Friday, April 5, 2013

Downtown Revitalization and the Fight for Public Spaces

A vibrant public space is essential to a healthy city center, and Downtown Eugene lacks a functional and frequented commons. Kesey Square, at the corner of Broadway and Willamette Streets, is publicly owned and centrally located downtown, but it has long been a neglected and underutilized plaza. Originally furnished with elevated terrace seating, and in later with years tables and chairs, it has stood bare for several years now. The seating in Kesey Square was removed by city staff, as were nearly all the benches throughout downtown, at the request of local business and property owners. The theory was that removing benches would discourage the homeless and transient population, especially street youth, from congregating in the square and throughout downtown.
Kesey Square stands nearly empty in the fall of 2011

Those populations have not left, and are still the subject of complaints and controversy. Removing all seating has not only failed in discouraging people from hanging out, but it has arguably exacerbated the problem. Not only do they still sit, but for lack of designated seating they sit anywhere and everywhere, especially in Kesey Square. People are often strewn about all over the ground throughout the square, surrounded by their belongings and interfering with pedestrian traffic. Those who live and work downtown often avoid walking through Kesey Square.
Street youth hang out in Kesey Square because they have nowhere else to go. Kesey Square is not designated a city park, and is therefore not governed by a 11pm curfew, which makes Kesey Square the only public space downtown where people are allowed to congregate 24-7.  Some of the youth who are fixtures in Kesey Square have been excluded from city parks by the police, others have been excluded from the library and/or the LTD station, and Kesey Square is literally the only place downtown they are allowed to “be”.
In addition to removing the seating, the City of Eugene has employed several strategies in recent years in order to discourage youth and transients from hanging out.  In June of 2010, the City launched a “Food Cart Pod” in Kesey Square with five food carts in the hopes that commerce would drive out the “undesirables”. However, a lack of customer traffic resulted in flat sales, and by the end of the summer, only one food cart remained. Other food carts came and went, but by the summer of 2011 there were only one or two food carts that set up with any regularity in Kesey Square, and only for a few hours each day, a few days a week. Other than that, the square usually stood empty save for the street kids, often sprawled out playing card games on the ground.
Those with nowhere else to go hanging out in Kesey Square

The weekly gathering that became the Kesey Square Revival emerged from a collective vision of what a common space in downtown Eugene could (and should) look like. A public plaza should be alive and thriving, with people eating lunch, making music, reading, playing chess, and meeting with friends. And as Ken Kesey himself once said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” We decided to manifest this vision.
On a beautiful Friday afternoon in early 2012, approximately fifty people spontaneously appeared in Kesey Square, bringing tables, chairs, board games, free food, music, street theater, and chalk art. We spent the afternoon interacting with the community, creating a space that was welcoming to everyone, whether housed, unhoused, or somewhere in between. The response to our presence was overwhelmingly positive, and as a result, we gathered at Kesey almost every Friday during the warm months of 2012.
Kesey Square Revival, February 3, 2012

We spent the year continually focused on integrating the downtown population as a whole and creating vibrant public space that focuses on community inclusion, positive energy, economic revitalization, and free expression. We attracted workers on their lunch break, neighborhood residents who were out for a walk, and random passersby who stopped simply based on the fact that something was going on in Kesey Square. We drew a mixed community into the square and created a positive atmosphere.  The same people who came to play chess and chat with friends also wanted to eat lunch in the square, and the two food carts benefited from our presence on Fridays.
Seniors playing Scrabble in Kesey Square

And during the course of that year, we watched as the corner of Broadway and Willamette transformed before our eyes. An arcade opened, and then a hip coffee shop. A movie theater and a pizza parlor were rumored to be in the works, rumors which have since been confirmed. The new LCC building rose from the ground a block away. Office workers were suddenly going in and out of the Woolworth Building and the Broadway Commerce Center. The signs of revitalization were stark and impressive.
However, we also noticed something else over the course of that year from the corner of Broadway and Willamette: an increased police presence, both bicycle and patrol officers who spent much of their time downtown engaging in patterns of harassment towards the “undesirables” downtown and enforcing ordinances intended to criminalize homelessness.  We watched every Friday as the police harassed, cited, and sometimes even arrested the young and unhoused for “crimes” such as sitting on a planter, leaning against a building, sitting on the sidewalk, or failing to cross the street at a right angle.
We watched as the “Downtown Guides” regularly approached groups of young people, obviously based on their appearance, and forced them to “move along” when their only “offense” was congregating in public space.  We noted that this enforcement was increasing as more businesses opened downtown, and we predicted that one of the effects of “revitalization” would be an intensified push to drive the “undesirables” from public space downtown. In November, the Kesey Square Revival decided to take the winter off, with the intention of gathering every Friday again come early spring, but downtown activists associated with the Kesey Square Revival maintained a connection with the square throughout the winter, further observing both signs of revitalization and oppression. 
Police and Downtown Guides in Kesey Square, September 2012. Officer Ellis drove the car into the square to scare away the homeless, and then hung out in the square with his car running for the next two hours in order to intimidate.

