World War II brought a hoard of working class folk to work in Portland’s Kaiser shipyards, building liberty ships to ferry cargo all over the world. For many, Vanport, Oregon was home. Spring rains in 1948 brought down a dike holding back the Columbia river, and in just a few hours the city of up to 50,000 people, many of whom were African American, was gone.

Vanport Oregon – 1942, before the flood (where Delta Park is now).

Vanport, Oregon – May 1948, fifteen people drowned, thousands left homeless.

Title of the tapestry above, located in the collection of Fort Vancouver Tapestry Panels, is Alcoa continues operating behind dikes during the Vanport flood.

Columbia Villa, a public housing village off North Fessenden, was built in part as a response to this disaster. But to tell our city’s history honestly, many Portlanders resented and resisted attempts to help these folks stay. With additional industries and a warmer welcome, Seattle and San Francisco both maintained African Americans after the war – but not Portland. Additional snubs of Klan gatherings, segregation by property sales, urban development in the middle of Albina – Emanuel Hospital + Interstate 5 plunked in the middle of Albina – made Portland one of the whitest cities in the nation.

In 2003, prompted by dozens of shootings, the Housing Authority of Portland launched the HOPE IV reconstruction of Columbia Villa, now renamed New Columbia. Everyone was moved out, the old duplexes were razed and new two story homes, a new school, modern apartments, storefronts, a community center, parks and gardens were arranged and built. Though many people have moved in, construction is ongoing.

Cultural sensitivity clearly was a foremost concern during planning and execution. The result looks excellent – everything is clean and neat and sturdy and waiting for everyone to come home. The housing mix of 852 units include public housing, affordable rental housing, elderly housing and homes for sale. An additional 92 public housing units are off-site.

With an approximate final cost of $30 million dollars, some art should have been been included. A little math? Two percent of $30 million is $600,000. Quite a chuck of change. Because costs of RACC purchased artwork is not published, we can only estimate how $600,000 was spent.

Three ornate aluminum gates to an unused community garden (most community gardens use cyclone fencing at best – $55 for a 50 foot roll at nearby hardware), named after former County chair Gladys McCoy.

Estimated ornate aluminum gates cost @ $10,000 each – $30,000

Local guides showed me the iron sculptures by Nigerian born artist Mufu Ahmed (right), who also designed 22 benches with squirrel or salmon motifs.

Estimated cost of 22 benches @ $5000 each – $110,000.

The both the gecko and the “half tiger half monkey” (above) are clear favorites, around the corner is a heron is a similar style.

Estimated cost of three iron animal sculptures $10,000 each – $30,000

What my short friends didn’t like was a gigantic plane tree, uprooted, stripped, turned upside down, bolted to cement blocks, and crowned with a ring of sharp metal. To me it’s just a vaguely evil imago (wasn’t St. Peter crucified head down?) But to local children the 25+ foot tall sculpture is a dread spider, which can be seen from a thousand windows ringing an open field.

Artist Fernanda D’Agostino created Ancestor Tree from a London plane tree felled during construction. She lists $400,000 in payment for Ancestor Tree on her resume.

Much of D’Agostino’s work litters the public paths surrounding Columbia Boulevard Waste Water Treatment Plant, across Columbia Blvd from New Columbia. Other local guides squired me through the bicycle paths and on to Smith & Bybee Lakes where more of D’Agostino’s artwork imitates actual wildlife – except extracted, inspected by space aliens, and set back in place. “She must be a fan of Riven,” one of the younger set acutely observed.

The Kandis Brewer Nunn Community Education Center (who, you say? Why the current chair of the HAP Board, administrator of The Jordan & Mina Schnitzer Foundation and director of Harsch Investment’s marketing communications) closed and dark on a weekend afternoon.

The place is a bit empty – a village built without a population. Waiting for its diaspora to return.

More of the story.

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