A complex past
The collective story of the Portland Expo Center and the land it sits upon is an important lens that Metro is applying throughout the project.
The Portland Expo Center and land it rests upon have a complex past that has touched the lives of many Portlanders and visitors throughout its history. These stories range from despair and loss to joy and celebration.
Pre-development history: Indigenous land management
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have lived in relation with the landscape for their livelihood, cultures and traditions. Prior to colonization, the land that the Expo Center is built upon was part of the active floodplain of the Columbia River. The land was previously part of a dynamic and complex network of wetlands and river channels supporting diverse plants and animals native to the region. These productive habitats provided First Foods significant to Indigenous people and their ways of life.
The lands at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers have been a major crossroads for the economic, social and political relations between Indigenous people, bands and Tribes for millennia. The rivers were frequently traveled by canoe for trade and the pursuit of Indigenous lifeways.
This way of life changed with colonial settlement of the west and what is now known as Oregon and the greater Portland metropolitan region. The land Expo sits upon today is not far from where some of the region’s earliest contact was made between the Native populations and European traders, explorers and missionaries.
Non-Indigenous people brought diseases that devastated many Indigenous villages and communities, while government worked to free as much land as possible for white settlement through treaty negotiations, conflict and forced removal.
In the last century, urban development and industrialization of the Columbia River through the construction of dams and dikes has altered the river and ecosystem impacting First Foods critical to Indigenous ways of life. Despite this, Tribes and Indigenous people have maintained connection to their homelands and resources which are integral to their culture, traditions and way of life.
1920s to 1950s: Pacific International Livestock Association
The original Expo complex was constructed as livestock exhibition halls by the Pacific International Livestock Association in 1921. Three years later, the original buildings burned to the ground but were rebuilt in 1925. To this day, Halls A and B continue as 84,000 square feet of rentable space.
Expo served the North Portland Stockyards and nearby meat processing plants through the 1950s as a livestock exposition center, cattle grading center, auction facility and venue for first-class rodeos. In the 1930s, it was the largest livestock exhibition center on the West Coast.
May 1942 to September 1942: Japanese incarceration center
During World War II, the Portland Expo Center temporarily ceased operation as a livestock exposition facility and was turned into a detention center. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, permitting the exclusion of any person from a designated military area, but this was specifically used on the West Coast to target people of Japanese ancestry. Local leaders transformed the complex into the Portland Assembly Center. This temporary shelter unjustly incarcerated 3,676 Japanese Americans before their transfer to concentration camps in Idaho at Minidoka, and California at Tule Lake.
Throughout the four months, men, women and children endured living conditions similar to livestock who had previously occupied the halls. Families lived in open stalls that were built with plywood where the stench of manure was pervasive. They were given a cot and a mattress sheet that they had to stuff with straw. There was no privacy as they were living, eating, sleeping, and showering in communal spaces.
Allowed to take only what they could carry, the majority of the people lost everything – businesses, homes, property and livelihoods. A few were fortunate to have circumstances that allowed them to return after the war to businesses and homes. Some of their descendants continue operating farms throughout the Willamette Valley and Eastern Oregon today.
Portland artist Valerie Otani designed Voices of Remembrance, an art installation that stands at the entrance to the Portland Expo Center from the MAX Yellow Line station. Family identification tags that were used during the war are featured in this art installation to represent the same number of Japanese Americans incarcerated at the Portland Assembly Center here during WWII.
May 1948: Vanport flood
In 1942, the Kaiser Company built the City of Vanport to house WWII defense workers and their families. It was located adjacent to the Expo Center site on land that is now Delta Park and restored wetlands. At its height it housed 40,000.
Unlike Portland, which was heavily redlined to exclude Black residents, Vanport had a significant Black population. It also housed many Indigenous people who, along with others at Vanport, worked at the Kaiser shipyards. Although Vanport was racially segregated in many ways, the schools were integrated, and were the first in Oregon to hire Black teachers.
On Memorial Day 1948, Vanport flooded when the dike separating it from the Columbia River broke, despite government assurances that the dike was stable. The floodwaters destroyed the city. About 18,500 people were displaced – including roughly 6,300 Black residents – and at least 15 people died. This mass displacement of Black people, combined with Portland’s racist housing policies, put strain on the few neighborhoods in Portland where Black people were allowed to live.
1959: Oregon Centennial Exposition and International Trade Fair
In 1959, the Portland Expo Center was selected to host the Oregon Centennial Exposition and International Trade Fair, which commemorated 100 years of statehood. Over 100 days, nearly 1.5 million people visited the expo and fair, which included 65 acres of exhibits and entertainment along the Columbia River. Attractions included the Gayway Amusement Park, International Garden of Tomorrow, Adventureland, Indian Village, and Frontier Village, where visitors watched daily gunfights modeled after the Old West of 1870.
1960 to 1990s: Multnomah County Fair and exhibition
As the livestock industry began to shift, North Portland was zoned into commercial and residential neighborhoods. In 1965, Multnomah County purchased the facility and a year later, consolidated its operations with the county fair, which had been operating at a site in Gresham.
In 1970, Expo hosted the first Multnomah County Fair on its grounds and continued to do so until early 1990. Consumer/trade shows gained popularity and became a primary focus of the center. Portland Meadows Racetrack was also operated by Expo which grew in popularity as well. By 1990, the lack of capital investment by its owners presented the community with a series of aged buildings unable to compete with other, newer facilities such as the Oregon Convention Center.
1994 to 2004: Metro reinvestment and revitalization
In 1994, Multnomah County transferred ownership of the Portland Expo Center to Metro regional government, and in 1997, Metro, through its Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission, began a steady tenure of strong business leadership and capital investments. Hall E, a new 108,000 square foot exhibition space, offering modern amenities and lobby/meeting rooms, opened in 1997, allowing Expo to position itself as the largest consumer show complex on the West Coast. Its inaugural event welcomed nearly 425,000 visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling America Exhibit.
2004 to present: Expo competes as a leader in sustainability
In 2003 and 2014, studies were conducted to help create a long-term capital plan and sustainable funding for the 53-acre site. Suggested plans included demolishing original halls A, B, and C and building a new Hall C that mirrored Hall E. These suggestions were not implemented due to a lack of funding and further highlighted the need for a comprehensive re-development plan that included funding sources for the necessary upgrades.
The Portland Expo Center became the northernmost destination on greater Portland’s light rail train (called Metropolitan Area Express or “MAX”) with the opening of the MAX Yellow Line in 2004. Long-range regional transit plans call for an extension of the Yellow Line past Expo and across the Interstate Bridge linking Oregon and Washington.
In the meantime, Expo continues to serve as one of the premier destinations for corporate meetings, special events and large consumer/trade shows on the west coast. It was designated “Recycle at Work” certified by the City of Portland and consistently meets stringent recycling/diversion goals each year. The Portland Expo Center also has the largest stormwater green wall in the country, treating 10,000+ cubic feet of runoff.
2019 marked the beginning of Metro’s current work on re-imagining the future of Expo and what a re-development might look like.