A few months ago, the City relaunched the Food Cart Pod in Kesey Square with four food carts. And a few weeks later, Kesey Square Revival officially started up again. We immediately noticed that not only were we not the only people in the square, but the square was quite crowded with commercial activity. There were people sitting at tables provided by the food cart vendors, and others waiting on line for food. We did not have room for the tables and chairs that we usually set up for the community due to the tables and chairs provided for the food carts. There were plenty of places for the customers to sit, but no space left for the rest of community to sit.
 When we returned the following Friday, we came upon the same scene. Tables and chairs set out for customers, people eating in the square, and little room for any other activities. In the meantime, community activists were planning events in the square on Fridays that coincided with the Revival and added to the crowd. On one Friday in early March, an anti-NDAA march proceeded to the square, with protesters in costumes that inevitably conflicted with the flow lunch crowd. When activists who were part of Nuclear Justice week arrived at Kesey Square on a beautiful Friday a week later to do tabling and outreach during lunchtime, the food cart owners could not hide their frustration. The conflict was obvious, and we had a feeling what was coming.
And sure enough, a few weeks later I was approached by one of the food cart vendors, who very politely but firmly let me know that the presence of the Kesey Square Revival was hurting the food cart sales, and that they would appreciate it if we didn’t encourage people to come down to the square on Fridays. He referenced a group who was tabling for nuclear justice and a lunchtime granola giveaway as examples of what was hurting their business.  He pointed out that in such a small square, it was hard for them to operate with our presence.
On one hand, it’s a great sign for commerce that there are finally enough people downtown during the lunch hour to sustain four food carts in a plaza. As a former part-owner of a food cart some years back that did not succeed downtown due to lack of business, I know full well how hard it is out there and I’m glad that the food carts in Kesey Square are enjoying success. They deserve it. But their prosperity is unfortunately directly connected to the City’s agenda of pushing the homeless out of downtown and inevitably has a detrimental effect on all who spend time downtown.
By successfully establishing four food carts in a plaza that’s less than a thousand square feet in area , they City has effectively taken the space away from the people as a commons. Kesey Square is the sole public plaza in downtown Eugene, and now it is crowded with food carts, with no room left for those engaged in non-commercial activities. Not only does this affect the downtown homeless and youth population, which already has nowhere to go, but it affects anyone who wishes to gather in Kesey to play chess, table or rally for a political cause, display or sell art, or just meet with friends. The food carts are not at fault. The City of Eugene is at fault, both for this decision as well as for years’ worth of decisions regarding public space downtown that have been detrimental to the overall population. 
Public space is for everyone, a fundamental concept that both City officials as well as the downtown property and business owners don’t seem to understand or care about. For years, both public and private interests have waged a war against the homeless downtown, criminalizing their existence and systematically pushing them from public space. In this case, in order to drive out those who the businesses consider undesirable, the city has commercialized Kesey Square at the expense of the overall population. The City talks about their role in “balancing the interests” between the business owners and the homeless, but not only does the City not seem to recognize that human rights ALWAYS outweigh economic interest, but any attempt of “balancing” on their part seems to weigh heavily in favor of the businesses. The commercialization of Kesey is a not only a significant loss (and abuse) of common space, but it signifies a renewed effort on the part of the City to “clean up” public spaces downtown, presumably to encourage further commercial revitalization.
We have been caught in the crosshairs of this effort, and while our instinct is to dig our heels in and exercise our First Amendment right to public space, in reality the situation requires a different approach. We wish to develop and retain positive relationships with those who work downtown, especially the food cart owners, and we don’t want to gather in Kesey Square if our presence directly interferes with their business. Additionally we refuse to allow the City to pit us against the food carts in a political fight, which would further distract us from our true goals. For this reason, the Kesey Square Revival will no longer take place until further notice.
Instead, we will spend the next several months focused on an even greater concern in terms of Kesey Square and the City’s attempts to push the homeless from public space. According to reliable sources, the City of Eugene intends on designating Kesey Square a city park within the next few months. Kesey Square is currently a 24-hour public plaza and is not under control of the Parks Department, and is the only public place downtown where people can congregate after 11pm. By designating Kesey Square a park, not only will the City of Eugene will be able to impose a 11pm curfew, but the police will have the power to cite people for violating park rules in Kesey, which means that many minor offenses that are currently only violations under city code will become arrestable offenses that are charged as misdemeanors in Kesey Square. Police will also have the power to exclude those who violate any park rules in Kesey Square through the use of a park restriction. Park restrictions apply to all city parks, not just the park where the violation took place.
Downtown Eugene has no shelters, no benches, and no public spaces that one can congregate in 24-hours a day other than Kesey Square.  If a curfew is imposed on Kesey Square, there will literally be nowhere left to go at night. Nowhere. Nowhere to sit down, to take a rest. Being homeless after 11pm will essentially be illegal ANYWHERE in downtown Eugene. Not just camping, not just sleeping. EXISTING.
40 years ago, Eugene was a sundown town, an important part of this city’s past that many are uncomfortable to speak of. African-Americans were not allowed in the city limits after nightfall, forcing them to the outskirts of town under threat of harassment or violence. As it already stands currently, there is a near-sundown effect in Eugene today as it concerns the homeless, given that there are there are no shelters, no benches, sitting under an awning is an arrestable offense, leaning against a planter or a building can also land you a night in jail, and all parks have a 11pm curfew. Cutting off access to Kesey Square only further cements the sundown effect, making it abundantly clear to the unhoused that they are not welcome anywhere in town at night.
To take away the last public space where those who are homeless can congregate 24 hours a day is to repeat the same bigoted patterns of behavior that defined this city for nearly a century. In viewing the current actions of both the business interests and City officials through the lens of history, we see the continuation of a sociological mindset that fears and targets the “other”, a mindset that with the exception of the specified target, remains essentially unchanged from the ideals that drove the beliefs and actions of our forefathers, beliefs and actions that we consider to be shameful by modern standards.
I am confident that future generations who look back will see the actions towards the homeless to be as bigoted and shameful as most view Eugene’s past as it concerns African-Americans. In the meantime, however, those behind the Kesey Square Revival refuse to let the City further exclude the homeless from public spaces without a community-based response. Our belief that public space is for everyone is why we first gathered at Kesey in the first place, and while we have now retreated from that space as a weekly gathering, it is only in order to focus our energies on the larger picture of preserving Kesey Square for use by everyone, any time of day.
            We will be fighting and publicly campaigning against the City’s plan to designate Kesey Square as a park. We will not allow the City to slip this through quietly and covertly, as is their intention. We will be researching the legalities behind this move, in an attempt to learn what kind of public input or public control (if any) there is over the process, and how to prevent or appeal such a move. We will be publicizing the issue and raising awareness about the intentions and consequences should the City succeed in their efforts. And we invite anyone who shares our concerns to join us in this fight. And if the city does manage to take Kesey away from the people despite our efforts, we’ll meet you in the streets for a summer of civil disobedience.
Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.


