Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.
Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.
That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.
“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.