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Unbranding Kesey Square

No one spent $1 million to call it Kesey Square

Let’s see, what should we call Kesey Square? Last week the Eugene City Council voted 4-3 to form a committee to explore other names for the popular square and gave it 45 days to make a recommendation. 

Apparently, like the majority of the public, the councilors weren’t all that sanguine about the present, official, boring, anodyne name of Broadway Plaza either. But didn’t they skip a key step in the process if they were serious about renaming?

With something as thoroughly branded in the public mind as Kesey Square, wouldn’t you need to mount a serious unbranding process first?  And how would one go about that?  It reminds me of the George Lakoff book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. There would need to be a serious campaign that told people: Don’t think of Kesey Square.

It turns out that there are rebranding strategies that could be employed. In commercial advertising, the idea is to back away from the product’s present focus and describe it in more general terms. That would mean moving from the focus on Kesey himself to something more general, like Broadway Plaza, or something new and fresh like Willamette Plaza.

The second strategy is a bit more drastic. You have to kill Ken Kesey so that there is a natural revulsion created that unpopularizes the present name. As they say in the popular action game, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, “You can’t unbrand people but you can just shank them when grabbing them or send them against a much more powerful orc captain/warchief.”

Ad hominem attacks, of course, aren’t pretty. And in this case, they would probably just reveal more about the detractor’s ulterior motives, literary ignorance and hang-ups than sully the famous storyteller. 

I asked someone who knew Kesey what she thought Ken Kesey would think about all this, and she said,

“I think Ken would be most impressed with how naturally the naming of the square occurred, how spontaneous it was, and how sticky it seems to be. I don’t think he’d care at all about the downtown politics that are behind the naming resistance. He’d be personally flattered, of course, but mostly impressed with the unconscious authenticity of the naming process. The name just happened. No one spent a $1 million to impress the name of Kesey Square on people's minds.

“But even more important, I think he’d be especially proud of the way Peter Helzer’s sculpture has portrayed him. It shows him at his best, and it is easy to admire this older, mature Kesey, who cares deeply about stories and storytelling, passing that love on to his grandchildren —  and by extension, to us all. There is a charm about the moment that steals into people’s hearts. And so it’s no wonder they call it Kesey Square.”

What do you think, I had to ask, Kesey would have had to say about the committee being appointed to confer and recommend about the square’s name?

“He’d probably sympathize, remembering all the blind alleys he went down in the struggle to get to the true and authentic in his writing. But then he’d unavoidably have to bring up snipe hunts and how the young apprentice would be asked to fetch a left-handed screwdriver. If they cared what people really thought, he’d say, they’d put it out there for a vote.”

Jerry Diethelm is an architect, landscape architect, planning & urban design consultant and a professor emeritus of of Landscape Architecture and Community Service at the University of Oregon.