When I was a kid during and right after WWII, we were hyperconscious of local history. I’ve been gone from Portland for decades, but I still think in those terms. I think about the geological fact that it’s at the confluence of two rivers and that the Willamette is navigable by sea-going vessels all the way to Oregon City, which is a waterfall.
I think about the first Peoples, the first sailing ships, and Lewis and Clark boiling sea water to get salt. I think about Dr. John McLaughlin, the White-headed Eagle and his governance of Oregon when it was really a kind of adjunct to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and I think about his elegant Oregon City house and his wide-waisted indigenous wife who ran it. I think about his descendant, a writer stigmatized for her dusky skin, rejected by her own mother.
I think about Dorothy McCulloch Lee and the hats that she wore while she cleaned up a corrupt city and I think about Vera Katz and her leopardskin coat -- I think it was real fur -- but I try not to think about Neil Goldschmidt. What a fall from grace.
In recent experience I think about Rose Festival when ships docked downtown, including submarines, and the town was overrun with sailors. I think about going with the Cub Scouts to tour a Japanese boat carrying coal and how little everything was, even the sailors, how dark with coal dust.
I think about the wild night we three teenaged girls set out in a Mustang on Union which was named for labor -- not MLK yet -- got mixed up with delinquent racing stock car drivers, and almost disappeared into . . . we hardly dared think what.
In grade school in the Forties we did little programs and I barely remember being a Christmas angel because I and another child had curly red hair. In high school I made someone in the audience sob when I played Anastasia’s dowager empress grandmother.
I remember the Vanport Flood when the dikes and levees had not been maintained after WWII when Kaiser brought hundreds of black sharecroppers from the rural south to live in shoddy housing on the flood plain of the Columbia so they could build the ships and planes that won the war.
The flood, in which we were told no lives were lost — just everything else — pushed the people into old housing that fronted on the rivers. They survived because they were families and workers used to being on teams. But it knocked some of the progress away from them.
It was in high school that black kids began to attend Jefferson High School, some of them remarkably talented, aspiring to the society cliques, and others just wanting to keep their heads down and graduate. An art teacher, a young woman, was a special friend of the stigmatized and tried to give them identities and achievements. I remember passing in the hall just as she bravely stepped between two boys who wanted to fight.
In the earliest days of Portland most of the work was about timberjacks, regularly drunk because the work was hard and dangerous. The drinking fountains on the streets were meant to encourage them to drink water instead. Didn’t really work, but water was a Portland pride. Until it wouldn’t stop raining, anyway.
By the time Albina/Vernon was developed by Euros escaping a post-war continent, it was about small businesses and the major market roads for wagons: Cully Boulevard and Marine Drive. Then the Banfield Freeway was built east-to-west along what had been a stream bed. And the airport which in a later wet year was nearly flooded like Vanport for the same reason of lack of maintenance of levees.
In the Nineties it was downtown itself that nearly flooded, this time because the protective flood wall had been removed because it spoiled the view. I was working in the Portlandia building and wondered if I would be killed on the streets by Hispanic drug gangs shooting at each other. One man was shot by a stray bullet, a woman was sitting in a glass bus shelter when it was shattered by a bullet, and where I grew up at NE 15th and Alberta, we heard shooting all around us at night because of the gangs. The father of the Bloods lived across the street and his house was shot up after a family quarrel. A lot of the violence was within families or acquaintances.
Webster and Sumner, the two streets I walked to school by myself from kindergarten on, were now so dangerous that PPD went there only as pairs, maybe even two cars. Back for a visit from Montana, I walked those streets again and returned down Alberta. It was before the street was art-ified, back when the “banana man” still kept his horse in a shed behind the Alberta Theatre before it was a “church.” You knew to watch the Saturday matinees with your feet tucked up under you because of the rats who came to scavenge popcorn and candy.
This time when I walked back home down Alberta, I passed a barbershop where a haircut was in progress. The surprised barber grinned at me, flashing big white teeth, so I waved and he waved back. The client was laughing hard. This incident sticks with me because it is about people going about their business cheerfully, regardless of whatever shenanigans or politics were in the newspaper.
I don’t deny that bad stuff goes on in Portland. One permit cashier I worked with used to earn bucks for nooners in the upstairs rooms across the park. One day she was found dead in her boyfriend’s bed. He had an alibi.
That man recently and “innocently” guarding the right wing caravan of pickups by a parking garage — was that the same parking garage that used to be a pick-up point for older prosperous white men who wanted to buy a boy for the night?
The neighborhood where I grew up went black and my mother’s next door neighbor who had done well in school got hooked on drugs and then went crazy and then had a baby who was even crazier and more violent. My mother was terrified of them. Then all that went away. Gays, Hispanic cafés, and artists moved in. When my mother died, we sold her house to an orchestra conductor (white) and the street has prospered.
Riots just outside the Portlandia Building would be good for street business in the upstairs cribs of the rundown buildings if they hadn’t been torn down for the Justice buildings that I’ve never seen. I’ve been back in Montana for twenty years and the drugs and gangs are here, too. But also computers and Indian-owned businesses. Communities always revive.
This is an interview about the Vanport flood. Aren’t newspapers hiring skeptical old reporters who get the big historical picture anymore?