Originally published August 2022; updated October 15, 2022.
The Portland Expo Center, a site of great significance to a number of different communities, will be undergoing some major changes in the coming years. As the name implies, the site currently functions as an event and convention venue, but Metro, the agency that owns and manages the Expo Center, is looking at ways to change the function of the 53-acre property into something that better serves the people of the Portland Metro area. They have determined that the cost and resources required to maintain the grounds and building will outpace the income that is generated from the events venues as they currently operate.
Metro has been studying what could be done with the site for the past 2.5 years. Over that time and with input from community groups, they have developed a framework to guide decisions about the potential futures for the site:
It is Metro’s stated aim to honor the historical and cultural legacy of the site, which includes Japanese American incarceration, the city of Vanport and the Vanport flood, and indigenous cultures that have and continue to call this land home. It is important that we, as a community, hold them to and support this commitment. We thank everyone in our community who responded to Metro’s survey in September of 2022.
In October 2022, The Japanese American Museum of Oregon, in partnership with The Vanport Mosaic and Colloqate Design submitted a proposal for a site of consciousness that recognizes the history of forced displacements on this site, Indigenous Communities, the Japanese American Community, and the Vanport Community. You can read more about the process and the submitted proposals here.
Metro has created this video to explain more about the historical and cultural significance of the site as well as the intentions behind the project. You can read more about the entire project from Metro here.
Japanese American History at the Portland Expo Center
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all people from military areas “as deemed necessary.” 110,00 Nikkei were excluded from the West Coast, forcibly removed, and incarcerated in various confinement sites. Nikkei living in Portland and Southwest Washington had seven days to close shop, sell off personal belongings, say their goodbyes, and report to the temporary Portland Detention Center, formerly the Pacific Northwest Livestock Exposition. They were assigned a family number, given an identification tag, and shown an animal stall to live in, their new “home” for the summer of 1942.
Except it wasn’t like any home they had ever known. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) laid floorboards on top of manure and built dividers between animal stalls to create living quarters. First-person accounts describe the unbelievable stench and abundant flies.
More than 3,800 Japanese Americans were detained at the site for 3-4 months, necessitating a system of management that was similar in some ways to a small town; the WRA appointed a center manager, and responsibilities were divided into twenty departments like food, mail, security, and school. They were all coordinated by an advisory board of Nikkei.
In August and September of 1942, Japanese Americans were removed from the Center to concentration camps. Most Oregonians went to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho.
The Portland Expo Center remains a powerful site of remembrance and grief for Japanese Americans. Over the years there have been many events and ceremonies held in Exhibition Hall C, the actual site of the Portland temporary detention center. Valerie Otani’s art installation, Voices of Remembrance, located at the Expo Center MAX station, provides an unmistakable reminder of the history and loss that happened here.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon, along with other local Japanese American organizations, are working with Metro to make sure this history is honored. With your help, we can let Metro know how important it is for our community to maintain our presence at this site, share that history with the public, and continue to have access for generations to come.
Related blog post: In the Library: Day of Remembrance