Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
In 1945, Portland made a short film celebrating the low-rise, landscaped Columbia Villa, a public-housing project for white Portlanders.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Housewives compete to raise the most impressive flower displays. Tow-headed kids trail after the letter carrier on his twice-daily rounds. The friendly local milkman makes his doorstep deliveries. Children’s swing sets fill backyards.
These are not images that we commonly associate with public housing, but they’re all found in a 10-minute color film from 1945 about Columbia Villa, a wartime project in Portland, Oregon. The film has been preserved by the city’s Archives and Records Center.
Columbia Villa was 400 units of suburban-style low-rise apartments spread over 82 acres. Built in 1942, it featured curving streets with broad landscaped lawns. The film emphasizes the beautiful environs of Portland, the quality of the stick-built apartments, the plantings sporting Portland’s signature roses, the “country club”-style community center, and the happy white residents.
Columbia Villa’s low density and landscaping made it a design cousin of Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights project in Los Angeles, just without the famous architect. The Oregonian reported in May 1944 that housing reformer Catherine Bauer Wurster called it one of the very best public-housing projects in the country. The unspoken message in the film is that public housing did not have to resemble Portland’s other and vastly larger war-worker project, Vanport (flimsy buildings, minimal landscaping, and many African-American tenants).
Portland in the mid-century decades was far from the progressive Portlandia of the 21st century. Portlanders had responded to the Housing Act of 1937 by voting overwhelmingly in 1938 against creating a local housing authority, fending off “unadulterated Communism entirely,” according to one city commissioner. Only after the attack on Pearl Harbor did the city council finally agree that a housing agency was a patriotic response to cope with the workers who were flocking to jobs in Portland’s wartime shipyards, where employment would peak around 140,000.
Columbia Villa fell on hard times in the 1980s as increased crime and gang activity damaged the community fabric. Despite the strong efforts of a multiracial coalition of activist residents to rebuild community infrastructure, the Housing Authority of Portland chose it for a HOPE VI project, with the argument that the original buildings were substandard and too expensive to renovate. New Columbia is also a physically pleasant place, with twice as many units and a mixture of owner-occupied houses and subsidized apartments. The experience of residents through demolition, relocation, and return is also documented in the 2010 documentary Imagining Home: Planning an American Dream.
As a sidenote, the 1945 film came out of a vibrant community of independent Portland filmmakers who did training and publicity shorts for local companies like Jantzen and Viewmaster. The father of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Homer Groening, was one of these filmmakers but, alas, not directly connected to this particular film as far as I could discover.
There were two more takeaways for viewers of the film, in addition to its cheerful praise of Portland’s can-do spirit.
The first was that public housing was no threat to Portland’s comfortable low-rise cityscape. The mid-century city was a set of single-family neighborhoods with scattered courtyard apartments and a few walk-up apartments. Portland had plenty of elbow room for postwar suburbanization, and developments like Columbia Villa, the film implied, could fit right into the fabric of what was then a moderately prosperous industrial port.
The second message was that public housing was not a sneaky avenue for racial change in Portland’s all-white neighborhoods. Any Portlander would have recognized the difference from Vanport, whose 10,000 apartments on the muddy Columbia River floodplain housed thousands of African-American shipyard workers and their families along with white families. By late 1945, many of the white families had gone back to their home states or found permanent places in established neighborhoods, but African Americans would remain stuck until flooded out in 1948, giving Vanport a bad reputation among white Portlanders who had never been comfortable with wartime changes.
By defining Columbia Villa as the opposite of Vanport, the film reaffirmed Portland’s racial identity at mid-century while reminding us that American public housing in the 1940s was not yet coded for race.
Video credit: City of Portland (OR) Archives, Columbia Villa construction project. A2001-083, 1945. https://efiles.portlandoregon.gov/record/3233023