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Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool

In search of a haircut, I found Analog, Eugene’s favorite barber shop according to Yelp. Also a tattoo parlor. Upstairs, the walls are lined with LP album covers of the 60s, 70s and 80s, with good tunes on the sound system. But it was too busy that morning, with a long wait.

A few blocks away Anderson’s took me right away. They had free IPA on tap for customers. “The Big Lebowski” was playing on their large-screen TV, next to the small wire-frame house where one barber’s small dog dwells. All very homey and laid back. Everyone there was relaxed and chatty. My barber scalped me proper but it wasn’t cheap. Nothing much is here these days.

Eugene remains cool, as cool as it was forty-odd years ago, when hippies roamed the earth in great profusion, the city pioneered environmental awareness and very early touted the fitness benefits of running and biking. Eugene’s extensive network of parks linked by myriad bike paths testify to the city’s ongoing green commitment.

The Lane County bus system is another wonder, user-friendly and comprehensive, providing mobility throughout the city and county at low cost to riders who otherwise could not get around. Disabled, elderly and economically marginal folks make use of the generous passes the bus offers. Amtrak also has a station downtown. You really can survive here without a car.

Tie-dyed styles and values persist in this city of 156,000+ people – Oregon’s second-largest – as visitors can confirm by a stroll through the city center. There are stores with hip-cute names like “Kitsch-22” and ads for schools like Saraha, where children in grades K-8 can combine “western academics with Buddhist values.” But darker shadows from those halcyon hippie days also haunt this city.

“Why are there so many psychotic schizophrenics in the streets of Eugene?” my adolescent son wanted to know. A sizable cadre of burn-outs, young and old, are camped in doorways and on street corners, especially near Broadway and Willamette, some of them panhandling, others shouting at one another or at no one. These kinds of castaway casualties used to wash up on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue or New York’s now gentrified Tompkins Square back in the day.

Cultural tensions in Eugene have long existed among the University of Oregon students, the liberal Eugene establishment and the farmers, loggers and other blue-collar locals in and near the city. In 1975 frat-boy consciousness (or lack thereof) was celebrated in Animal House, filmed in part on the U of O campus. With a current enrollment of more than 24,000 students, double its 1970s size, the school continues to exert a powerful community influence.

Town-gown tensions are evident in the city’s architecture. As the university continues to grow, Eugene’s traditional clapboard cottages, some with elaborate gardens, are replaced by large apartment blocks designed as student housing. Some of these complexes are six or eight stories high and up to a city block long. Far from being alarmed by this development, the current Eugene Chamber of Commerce home page celebrates the construction of a downtown high-rise monolith that will raise the city’s tax base, if not its aesthetic appeal.

Ken Kesey bridged those cultural divides in high style. Kesey grew up in a working-class family in Springfield, Eugene’s down market urban sibling across the river. A varsity wrestler at the University of Oregon (Class of 1957), Kesey became a Stanford grad student, psychedelic voyager and smashing literary success. After writing two widely popular novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion), he succumbed to the siren songs of sex, drugs and the road. Sobering up in jail, Kesey retreated with his family to Springfield, and became an adjunct professor at his alma mater.

But Kesey, who now has his own statue and square in Eugene, has been supplanted in the local mythos by a more contemporary model of success, Phil Knight, founder and longtime CEO of Nike. A U of O varsity runner (class of 1959), Knight also went on to Stanford, to the business school. He and his U of O track coach, Bill Bowerman, began importing Asian running shoes, modifying their design, at one point improving their tread with a waffle iron, eventually turning their brand into a mega Wall Street phenomenon and making Knight extremely wealthy.

With a fortune estimated at 25 billion dollars, Knight has made his own architectural contributions to the Eugene skyline, endowing the University of Oregon with a number of high-profile facilities. Knight gave $70 million for a football performance facility, $60 million to help renovate the stadium, another $60 million for an academic center, $10 million toward a lacrosse field and $100 million for a basketball arena. He also donated $100 million to the Oregon Health Sciences University Cancer Institute, since renamed in his honor. And in 2012 he gave $125 million to the university to advance cardiovascular research.

In part, Eugene’s new prosperity is spill-over from the gentrification now gripping much of the U.S. West Coast. One Silicon Valley denizen of San Francisco objected in the newspaper to the visible presence of hungry, dirty people in “his” streets, as the city becomes economically impossible for many long-term residents impacted by rising rents. Nearby Santa Cruz – a place akin to Eugene – has suffered a similar fate. Longtime residents there have been forced from their homes into their cars, or out of town.

Seattle and Portland are feeling that same pinch. It’s trickle-down economics with a vengeance.

A July 24 story in Eugene’s Register-Guard noted that housing prices here have reached an all-time high, thanks to a record low supply of homes. Not coincidentally, the newspaper noted in August that trespassers camping on private lands are a big headache for police.

