Interview of Mariah Taylor
Recorded by Whitney Gomes for Vanport Mosaic
“What I miss most is the cohesiveness of a community which has undergone – it’s called urban renewal, actually it’s urban removal – and gentrification which has taken its toll. I’ve talked to people and I connect with people because I’ve been a community leader. They refer to Mrs. So-and-so on that street, you know that street over by whatever, and that green house on the corner with all the apples on it, you can’t refer to that any longer because of gentrification. People were known by where they lived, not what they had, but where they lived.
“My name is Mariah A. Taylor and I’m from Portland, Oregon; north Portland, and I was born in ’39. I came to Vanport from Atlanta, Texas, and I’m one of 25. I came at the age of 8 with nine other brothers and sisters and my parents. We came in ’47. The flood was May 30 at 2:00 Sunday afternoon 1948 to be exact. That’s when the dike broke in Vanport.
“The community was tight, held together with the spirit of hope that we all had. Most families had come from different states, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas. They had come for a better life. And to reach some of the prosperity, and they were tired of being oppressed, beaten down, not having the quality of life they deserved. I came with my family to Portland, Oregon and I can remember the good days of not having the schools segregated.
“In the late ’50s I was in George Elementary, 1954, and Sitton Elementary School out in St. John’s. It was definitely diverse. And oh my gosh, we were poor. They didn’t have the free lunches and I remember go outside and play on the playground and play tetherball and all the other sports. And I would ask permission to come inside to use the bathroom. I was really in there rummaging through the garbage to eat food because I was hungry.
“I have pleasant memories of the Red, White and Blue Store; Piggly Wiggly, which most people can identify with, of us being creative in not having toys. We made our own. The stilts were the form of entertaining ourselves, making something we didn’t have the money to buy. It was made from bed slats with the horizontal piece of wood and we would climb on that and walk around just like the stilts you see in the circus.
“What we had going was actually wealth, much more superior than what people have today, in a sense of community. We were part of a village. The one thing that held everyone together was our faith. Albina in the late ’50s and ‘60s meant people were Polish, people who were German. We were all neighbors, we were all friends. We treated them as family, and the likewise. We shared cultural recipes together, we visited each other, and we had a community of wholeness, rather than what I see now that’s just so divided.
“Now I see gentrification – just that one word. Businesses that no longer are, some have expanded to the southeast that were in north Portland. Others that have been closed down. I don’t see a thriving community in the sense of togetherness like we had. There was a cohesiveness that we had and the change was progressive and that happened when I was away at college. And then upon return, like now this church, you can hardly identify this church. You have to look for the red cross. You don’t even know it’s there because of the apartments. Many of the landmarks have gone, like right across the street, Lou’s used to be Tropicana. It was bar-b-que and catfish. That was a place that we socialized and we had dinner and she has chosen to lease it rather than sell it and to make sure that there’s a minority contractor; that it’s minority owned and operated.
“But so many of the places are gone. The bakery that used to be right there on Freemont and Vancouver, it’s now New Seasons Market. We used to love just the fragrance of the yeast in the air, and there’s nothing like the smell of it in the air. But it’s up to us to allow the fragrance of our lives – and I’m using this metaphorically – to permeate every space that we go into so that we can make a better place for not only this generation, but for the next as well. And even so, now, with the gentrification that’s going on and property that’s being bought by outside developers site unseen, you see California licenses in the driveway. You cannot afford to access that house or to buy it. Black businesses that no longer are in existence.
“By staying connected to my community, by keeping the faith, by being an encourager of others to keep the faith and to realize that futility is just an illusion; it’s not reality. We have to be our brother’s keepers, which is why I’m involved in so many ministries. But I stay connected and I keep my finger on the pulse of the community by being involved. Futility is something that I don’t entertain. There’s always hope. Without a vision, the people perish. It’s straight from the bible. But the beautiful memories of being together as a family and realizing it takes a village – all ethnic groups, all socio-economic groups – we are all one family because we only have one father.”