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A Walk in Needle Park

On the eve of the Whiteaker Block Party, a look at the rise and fall of the neighborhood’s Scobert Gardens

Bob Emmons looks like he wants to spit.

Standing on sun-scorched grass in Scobert Gardens Park, Emmons is hardly able to endure the blighted landscape, littered with empty beer cans, cigarette packs and pizza boxes. Shoeless daysleepers stretch out flat in swaying blots of shade. Summer breezes tumbleweed a plastic grocery bag across the dusty lawn and leave it at his feet. 

“It’s painful to see,” he says.

Emmons was one of about a dozen neighborhood volunteers who brought Scobert Gardens to life more than 35 years ago. In less than a decade they managed to turn a neglected acre of overgrown farmland in the heart of the Whiteaker into a park, lush with native fruit trees and other appropriate flora, all on a shoestring.

And for a time, it worked. 

“I wish to God you could see what this place was like,” Emmons says, exasperated. “It was a rich place to be. It was fulfilling to experience.”

Protecting Scobert from neighborhood troublemakers, careless tramps and bureaucratic mismanagement was a constant struggle, though. And as Emmons and most of the other park’s stewards moved away or lost interest over time, the place gradually went to the dogs. And it hasn’t bounced back.

With his hands, Emmons frames an “utterly sterile” corner of the park that was once shaded by pear and plum trees. He points to an ugly wooden fence scrawled with artless graffiti where 20 years ago there was a row of primordial-looking rhododendrons transplanted from Hendricks Park.

The city has long since ripped out swaths of healthy greenery in order to discourage drug sales and drug use in the park. To make Scobert less welcoming to vagrants and homeless folks, the city did away with most of the seating.

“Everything here looks unhappy to me,” Emmons says.

When crews in the early ’80s began to hack apart the monstrous knot of weeds and blackberry brambles that stretched taller than most houses on the block, the plan was simple: Build a viable pocket park that interfered as little as possible with the site’s “original pastoral character.”

The Scobert Park Committee, which Emmons helped lead, spent most of its allotted $30,000 in block grant money hiring contractors to level the plot and install lighting and irrigation.

Volunteer elbow grease produced nearly every other park improvement. 

Back then, Emmons says, the Whiteaker had a sturdier collaborative spirit, and city leaders were more willing to work with motivated neighborhood groups.

Emmons, founder of the environmental nonprofit LandWatch Lane County, took a maintenance job with the city’s parks department in 1983, a few years after forming the Scobert Park Committee.

As the pieces came together and Scobert became an inviting place, the park attracted increasing numbers of homeless folks, druggies and vagrants fresh off the Union Pacific rail line, Emmons says. Add to that belligerent drunks from Tiny’s across the street and droves of punks that spilled over from the now-defunct anarchist hangout around the corner, Icky’s Teahouse.

Mayor Kitty Piercy, who lives two blocks away, says prostitution and human trafficking have also been a problem at Scobert.

“That poor park,” laments landscape architect Emily Proudfoot. 

A park planner with the city of Eugene for the past 17 years, Proudfoot says the city is stuck playing defense in Scobert Gardens, where the problems are too severe for Eugene’s “super stressed” parks department, citing costly hazmat cleanup for the profusion of hypodermic needles and human feces that turns up there.

Proudfoot won’t say Scobert is the city’s worst park, but it nears the top of her list for a redesign because it is “extremely rundown.”

“For many, many years we’ve been trying to make the park more welcoming to everybody, but it’s been difficult. We’re chronically managing this thing,” she says.

In February, Eugene’s parks and recreation service revealed that it’s $24 million behind in deferred maintenance — meaning Scobert’s not alone; there’s a lot of repair work in parks across the city that’s not getting done.

To make matters worse, Eugene’s parks are a common backdrop for social issues, namely homelessness and drug use. Whenever the city ramps up enforcement, however, the problems only “ping pong around the system” and pop up someplace else, Proudfoot says.

In a misguided effort to mitigate the whack-a-mole effect in Scobert, the city tried, in the mid-’80s, selling off pieces of the park that were tricky for police to keep tabs on.

Emmons says the city violated its own codes when it began negotiations over the sale of Scobert’s community garden area without first publishing notice or producing a written proposal announcing its plans to sell.

Regardless, the sale never went through.

In the autumn of 1996 the city put up a fence to keep riff raff from “shitting, shooting up and screwing,” in Emmons’ words, in the bushes along Scobert’s back wall. Someone tore it down a week later. Depending on whom you ask, it was either an act of vandalism or civil disobedience.

Hefty steel barriers went up again four years later, and remain to this day.

Proudfoot says she isn’t thrilled about the fence, but says it’s a necessary public safety measure for the time being.

The fence “chopped off a whole section of the park,” Proudfoot says. “And it works, sort of.” 

Whether or not it works depends upon what it’s meant to accomplish.

Emmons says he felt conflicted about seeing the fence go up. On the one hand, he hated seeing the gardens behind prison bars. On the other, it kept the plants safe.

Over the years, he says he responded to numerous calls from Scobert neighbors at all hours — even while off duty — asking him to break up noisy fights, haul slack-spined addicts and mean-spirited inebriates out of the bushes.

The thing that seems to bother him most, however, is seeing the plant life abused. And since there’s nothing worth protecting there anymore, Emmons says he fails to see the point of the fence.

In 1995, Emmons rented out his house on 5th Avenue and moved to quieter zones many miles out of city limits. Four years later, he quit the parks department. 

“I did what I could while I was here,” he says. 

Emmons doesn’t drop in on Scobert much anymore. In hindsight, the venture might seem Sisyphean to him; all told, Emmons alone sank 15 years and countless hours into planning, taming, planting, grooming and defending the Whiteaker’s first community garden, only to have it reversed by decades of neglect, abuse and short-sighted planning — or total lack thereof.

He’s at a loss while gazing through the bent steel struts that bisect Scobert, separating dreary park from straggly, litter-strewn jungle. He thinks for a second about The World Without Us, the 2007 nonfiction book by Alan Weisman about what would happen to the cities we built if humankind suddenly up and disappeared one day.

“It’s a symbol, a sad commentary on society,” he says, matter of factly. “It’s cold-blooded.”