“The officers said the illegal campers they send to the Lane County Jail often don’t remain there long because the number of beds is limited and criminal trespass is a low-level offense. Issuing citations to the illegal campers doesn’t change their behavior much, as they don’t show up to court, the officers said. But if cited, they will move on to a different location. ‘It’s chasing things in a circle,’ [one officer] said.”

Just as Phil Knight denies that his immoderate wealth is predicated on the exploitation of the Asian workers who assemble Nike products for slave wages, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce does not link the proliferation of blocky high-rises built on the graves of single-family homes with the illegal campers and trespassers on private and public lands, or in the city center: folks with nowhere to go.

Inevitably in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, among the first to be affected by higher living costs are racial minorities who have survived there in modest circumstances and now find themselves unable to bear the cost. The gentrification of San Francisco is also a whitening process, a racial homogenization that may remove some unsightly shabby humans from the pitiless gaze of upscale tech workers, but also denies those workers the rich cultural visual, artistic, musical, culinary and other contributions Black and Hispanic residents have long made. But because such losses are not easily quantifiable, the newer, well-off white residents may never realize what they are missing.

Thanks to Oregon’s peculiar racist history, the situation is different in Eugene. Recent census figures show the city’s racial make-up to be 85% White, 7 % Hispanic, 4% Asian and only 1 % Black. A recent article in Eugene Weekly by a Black former University of Oregon professor details her frustrating, frightening experiences with a stealthy but profound racial hostility underlying Eugene’s superficial amiability. Eugene’s newfound “prosperity” will not cause an exodus of racial minorities simply because few exist here.

Meanwhile, out in the Oregon woods, another sort of plague is on the march. The August 24 Register-Guard headline reads like the premise of an M. Night Shyamalan movie: “Forest Fungus advances in Coast Range.” Researchers found “a fungal disease known as Swiss needle cast… is stunting the growth” of Douglas fir trees, “causing an annual economic loss of $128 million.” Scientists theorize that climate change may be a catalyst.

“Oregon’s Douglas fir forests are so extensive in part because timberland owners over many decades have logged off other species and planted tracts with Douglas fir because of its commercial value.

“Researchers say planting tress of different species, such as Western hemlock, Western red cedar and Sitka spruce, in the most severe areas of the infection is one way to fight the spread. Using fungicides to fight the disease is not recommended…”

Money drove the decision to homogenize the forests, against the natural tendency of diverse species to populate any given habitat for their mutual benefit. At the risk of forcing an analogy where none exists, something akin to the massive blight of the Douglas fir may be happening to the economies of Eugene and other west coast cities. Hemlock, cedar and spruce are not obvious cash crops. But they may be needed to keep the Douglas fir from succumbing to a withering fate.

Money drives the high cost of housing, eliminating economic, racial and cultural minorities whose superficial worth may not be quantifiable. But homogenization has consequences, limiting the scope of discourse, bleaching out a culturally rich mix only available when different socio-economic groups interact. Familiarity may breed contempt, but willful ignorance breeds unreality and ineptitude.

The bio-diverse analogy should appeal especially to the green soul of Eugene. If their lovely, progressive haven for quirky bike riders, organic gardeners and rabid environmentalists becomes just another yuppie enclave, their loss will be inestimable. And irreversible.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, their government undertook massive modernization, replacing slums with a vertical city – tall blocks of residential flats, condo towers and elevated highways. In the 1980s, when the consequences of displacing traditional neighborhoods with monoliths became clear, Singapore shifted gears, opting for renovation and preservation of their historic Chinese-style living areas. Those areas exist now literally in the shadows of the towers, making their residents feel perhaps like specimens in a colonial museum exhibit for tourists. The rescue was simply too little, too late.

Has Eugene – surrounded now by typical American mall sprawl and cookie cutter suburban housing – already reached its tipping point? In the United States, when a city gets a reputation as hip or charming, it attracts new residents who want a piece of that life. Of course, the more people who come to share in the unique offerings of such a city, the more those offerings are diminished by traffic jams, rising prices, congestion and sprawl. Once you advertise the atmosphere there’s not much left to breathe. Just ask long-time residents of Austin, Texas.

It would be specious to characterize the profit motive as a kind of fungus. But any sort of value that metastasizes to the detriment of all others distorts the overall health of the environment. A sound economic basis for city government is necessary and admirable. But when money becomes the overriding motive for city management to the exclusion of everything else, then the very identity of that city – especially one as quirky and vulnerable as Eugene – becomes an endangered species.

Civic well-being is only partly a matter of financial stability. What makes Eugene special is not its resemblance to other American cities, but its tolerance, even its zeal, for the sorts of off-beat, unclassifiable energies that nourished the visionary prose of Ken Kesey and the entrepreneurial energy of Phil Knight.

Monuments to their memories invoke a colorful past that may elude a more prosperous present. Stickers that say “Keep Portland Weird” sell in stores there, but seem more epitaph than exhortation to action, testimony to an evanescent energy that cannot be mass produced or resurrected.

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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