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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 6.26.08

 



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Off-Track Town

The unofficial Olympic guide to the real Eugene 

By Alan Pittman

With an estimated 15,000 visitors descending on Eugene for the Olympic Trials, the Chamber of Commerce types are churning out glossy guides to our fair city. 

But Eugene is a lot more interesting and colorful than what you’ll find in the slick brochures. In a slant towards balance, here’s an unofficial guide to the alternative, real side of Eugene. Eugene’s a great town, but it’s not all roses. Maybe airing some dirty laundry in front of guests will spark embarrassment that induces change.

1. Dogs, Skateboards and ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ , 13th and Alder

The signs on 13th just west of campus ban skateboards, dogs and seemingly the people who “remain.” The signs date back to 1996 when police sweeps arrested more than 100 transients, hippies and homeless people along 13th after a few businesses complained. A homeless activist called the police targeting of young and poor people “ethnic cleansing.”

2. Frog , 13th and Kincaid

With a rubber chicken under his arm, Frog sells his homemade joke books on 13th Avenue near the UO. The city tried to stop him, wasting piles of money on legal work. But in 1994 the Oregon Supreme Court ruled for Frog, aka David Miller, and free speech.

3. Vietnam Protests, 13th and University

Massive protests during the Vietnam War lead to the permanent closure of 13th Avenue through campus to car traffic. At one point 300 police and National Guard troops with clubs and tear gas battled thousands of demonstrators. Anti-war protesters torched the ROTC building

and bombed the PLC faculty office building.

4. UO Activists, 15th and Agate

With the state spending billions on prisons, the UO ranks on national lists as a third-tier university. But Mother Jones ranked the UO, which hosts the huge Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the Knight Law School every year,

as number one for campus political activism. 

5. Field Burning, Hayward Field

In 1974 track legend Steve Prefontaine was coughing up blood after running through field-burning smoke at a race at Hayward Field. Eugeneans have fought to ban the pollution from industrial grass seed farmers for three decades without success, but farmers have agreed to not burn during the Trials. The valley’s huge grass industry has also made Eugene one of the worst places in the nation for seasonal allergies.

6. Segregation, 17th and Agate

Three years ago the Eugene school superintendent reported that the district’s school choice system had resulted in segregation by race and class that left many neighborhood schools “browner and poorer.” Suburban flight and a graying population have also affected neighborhood schools. Condon School across from Hayward Field was one of many closures. 

7. Ecotage, Walnut and Franklin

In 2000 activists torched three trucks at the Romania dealership to protest the gas guzzlers’ environmental impact. In 2001, 35 more SUVs were lit up. This arson was one of many acts of environmentally motivated sabotage throughout the West, including the burning of a Vail ski lodge. In the last year, the Bush administration has sent a dozen activists, most from or with links to Eugene, to prison for what they allege are acts of “ecoterrorism.” 

8. Riverfront at Risk, South of Autzen footbridge

What a lovely park. But the UO says the riverfront natural area near campus isn’t a park at all but a “research park” that the UO wants to fill with corporate offices and parking lots.

9. Hospital?, Hilyard and 13th

PeaceHealth will soon move most of its monopolistic downtown hospital to a field on the far north edge of Springfield. The move may leave south Eugene heart attack victims 20-plus minutes away from a major trauma center, medical bills even higher and the city suffering from yet another downtown business moving to the suburbs. 

10. Beer Riots, 14th and Ferry

Drunk students burned furniture and signs in the street, chanting “U-S-A” during riots involving 1,800 students, thrown bottles and clouds of tear gas in 2002. Sounds like a scene from the 1978 movie Animal House, filmed nearby at the UO.

11. Pre’s Rock, Birch and Skyline 

Track legend Steve Prefontaine died here when his car rolled. Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman helped inspire Nike, a corporation that made billions for Phil Knight and other investors. Prefontaine lived in a trailer park near the railroad tracks.

12. Nike Sweatshops , 13th and Moss

Some of the UO was built by Nike profits from exploiting third-world Asians paid less than a dollar a day for grueling work. Nike billionaire Phil Knight has contributed an estimated $230 million to his alma mater, some for academic buildings but mostly for lavish sports facilities, including plans for the world’s most expensive basketball arena here. Critics charge the money has allowed him to dictate UO decisions around workers’ rights, coach firings and construction contracting.

13. Where Is Downtown?, Broadway and Olive

Urban renewal in the early 1970s destroyed much of Eugene’s historic downtown, leaving behind concrete parking garages and empty pits. Retail flight to malls subsidized by freeways also helped kill downtown. Developers are currently working with the city on plans to fill the pits with high-rise housing and offices, but downtown still doesn’t have much of a there there (at least during the daytime hours).

14. Ugly City Hall , 8th and Pearl

The peeling wood bars on Eugene’s City Hall are so ugly that a councilor recently joked that the city ought to blow it up. In Eugene the unelected city manager holds most of the power in City Hall, which critics say is why the city has so many unsolved problems. 

15. Freeway Fights, 7th and I-105

In the 1970s the community fought plans by the city to build a freeway through the Washington-Jefferson neighborhood. Citizens managed to stop the I-105 freeway at 6th Avenue and caused the city to give up plans for other freeways in Eugene, including on Franklin Boulevard. More recently, citizens successfully fought plans for a freeway through the protected West Eugene Wetlands. 

16. No Trolley, 5th and Willamette

Eugene once had an extensive system of electric streetcars that today would have made it a top tourist attraction. But the city shut down the system in 1927 and paved over most of the tracks in favor of an extensive bus network, bike paths, cars and global warming. 

