Saturday, September 06, 2014

Voices of Remembrance

Portland's MAX Yellow Line ends at the Expo Center, the city's general-purpose large event space. Auto shows, dog shows, cat shows, trade shows, gun shows, swap meets, concerts, and so forth. The Cirque du Soleil sets up circus tents in the parking lot every so often. The Multnomah County Fair used to be held here, and the old Pacific-International livestock expo was held here for many years and lent its name to the place.

Riders exiting the train pass under a set of Japanese torii gates, each adorned with little metal tags jangling in the wind. This is Valerie Otani's Voices of Remembrance, the public art for this MAX station, and it commemorates a much darker episode in the Expo Center's history. From the local arts agency's description of the piece:

Five cedar gates commemorate the site where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. Stainless steel tags in the shape of tags people were required to wear, create sound giving voice to this history.

There are numerous accounts on the net about Oregon's deportations and the Expo Center's role in them, including articles at the Oregon Historical Society, OPB, BlueOregon, & Portland IndyMedia. The latter two include a survey of 1942 news stories from the Oregonian. I was thinking of doing that myself but I'd recommend reading those accounts instead. Japanese internment was a national shame; these articles point our our particular local shame: The unseemly enthusiasm Portland brought to the task, and the fact that almost nobody spoke out against the deportations. There are probably still a few people around who spent World War II rounding up law-abiding citizens, or guarding the camps, or stamping transit orders in the internment bureaucracy, although of course nobody will admit to it now.

There's also a good article about the gates at UltraPDX by artist Linda Wysong. (The article link goes to a Wayback Machine copy of the piece, as the UltraPDX site seems to be offline right now.)

This is not Portland's only monument to this ugly historical episode -- there's also the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Waterfront Park, as well as a few references along the "festival streets" in Chinatown. I think this one is by far the most effective of the lot, however. Next time you're at the Expo Center, take a moment to stop and look, and think about what happened here.

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