2017. Of course, this keeps rents high for other tenants in the downtown area. People who are prone to worry have expressed concern that with one entity so entrenched in the city’s core, a downturn in Amazon’s fortunes could have a deleterious effect on Seattle. But that’s silly. Big companies are immune to that sort of adversity.

When Congress shut off federal funding of the SST – Supersonic Transport – in 1971, the Boeing Company furloughed 68,000 of its 100,000 employees.

Amazon Effect – Part 1

The city of San Francisco is about to put into effect a 14% increase in garbage-collection fees. The reason: the Internet. Well, not exactly the Internet itself, but on-line shopping and its attendant packaging.

As so-called brick-and-mortar stores lose business to Internet merchants, the increase in the waste & recycle stream is increasing proportionately. Cardboard, cellophane, polystyrene, clamshell containers, plastic shipping pillows are overwhelming recycling centers. San Francisco has banned plastic bags and foam trays, but the prohibitions don’t affect merchandise shipped from outside the city. (“The City” if you’re a SF resident.) The high-tech pedometer encased in its own packaging on the store shelf, is put inside more packaging to be shipped to you.

Recology, the company contracted to handle San Francisco’s waste – 625 tons of recycling per day – says it needs the increase to keep up with the volume and complexity of materials to be recycled. That reverse-osmosis-purified drinking water comes with three types of plastic: one for the bottle, another for the cap, and yes, a third for the label.

Summer of Love – 2017

The de Young museum is commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” About 100,000 young people came to San Francisco in 1967 to share in peace and love. The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll runs through August 20. The exhibition includes a curtained room where museum-goers can immerse themselves in the sixties, by lying back on beanbag chairs surrounded by a psychedelic light show accompanying rock music… and play with their smartphones.

Rainmakers and Royal Rosarians

The first of the Portland Rose Festival’s three parades, the Starlight, takes over the downtown streets this weekend. The Junior Parade is later in the week and the finale, the Grand Floral Parade is June 10. All three incorporate their corporate sponsors in their names.

The first Rose Festival took place in 1907 and included a nighttime parade with illuminated trolley cars. By 1925 the nighttime procession had take on a life of its own as the lighthearted Merrykhana Parade became the flip side to the formal Grand Floral. The Merrykhana court comprised “curvaceous” and “leggy” young women in bathing suits, in contrast to the Rose Queen and Princesses in gowns. The Royal Rosarians, in their white suits and straw hats, were – and still are – official Festival ambassadors. The Rainmakers were noted for spraying spectators with water from their parade floats. There were rumors that alcohol might have been involved.

By the 1970s, Merrykhana spectators had joined in on the fun, returning their own barrage of water squirts. The 1972 parade, a near riot with flying balloons filled with rocks and ice, was the last. The family-friendly Starlight parade debuted in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

18th Street & Vine

In the first half of the twentieth century, the 18th & Vine District was the thriving African-American community in segregated Kansas City. Just east of the main downtown, the area was a self-contained neighborhood of myriad black-owned businesses. The south edge of the area was residential; clubs and theatres clustered on the north.

Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Lester Young, Joe Turner are among the many jazz and blues performers who built their reputations in Kansas City.

The Kansas City Monarchs, a mainstay of the Negro Baseball League, drew crowds to its games until the arrival from Philadelphia of the major-league Athletics (now in Oakland, and trying to move to Santa Clara.) The 2015 World Series champion Royals make their home in Kansas City.

Arthur Bryant’s, once named by Calvin Trillin as the best restaurant in America, and categorized by Jane and Michael Stern in Roadfood as “Legendary – worth driving from anywhere,” (and described as having “all the decorative charm of a bus station”) still sells its smoked meats and lard-infused sauce from its close-by location.

The end of Jim Crow shopping dispersed customers from the 18th & Vine neighborhood. As in other cities, so-called urban renewal bulldozed much of the area. The district is trying to make a comeback. The American Jazz Museum and the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum are must-sees. The city belatedly recognized the historical significance of 18th & Vine and is promoting a more clear-headed redevelopment, but so far, with mixed success.