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Vanport, Williams Avenue, and racist planning: The history of where we ride matters

Posted by on June 19th, 2020 at 11:15 am

These signs on Williams Avenue can lead to discovery and a deeper understanding of the neighborhood.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

We bike lovers talk a lot about what we ride and how we ride, but we don’t talk enough about where we ride. And I don’t mean comparing “epic” routes in the wilderness. I’m talking about the history of the places we pedal through.

If you ride in Portland there are a few things you should know. If you’ve been here a while, you’ve likely heard some of what I’m about to share. But if you’re new to town, listen up!

And yes, this post is about racism.

There’s a lot of race-related history to uncover about our state (which was formed to exclude Black people and with a vision to be a “perfect white society”) and our city.

Here are just three bits of history to help you on your educational journey…

Portland’s Racist Planning History

Racist covenant found in Laurelhurst, 1913. (From City of Portland presentation: Historical Context of Racial Planning)

Published by City of Portland in 2019. Learn more here.

That’s not me calling Portland’s planning history racist, that’s the City of Portland itself. Believe it or not, our city has a page on their website devoted to, “How historical racist land use planning contributed to racial segregation and inequity for people of color in Portland.” The meat of the site is a 2019 report that outlines in detail how planners purposely segregated Portland along racial lines.

From what types of housing was allowed to be built to covenants on deeds that intentionally excluded Black and other people of color, the way Portland is built today directly reflects a racist past. Ever notice how some streets you ride on — like Southeast Ankeny through Laurelhurst or along the bluff on North Willamette — are lined with big, single-family homes, while other streets feel much more crowded with multi-story apartments?

I highly recommend taking a few minutes to click through the links on that page, especially this interactive Google Map of racial covenants in Portland. Then plan a bike ride to some of the locations and ponder how the neighborhoods still reflect these planning decisions.

So much of our debates about density, housing, transportation and bike lanes can be tied to this planning history. Know it better and you’ll be more informed for those important discussions.



(Map of Vanport overlayed with Google satellite image)

The path along the Columbia Slough near Portland International Raceway north of Kenton is one of the most popular places to ride in our city. It also has a view of one of the most dramatic and important events in the history of Portland.

There’s a lot more here than a fun bike path and a pretty view.

72 years ago a flood wiped out a major city that was built where PIR now stands. Yes, the same PIR that has hosted many of your favorite bike races like MTB Short Track, the Cyclocross Crusade, Monday Night PIR, and others.

At its height in the mid 1940s, 40% of Vanport’s 40,000 residents were Black and it was the second largest city in Oregon. When the levees broke on May 30th 1948, 15 people died and 6,300 Black people were displaced.

As detailed by NPR, the aforementioned racist planning that pushed Black people away from many parts of the city, directly contributed to Vanport becoming overcrowded and led to a lack of urgency to protect it from this disaster.

If you want to ride over there and learn more about it, our friends at Pedalpalooza have put together a bike route and page with more information.

North Williams Avenue

Another popular bike route that’s steeped with racial history is North Williams Avenue.

“We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood. Until we address that history and… the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”
— Michelle DePass, July 2011

Before Vanport, most of Portland’s Black residents lived in the Albina district east and north of the Broadway Bridge. By 1920, 62% of Portland’s African Americans residents, and 80% of African American families with children, lived near Williams Avenue. This led to a thriving culture of music venues and other Black-owned businesses. At one point it was called the “Black Broadway” because of all the jazz clubs.

The beginning of the end of this era started in the 1960s with discriminatory “urban renewal” plans by the City of Portland. The construction of Memorial Coliseum, Interstate 5, and Emanuel Hospital decimated hundreds of homes and businesses — and the communities that once thrived because of them.

Nine years ago the Portland Bureau of Transportation wanted to build a new bike lane on Williams and this simmering history boiled over. At a meeting for the project in July 2011, longtime residents of the area objected to the bike lane project. Michelle DePass, a woman who was born in the hospital where the meeting was taking place (Legacy Emanuel) and who lived in the area around Williams Avenue all of her life, spoke up. “We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood,” she said. “Until we address that history and… the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”

One of the many outcomes of that controversial project was the Historic Black Williams Project, an educational effort (backed by PBOT in partnership with the community) that included a series of signs displayed along the street. If you ride up Williams today, I strongly suggest stopping to read them. They highlight cultural events, Black community leaders, and Black-owned businesses that once thrived along the street.

For links to more great educational resources about Williams Avenue, check out the links on the Black Williams Project website.

