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.

The Tonya Harding Chronicles

Figure skating fans and Portland weirdness aficionados are familiar with the saga of Tonya Harding who transitioned from famous to infamous at the 1994 Olympics. Ms. Harding was the U.S. Figure Skating champion in 1991 and placed second behind Kristi Yamaguchi in that year’s World Championship. She was the first woman to complete a triple axel jump at a sanctioned international event. She finished fourth at the 1992 Winter Olympics.

At a practice session for the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, prior to the 1994 Olympics, Harding’s Olympic teammate and competitor for media spotlight, Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted after leaving the rink. Her attacker hit her on the leg, above the knee, with a police baton. Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the event, which Harding went on to win. Ms. Kerrigan recovered in time to win a silver medal at the Olympic competition. Harding placed eighth.

Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband and Shawn Eckhardt, her bodyguard, had hired Kerrigan’s assailant, with instructions to break her leg and thus prevent her participation in further competitions. The attacker and his employers all served time for this misdeed. Tonya Harding was also implicated. Gillooly cut a deal with prosecutors in exchange for testimony against his ex-wife. Ms. Harding pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service and a $160,000 fine. The U.S. Figure Skating Association stripped her of her title and imposed a lifetime ban on participation in any future events.

Nancy Kerrigan has stayed in the public eye making guest appearances in TV and movies, a special correspondent at the 2010 Winter Olympics, competing on Dancing With the Stars. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2004.

Tonya Harding has also stayed in the public eye, promoting an explicit “wedding video” of she and Gillooly, managing professional wrestlers, commentator on the cable TV show World’s Dumbest…, and professional boxer, including winning a bout against Paula Jones. In 1996 she used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revive an eighty-one-year-old woman who had collapsed while playing video poker in a bar.

The Tonya Harding legend has recently resurfaced with the Hollywood promotion machine’s publicizing a major motion picture of her life. I, Tonya is now being filmed and is due for release in 2018.

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.

Musical Interlude with the Dankworths

Cleo Laine will turn ninety years old this year. She was born to an English mother and Jamaican father. With her multi-octave voice, she and jazz-musician husband John Dankworth became musical royalty, entertaining audiences around the world for decades.

Years ago at a show in Portland, Dankworth introduced an instrumental number, telling the audience it was in an unusual time signature – 7/8 or something. He went on to say we would know the band performed it correctly if they all finished at the same time.

John Dankworth died in 2010 at age eight-two.