Vanport: On Loss, Displacement and Piecing Back Together

Tonight is our final performance of Vanport, the Musical, written and directed by (my best friend and soul-sistah) Shalanda Sims. And I am feeling some kinda way because I still have problems with “good-byes”.

For the past three decades we the descendants of Vanport have had to say our good-bye’s. We have had to say “good-bye” to Ma and Pop restaurants, school buildings and parks. We have had to say “farewell” to Grandmother’s house, beauty salons and the unspoken hangouts like Walnut Park Fred Meyers and corner stops like 15th in Alberta. We have said “see you on the other side” of church buildings and funeral homes. We have grieved and recovered, grieved and recovered until our tear ducts have dried and there is nothing left to hold on to.

So I return weekly to Woodlawn Bakery the place that use to be Sis. Ransons dry-cleaners. I slowly drive down Prescott and I beg my mind to recall every memory of Granny’s house, Mt. Sinai Baptist Church and Marantha musicals. I sit in front of 3207 NE 11th and count every family member in place on the porch. I can see my neighborhood still in tact and all of my family members vivid in my head-however  these cherished visions are not the reality of what is staring back. And I feel lost all over again. Forgive the cliche-but I am -“we are -Vanport descendants and we are lost (again)-without a home”.

But for three little months-we felt found.

My family and I have had the privilege to dive deep into the sights, sounds and spirit of a “once upon a time” place created by The Sims. Our special place, free of princesses and castles has a foundation built on cultural traditions, oral histories, everyday legends, hard work and beauty of soul and art. It is a place Shalanda wrote about to honor not only her family journey but so many other’s-including my own.

As gentrification jungles continued to swing and expand on Williams,Vancouver  and Martin Luther Kings Blvd we built our set, our spirits and our community-alive again. Long meetings, late practices and lingering meals centered around representing our people strong, stabilizing our voices and re-connecting our youth to their history and who they really are- left us satisfied and recommitted to “the struggle”. The struggle being the very hard work of preserving the remnant of a people who have been flooded, pushed out and gentrified with not only one wave of loss, but three in the last three decades.

But we are still here. Deeply grieved we are no longer in a centralized neighborhood but we are centered strong in no longer keeping quiet, watering down or allowing others to speak for us about our story.

My parents and Aunt Jean, now a vibrant 70+ years of age (who was only six years when the flood hit Vanport) gave big hugs and proud knods of approval and praise for the hard work our cast took in preserving the integrity of Vanport last night.

“You made us so proud. You all keep telling our stories.” Aunt Jean beamed with pride.

With those words, I was instantly transmitted to the living room carpeted floor of my Granddaddy’s house. I was nine years old again and I was smiling back with pride in hearing the accounts of my grandparents  life in Vanport. My whole life I wanted to know what it felt like to live deep in community with people who treat you like family and will be there for you in times of trouble-the way Granddaddy had. And we had done just that!

So as the curtain falls tonight and my three children and I take our bows and hang our costumes for the last time-I will take the “spirit of Vanport” with me. My prayer is my children-our children have caught what was taught through the lives and the legacy of those who trailblazed before us. Here are a few survivor lessons that have weathered time, space and loss:

1. No matter what is taken from you- you can always rebuild.

2. You are only as strong as the respect you give to your elders-honor them always.

3. Long prayers, a song in your heart and good fried chicken can ALWAYS make everything instantly alright.

4. Love and longing is the only way to survive “the storms of life”.

5. A consistent hard work ethic will always set you high above the rest.

6. Always remember where and who you come from.

7. Live today as if tomorrow was never promised.

These are the ways we will once again piece ourselves back together.

These are the ways we will find peace and move on.

These are the ways we will honor those who blazed the trail for us to follow.

These are the ways we will keep telling our stories strong.

Bye bye Vanport…

8 thoughts on “Vanport: On Loss, Displacement and Piecing Back Together

  1. Fred Stewart says:

    Walnut Park Fred Meyers was a pit. Fred Meyers shut down the Historic Killings worth location because they could not protect their products from theft. They had black gangs fighting over the parking lot and local black leaders were no help. Let’s be real about how we allowed the black community to fall apart.

    • Velynn Brown says:

      With all due respect I strongly disagree and did not witness the Fred Meyers you are speaking of. As a little girl I frequently went with my Grandfather to this store. His friends stood as guardians in the entry. With a police department right next door I don’t understand how this place grew out of control. Gangs were a problem back then and many Black leaders including my father partnered with police partnered with authorities to dismantle the brewing destruction. To blame an entire community for not protecting itself from gangs/crime is unfair. We fought hard then and continue to fight but we have never been a high priority to those in power.

      • Fred Stewart says:

        You were a kid so your memory is not accurate. I free up in the neighborhood and I am older than you. The Police station was not there when Fred Meyers was open. Fred Meyers shut down in 1988., I was one of the Community leaders that was at the Grand opening of the Police Station in 1995. It too went there with my Grandfather as a child and later as a young adult as well. There were greeters but no guardians. They were nice people but had no control over what the thugs in the community did there. By the time the store closed down management had security guards walk the employees to their cars to protect them from being mugged. Those were the bad days. Days you may have been to young to remember or understand

      • Velynn Brown says:

        I witnessed many gang members taking off their hats pulling up their pants to give respect and honor to their elders. My father suited up in many bullet-proof vests putting out fights and retaliations. Yes the police station came later. In my reflection I was trying to communicate how something so precious as a legacy of community could go unprotected with a police station oddly being built to replace what was once there. And you are right I am being selective in my thinking because I am sorting out what I chose to remember. There is no perfect community and I am saddened by what you shared here. Hurt people-hurt people.

      • Fred Stewart says:

        There were shootings around the store. In the parking lot and armed robbery in the parking lot of the customers. Can you imagine how the shop lofting was? They stopped doing anything about the shop lifters because many of them would pull out a fun if caught. Then gangs started fighting over the parking lot.

      • Fred Stewart says:

        Black leaders sis nothing but try to love the hate of gangs away or try to make money off gangs. No one did the right thing and white people were either in entertained or delighted to see black people murdering each other. People that join gangs are garbage. They are enemies of every black person in Oregon. White Oregon could have stopped the gang problem but they did not care enough to. Black leadership failed the black community and still does to this day when it comes to black lives. Over 500 black lives taken by black gangs since August 1988

      • Velynn Brown says:

        That is a devastating number Bro. Fred. But what about the 500 that were saved? What about the gang members who joined because they had no other supports to hold on to. I don’t support gang violence and those that prey upon youth-abusing their power of influence and community. But I also understand that the historical dismantling of our Black community didn’t start with gangs. The layers of poverty, misuse of privilege and hundreds of years of tearing the Black family a part has been systematized in the America we live in today. And there are many of us with Gods help who are still fighting to keep this remnant alive and well.

  2. Cornelia Seigneur (@CorneliSeigneur) says:

    Velynn- I just love you friend, sis. You and your family are a treasure. You are a dear friend. And this play, I so enjoyed being able to experience it last year (and to pen a story about it for The O- We were out of town for this year’s show. Keep up the great work. And see you at the Global Leadership Summit Thursday!- Cornelia

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