There is so much to discover! I find that having a visceral connection to a place — like when I bike through it — inspires me to do the necessary work of learning about how our past has informed the present and how to embrace them in order to create a better future.

I hope you are embracing this moment to gain more knowledge about the places we ride through, no matter what path you’re on.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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it’s weird to me to see so much support for the BLM movement from the portland bike community… i am an avid bike rider… part of the reason why i moved here 20 years ago was to take advantage of all of the outdoor activities that are available here… but as a black man… one place i’ve never felt comfortable… is in the larger biking community… whether it’s pedalpaloza events or naked bike ride or sunday parkways… whatever… i’ve never felt any of the major events in town to be the least bit inclusive nor have i felt any sense of community when i’m out riding my bike… as a result… i don’t ride much anymore… and haven’t ridden my bike much in the last 5 or 6 years…

i hope my cynicism is misguided and that this push towards more inclusiveness in the biking community in portland is really becoming a reality but based on my 20 years living here there’s a long way to go.

Matt S.
Matt S.

I like the plaques, they are very educational but part of me feels like they are a consolation prize. Black families had their neighborhoods wiped out by the Rose Quarter, the hospital, and now gentrification. I’m working on a family housing complex on Williams, there’s a marker right there. I hope occupancy will be mostly people with a connection to the neighborhood.

Racer X

Thanks for this item, I look forward to stopping and learning more about the neighborhoods I have been cycling through and shopping in for 20+ years.

In addition to the “red lining” practices and Van Port mis-management noted in this article that impacted “black” “brown” and “yellow” people, the use of the then new “urban renewal” tool funded by Federal taxes was ALSO a tool against “class”, thus impacting anyone who was not wealthy…especially the neighborhoods destroyed for the ‘mad-men era” SW development areas around the [Ira] Keller Fountain. It might be interesting to investigate the city “fathers” with names on fountains and buildings from this era and how they were involved (for better and worse) and how to move forward:

Toby Keith
Toby Keith

With all the progressive rampaging and book burning going on lately what they should do is completely raze these neighborhoods and give them back to the displaced people to start anew.


Let’s not forget the doomed Mount Hood Freeway and Prescott Freeway Projects et al from Robert Moses, which would have been ploughed deliberately through predominantly at the time black neighborhoods.

David Hampsten

It wasn’t just anti-black and anti-Asian, but really anti-anything-not-middle-class-WASP.

The South Auditorium Blocks were raised because it was a “notorious blighted neighborhood full of Jews, Italians, mixed races and hippies” according to my PSU planning professors. The Lloyd District was Slavic before they raised it.

Another neighborhood area with racist restrictions was the Ascot Zoning areas in the Russell and Wilkes neighborhoods, but that is East Portland so of course the Portland planning department would ignore it.

And of course the city still engages in this sort of crap in East Portland, Cully, and Brentwood-Darlington, tolerating housing discrimination and deliberately engaging in community neglect, to a certain extent in SW too.

Todd Boulanger

Check out the Vancouver Junteenth Protest march going back and forth across the I-5 Interstate Bridge…for the next 15 minutes …traffic cams…


Excellent statement. Though I don’t live in Portland (yet) I believe your sentiments strike at the heart of inclusivity and the absolute need for equity in city planning and reconciliation. If future plans do not take into account the injustices of yesteryear we are doomed to repeat their mistakes.


Speaking of racist planning in N/NE, the Albina Community Plan, which was quite recent (1990s) and had many good aspects, had some poor ones too. A main goal was to increase residential densities. But wealthier, whiter neighborhoods (Irvington, etc.) fought against increased density. In response, the project rezoned much of NE MLK to RH (high-density residential). Much of MLK property was blighted at the time, wiped out by the 70s median project that turned MLK into almost exclusively a through highway at the expense of its ability to function as a community main street. Quite a bit of MLK land at the time was minority owned.

With the rezoning, small businesses could not expand without building residential space, new commercial space could not be built, and even small residential projects could not be built due to not meeting minimum unit densities. There was a limited market for residential space on MLK, and projects meeting minimum densities could not be financed. For several years, the bulk of new residential space that eventually was built was at the south end, which was zoned EX vs. RH, and allowed more commercial space to be included and less residential. Eventually MLK developed, and the City very recently has taken steps to allow increased density in the wealthier neighborhoods that successfully fought it in the 1990s.


“That no part of said land shall be used or occupied by any Italians, Greeks, Hindus, Armenians or Indians, except that persons of said races my be employed thereon as servants.”

This feels peculiarly and specific, Mock’s Crest.