  1. Beautifully written, powerfully stated. I appreciate the whole story being told in one place.

    Thank you for the Work you do for and with the people of Eugene.

  2. These are important fights- the ones that don't make international news. Blessings on your work, Alley!

  3. Great piece Alley.

    There is no way this name change should be allowed.

    How is it that they could call that a park?
    "park (pärk)
    1. An area of land set aside for public use, as:
    a. A piece of land with few or no buildings within or adjoining a town, maintained for recreational and ornamental purposes.
    b. A landscaped city square.
    c. A large tract of rural land kept in its natural state and usually reserved for the enjoyment and recreation of visitors."

    What is it's recreational use? What is it's ornamental use? How are a couple of cement planters "landscaping"?
    It would seem it's 'natural' state would that of use by kids and the homeless 'visitors' that frequent it.

    Just saying.

  4. Thinking of name change games-

    Years ago where there is now a flag waving on Skinners butte, there used to be a large cement cross.
    Years before that, beginning in the 1920's, the local KKK used to burn crosses there to "warn" -read that as intimidate- any blacks who showed up on the trains that pulled into the train station right below that they were not wanted in this town and to move on to someplace else.
    The cement cross was very controversial of course, and much of the argument centered on the idea of separation of church and state. So the city, in it's classic game of name change, designated it as a "War Memorial". Even then it was controversial for years more because it was still a cross. Later it was taken down and is presently at a church over on Bailey Hill and a local business man donated the flag to fly as a War Memorial proper.
    So over time there were KKK crosses on skinners; then a cement cross; then a cement cross renamed as a war memorial and then the flag.

    But people who know it had been a KKK cross site to begin with always remembered that it was that, no matter that it was now called a "War Memorial".

  5. And I will shout from the bottom of my lungs to the tip of my tongue, Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.

  6. You have just described the Keynesian economics life-cycle and the law of supply and demand … and why the square was taken from the populace (e.g., the youth and homeless). Money moves in a circular fashion and when the spending in an economy goes up, the earnings go up and this leads to more spending and increased earnings… when the square was bare of people, it was unattractive to “investors” and had no earning power; now that there are people (in the square) who are potential customers, and those potential customers outnumber the youth and homeless (who have no money and are therefore not potential customers), merchants and small business owners fear that the presence of youth and homeless will “drive away business”. Kind of a crappy thing to do to the very group who was responsible for kick-starting the revitalization effort of the square… “Thanks for fixing this for us and making it desirable so that people want to be here – you can leave now…”