17. Tree Cathedrals, Broadway and Charnelton 

With eight months of rain, trees grow into green cathedrals here, and Eugene loves them. But the city government doesn’t always. After the city clearcut towering trees along 6th and 7th to speed cars through town, voters in 1984 passed a charter amendment banning such logging for street widening. In 1997 police showered tree sitters with dozens of cans of pepper spray when they tried to stop a clearcut for the Broadway Place development, sparking accusations oft orture from Amnesty International.

18. ‘Officer Blow Job’, 7th and Oak Courthouse

In 2004 Eugene police officer Roger Magaña was sentenced to 94 years for raping or sexually abusing more than a dozen women while on duty. Lawsuits later revealed that the city received numerous complaints about Magaña’s abuse over six years but did nothing to stop him.

19. Kesey Square, Broadway and Willamette

Local author Ken Kesey, famous for a book about insanity and for dropping acid, is memorialized in a statue here, reading to children. On May 30, the square was the site of police using Tasers on an anti-pesticide demonstrator, resulting in allegations of police brutality that are being investigated. Most Eugene demonstrations are anti-government in nature; ironically, the Taser victim was demonstrating in support of a local government ban on roadside spraying.

20. Saturday Market, Oak and 8th

Guidebooks like to describe Eugene as stuck in the 1960s counterculture, but Eugene’s college vs. timber town split is a lot more interesting than that. Downtown merchants once tried to shut it down, but the colorful Saturday Market remains one of Eugene’s best business incubators and tourist attractions. 

21. S.L.U.G. Queen, Willamette and 8th

Portland has a demeaning beauty contest for a Rose Queen. Eugene has S.L.U.G. Queens for its Eugene Celebration. They’re slimier, and in the hermaphroditic slug spirit, the “raining” queen doesn’t have to be female or male. But it’s a much more entertaining and healthy tradition.

22. Skinner Butte, 3rd and Skinner Butte Loop

In 1924 thousands of spectators lined downtown streets to watch a Ku Klux Klan parade downtown while a cross burned atop Skinner Butte, named for our town’s founder, Eugene Skinner. In 1964 a gravel company illegally installed a neon-lit concrete cross on the butte, sparking decades of litigation over the separation of church and state. In 1997 the cross was finally removed by order of a federal appeals court. Timber baron Stub Stewart funded an initiative to replace it with a giant American flag. 

23. Federal Courthouse Steps, 8th and Mill

When a haughty architect and federal officials thought they could build a shiny new courthouse without a wheelchair ramp here, they learned a lesson. Eugene cares about helping people with disabilities over their hurdles.

24. The Last Salmon , 16th and Willamette

Wild salmon once spawned thick in the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers. But after nine dams in the basin and decades of silt from clearcuts, now one of the only local places you’re likely to see wild salmon is a fish market like Newman’s. 

25. Riverfront Bike Trail 

Alton Baker Park riverside

Most of what’s been built in the Emerald City is “butt ugly,” as one local architect put it. But the city’s waterfront bike trail — looping 12 miles through parks and across five bike bridges — is a popular treasure. Eugene has twice as many bike commuters per capita as Portland. 

26. Nutria, Alton Baker Park

No, that’s not the biggest rat you’ve ever seen; that’s a nutria, a Brazilian native,  imported for its fur, that has run wild here. Eugene has lots of problematic invasive species including English ivy and at least four different varieties of yoga.

27. Diversity? Huh?, MLK Boulevard and Coburg

Eugene’s fight over whether to rename Centennial Boulevard after Martin Luther King drew national attention in 2003. This year’s attempts by Trials organizers to give diversity training to its volunteers also made headlines across the country. Although more than half of the athletes coming to the Olympic Trials are African American, only about 1 percent of Eugene’s population is black. Eugene is one of the whitest, least diverse cities in the nation. Eugene police are reportedly twice as likely to stop blacks or Latinos as whites, but the department denies racial profiling.

28. Grateful Dead, Autzen Stadium

Forget about the Ducks; Eugene’s many Deadheads know the stadium is most famous for all the jamming, twirling, trippy concerts the band played in Eugene.

29. ‘Anarchist Capital of the World’, Lincoln and 3rd

In 2000 Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey and the national media dubbed Eugene the “anarchist capital of the world.” It was mostly hype — only four of the 570 protesters arrested at the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle were from Eugene. But it did get a handful of local environmentalists a long interview on 60 Minutes. Rolling Stone hyped a coffee shop formerly located here as “ground zero for Eugene’s thriving anarchist population.”  

30. Whiteaker , 5th and Blair

This funky neighborhood has long been a center of Eugene’s counterculture. A state ballot measure to recriminalize possession of small amounts of pot failed by a wide margin throughout the city. In the Whiteaker precinct nine out of 10 people voted against it. 

31. Oregon Country Fair

Trackheads who skip town quickly after the Trials will miss a huge party July 11-13 at the Oregon Country Fair just outside of Eugene. The countercultural celebration of music, theatrics, crafts and food has brought tens of thousands of revelers to a magical oak woodland for three

decades.

32. Tree Sit/Road Blockade

Eugene activists take their trees seriously. In 1995 they blocked a logging road near Warner Creek for 11 months until the Clinton administration called off logging the area. Tree sits crop up in the old-growth forests around Eugene almost every year, with protesters living high in the trees to keep loggers from cutting them down.