shalanda sims

Vanport: On Loss, Displacement and Piecing Back Together

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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…