We would have moved to Eugene a year earlier had Peggy been able to find work at Sacred Heart Medical Center (I did property maintenance and assumed I could find a job anywhere). As we sat in Fresno (see two posts back) with Peggy’s job running out, she called Sacred Heart to ask about job openings. The news was encouraging, so we drove up for an interview, and she was hired as an ICU nurse. Within weeks, we rented an apartment; flew to Mississippi to sell our house; loaded our possessions into a U-Haul; and moved to Oregon at the hospital’s expense.
When we arrived in ‘86, Eugene had a large hippie population and called itself the “Berkeley of the North” and the “Tie-Dye Capital of the World.” Near where we now live is the site on which Eugene’s founder, Eugene Skinner, built a cabin when he arrived in 1846 with 1,200 other settlers. During the next decade, 20,000 people came to the Willamette Valley, most of them over the famed Oregon Trial. By then, 92% of the indigenous Kalapuya had died of settler-borne diseases and their survivors imprisoned on distant reservations where their tribal identity was lost through intermarriage with other tribes. I joined two lodges that Skinner had belonged to (the Freemasons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows—IOOF)—and searched the minutes without finding a single mention of the plight of the Kalapuyas.
Upon our arrival, Eugene was home to communes, the Hemlock Society, the University of Oregon, and a national polyfidelity group. City buses were new to me, and I got a kick out of bussing to whatever classes interested me at Lane Community College, and I worked at the University of Oregon as liaison between the university and a building contractor. During our first year in Eugene, we lived in two apartments and bought a house. I had only known two foreigners in Mississippi, but, because of the University of Oregon, they were common here, and so it was that Peggy and I had a delightful Saudi roommate followed by a disagreeable Bosnian roommate.
Most of the Eugenians I met weren’t born here, and I found that they discussed their shrinks and support groups as casually as Mississippians did their preachers. In another reversal, I met people who embraced atheism, Bahai, Buddhism, Sikhism, New Thought, nature worship, and Wicca. An avid baker, I discovered flours that were new to me (spelt, kamut, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and amaranth), and I even found grits (a Southern staple) in a heartier form called polenta.
Most cars had bumper stickers promoting liberal, anarchistic, vegetarian, and/or environmentalist values, although I would occasionally see “Loggers Are An Endangered Species Too,” or “Ted Kennedy’s Car Has Killed More People than My Gun.” Street demonstrations abounded, as did Volkswagen vans painted with trees, rainbows, unicorns, and peace symbols. The Grateful Dead performed yearly, and with them came the Deadhead Invasion consisting of thousands of blissed-out freaks who promptly emptied local food banks.
The annual Oregon Country Fair with its drugs, nudity, wild costumes, and painted bodies, epitomized Eugene’s anything goes mentality, and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, made the news with asinine speeches, including one in which he encouraged a high school audience to smoke pot. The Saturday Market featured local artists and craftspeople, but the California Invasion—aka the Californicators—had yet to run up home prices and imbue Eugene with a Middle America mentality that their predecessors came here to escape. Olympic track and field trials were—and are—often held in Eugene (aka TrackTown USA), and it was here that Bill Bowerman used a waffle iron to create the sole of the world’s first Nike.
Memories of protests against the War in Vietnam—including burning the records at a local draft board—were still fresh, as was the Weather Underground, two members of which were arrested separately after my arrival. One of the two, Silas Bissell, was convicted of firebombing an ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) center and the other, Katherine Power, of participating in a bank robbery in which a guard was machine-gunned. Both had lived respectable lives in Eugene, Bissell as a physical therapist, and Power as co-owner of the popular Napoli Restaurant.
In the ‘90s, many of Eugene’s anarchists and environmentalists endorsed violence to combat capitalistic exploitation, and so it was that they vandalized vehicles, smashed store windows, attacked the police, burned a ski lodge, twice firebombed SUVs at Romania Chevrolet, toppled a fire tower, freed animals at a fur farm, vandalized a furniture store during its yearly “leather sale,” burned a lumber company, disabled high-transmission lines, sabotaged logging equipment, vomited on Eugene’s mayor at a city council meeting, fire-bombed the Oakridge Ranger Station, placed bombs inside a tanker truck at Tyee Oil, and vandalized a modest home in a rundown neighborhood because its owner had committed the crime of gentrification by repainting.
Although some of these crimes were committed elsewhere, Eugene was nonetheless the hub from which many militants operated. Mayor Jim Torrey called his city “The Anarchist Capital of the United States,” and invited their representatives to meet with him for an hour (they spent the hour silently glaring). Eugene’s reign of terror only ended when an FBI investigation resulted in prison sentences for ten men and nine women.* Here’s the Register-Guard bio of Jeff Luers, Eugene’s best known anarchist, who, at age 21, received a 23-year sentence for burning vehicles and planting bombs. https://www.registerguard.com/article/20140406/news/304069982.
Since my arrival, Eugene has come to suffer from the problems that characterize many American cities. When I arrived in 1986, cars were excluded from several downtown blocks, which was a charming area with playful statuary, quaint shops, open-air restaurants, galleries featuring local artists, and hanging baskets with cascading petunias. Then, activist bureaucrats sent in the bulldozers, and when the dust cleared, the pedestrian mall had been reopened to cars, and the small shops and restaurants replaced by multi-story apartment buildings reminiscent of Communist Romania. The shoppers, strollers, and diners took their business to the suburbs, and in their place were muggers, vandals, addicts, belligerent drunks, aggressive panhandlers, paranoid schizophrenics, gangs of shoplifters, and lowlifes that congregate in front of businesses and harass customers.
Thanks to activist bureaucrats, Eugene now has the highest per capita homeless population in the country.* Large city parks house hundreds of campers, making them off-limits to those whose taxes paid for their creation and continue to pay for their maintenance. Camping on sidewalks and in vehicles is still a crime, but the police forward complaints to a Catholic charity that has no enforcement power and is only interested in helping the campers. My neighbors and I clear our neighborhood of needles, liquor bottles, and fast-food wrappers. More puzzling is the amount of usable food, clothes, blankets, and foam mattresses, that the homeless throwaway. The news media claims that one in five Eugenians go to bed hungry, yet Oregon’s poor tend toward obesity, and the state announced last week that the impoverished can now use the “Oregon Trail Card” (a government-funded debit card) to shop at yuppie markets which are unaffordable to many people.
I’ll end on an up-note by mentioning that lawyers for twenty-one high school students entered Eugene’s Federal District Courthouse this month to ask judge Ann Aiken to allow a suit that was instituted six years ago to finally go to trial. If that suit prevails, the federal government’s support of the fossil fuel industry will be declared un-Constitutional in that it conflicts with the right to a life-sustaining environment.***
A final interesting link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_activism_in_Eugene,_Oregon.