transpiring vice

Michael Jones (pictured off to the left) does not believe in ghosts. “I can’t explains any of the things you will see today,” Jones explains. “What you believe is what you get.”

Jones is a tour guide for the Cascade Geographic Society, which offers a history lesson about Portland’s “Forbidden history only talked about in whispers,” Jones explains. On a Friday afternoon, Jones, who is a Professor at Portland State University, is lecturing about the Shanghai Tunnels, an underground network of catacombs running beneath Portland’s Old Town.

The tunnels were used to funnel able-bodied men onto ships against their will, where they would be brought out to sea and forced into indentured servitude. The practice was known as Shanghaiing, because the men were brought to the Far East, continued unabated between 1850 and 1941. “Up to 3000 men were Shanghaied every year,” Jones explains. Women faired no better and were forced into prostitution, a practice known as white slavery.

The tour paints a less than rosy picture of the Rose City, which turned a blind eye to the vice transpiring in the dusty, subterranean basements throughout Old Town.

As we tour the holding pens and tunnels leading towards the waterfront, one cannot help but get chocked up. Maybe the dusty air and dim lights are to blame but down beneath dance clubs and trendy bars humans were sold like cattle and as I feel the metal bars of a cell my thoughts drift to the men who scratched at these same bars years ago. The tour would end in a half hour but for those men this cell was the closest thing to freedom they might ever see again. Although the tour cost $17, years ago people paid for this tour with their lives.

After everything was said and done I asked Jones how the city could allow this practice to go on for so long. “The city turned their backs because the people being victimized were the dregs of society,” Jones explains. I took the long way home, passing homeless people smoking Midnight Special tobacco and junkies shooting up within sight of afternoon joggers. It made some sense how easy it is to label and ignore undesirables. No one noticed those two men slamming heroin but it was their indifference I found most interesting.