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Let's Consider the Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Posted on 02 April 2016

Most Portlanders have almost no relationship with Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Some folks have fond memories of watching the Blazers when they still played there, while others think of it as one of Portland's poorly executed follies. For many older residents of the city, it represents something entirely different. 

The Albina neighborhood is one of Portland's oldest, having started as an entirely separate town across the river from what is now downtown. It was incorporated as part of Portland in 1887 along with parts of what is now Southeast. It started as an area heavily settled by European immigrants. As the years past, European immigrants moved out of the area and African American families moved in. By the 1940s, the neighborhood was one of the most bustling black communities on the West Coast. Russell and Williams streets were hubs for business; Williams in particular had a notable jazz scene. Through the '40s and '50s, most American jazz legends (Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Etta James, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and many others) played Paul's Paradise, Jackie's, The Cotton Club, a few of the jazz clubs of Albina.

Though it may be known for its Jazz scene, Albina was also full of grocery stores, haberdashers, salons, shoe stores, and just about anything a neighborhood could need. It was located very close to what was going to be the massive Kaiser Shipyards located on Swan Island and along the Willamette River in St. Johns, which would ultimately produce over 1000 ships for WWII. There was not nearly enough local labor to fulfill the need for workers. Thousands of people started to flood into the city to fill the empty jobs, many of them African Americans. Due to redlining in Portland, the only neighborhood where minorities could live was Albina, which quickly became packed. Shipyard workers who had money to pay rent couldn't find a landlord to give it to and were sometimes forced to live out of their cars. Kaiser was eventually forced to build a small town called Vanport to house all of the workers who couldn't find homes. In 1940 there were an estimated 1,800 African Americans in Portland. By 1946 there were more than 15,000 who had moved here to support the war effort.

When the war ended, many of the people who had served their country in the shipyards were forced to leave Portland due to racial profiling in the job market. Then in 1948 Vanport was destroyed in a flood that claimed 15 lives. This was due to a railway berm breaking, one the city may have known was going to fail. It is also notable that the city told residents of Vanport to stay put and that the town was safe just hours before flood waters swept through the town. This in turn displaced many African American families who were forced to leave the Portland area as there was not enough housing or jobs in Albina. 

Nonetheless, Albina thrived after WWII. It was a large, active community, however, by the mid 1950s Portland city officials had fully embraced "urban renewal." Many of the cities oldest and most beautiful buildings downtown were being demolished to make way for parking lots (I'm not being hyperbolic. Most of the parking lots downtown used to be iron front buildings, of which only a few now remain).  They also felt the city needed a big shiny events center. Deeming the neighborhood "blighted," they set their sites on lower Albina for the new developments. An $8,000,000 bond was passed by Portland voters and hundreds of homeowners and businesses were served with eviction papers to make way for the Memorial Colosseum, the failed Lloyd district, and the new Interstate 5, which cut a wide gash across Albina - all to build what ultimately was a huge white elephant. 

City officials have been fighting about what to do with the mostly vacant building over the past decade. Numerous plans have been put forth to bring new life to the aging buildings but nothing seems to stick. Tearing the Coliseum down seems to be more and more of a realistic option rather than dumping more money into it to try to make it profitable. It is architecturally significant in that the construction techniques used to erect it were a bit of a milestone, but unfortunately, it has not aged as gracefully as some international-style buildings have. Original entryways and landscaping have been replaced with wood chips and asphalt making the building a giant, bland reminder of my parent's generation and their failure to deliver on the modernist promise of midcentury America.

I could go more into the architectural significance of the Coliseum, but I won't. The most significant part of the building is the damage it did to a community that so many Portlanders enabled and supported. Personally, I feel the building should be torn down and replaced with something that can be used by all Portlanders, regardless of race or socioeconomic standing. It's no secret that gentrification has accelerated significantly, particularly in the Albina neighborhood along Williams Street, pricing out the families who managed to hang on to their homes after such a tumultuous past. 

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