Kesey Square: How an author is transforming his city
On the corner of East Broadway and Willamette Street in downtown Eugene, four bronze sculptures portray acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey sitting on a bench reading to three children. Kesey, who grew up in Springfield and attended the University of Oregon, remains an iconic symbol of Eugene: His renowned literary prowess and his involvement with the counterculture movement of the ’60s only magnify his reputation.
Since their installation in 2003, the sculptures have become a cultural centerpiece downtown, inspiring the community to adopt “Kesey Square” as a nickname for the space. On April 19, 2017, city council members voted to begin changing the name of Broadway Plaza to Kesey Square.
“I love the idea that for one thing, it’s going to help preserve the square. It was always meant to be for the people. Having it in Dad’s name is just fine with me,” said Zane Kesey, one of Ken’s two sons. “People were already calling it that — there’s no sense in fighting against the tides.”
After Kesey passed away in 2001, his family requested that Oregon-based sculptor Pete Helzer, a family friend since the ’70s, create “The Storyteller” — the sculpture that is now located in Kesey Square. The rendering is commonly thought to be Kesey reading to his grandchildren; however, according to Zane, the sculpture was intended to represent the idea of Kesey reading to the community.
Helzer’s relationship with the Keseys began when he was working as a wrestling coach at Pleasant Hill High School. Kesey’s two sons, Zane and Jed, joined the school’s wrestling team, following in their father’s footsteps — Kesey was a member of UO’s wrestling team.
Kesey’s athleticism is one aspect of his character that is often overlooked by those who only identify him with the quintessential ’60s pretense. Another misconception: Kesey was a liberal.
“Kesey was in a lot of ways very conservative, but he also had that libertarian streak,” Helzer said. “He was a multi-sided, very complex man, and a genius; everybody knows he was a genius. But he was also very, very complex.”
Regardless of its official moniker, Kesey Square is one of downtown’s most underutilized public spaces, city officials say. After years of renovation and attempted problem solving, the future of the downtown space remains uncertain.
In 2016, the community rejected the proposition for the city to erect a mixed-use building in place of the square, and the City of Eugene began working with Planning for Public Spaces (PPS) to maximize the potential of the square among other downtown public spaces, according to city officials.
The renaming of Kesey Square attempts to define the vacant space, to harness historical value and honor the legacy of a local figure. The city council voted 6-1 in favor of changing the name.
“I think there’s a mixed sentiment in terms of the general public. I do think there is some value to the history of Ken Kesey as a literary figure and a popular culture figure,” said Councilwoman Claire Syrett. “There is a legacy there and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the community to recognize that legacy.”
Kesey’s reputation remains dichotomous. On one hand, he is commonly associated with psychedelic drugs and the Merry Pranksters, a group of counterculture friends in the ’60s and ’70s synonymous with drugs and hippiedom.
On the other hand, Kesey is respected across the country as a literary figure and author of classic novels such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Close friends of Kesey, such as Ken Babbs, remember him and his contributions in this positive light.
“We met at the Stanford graduate writing school in 1958 and became immediate friends; a friendship that lasted 43 years,” Babbs wrote to the Emerald in an email. “We were best friends, yes, and also cohorts in many adventures including writing, talking tours, musical plays, poetic hoo-haws and a famous bus trip in 1964.”
That famous bus trip, best-known by the psychedelically decorated bus known as “Further,” is partly what gave Kesey and the Merry Pranksters their reputation. Babbs — who was one of the original 14 Pranksters and the creator of the group’s title — noted how the biggest misconception was that they distributed and popularized LSD. Babbs denies that they ever bought or sold the drug.
“He was a regular guy with family and kids, graduated from college and has a lasting spot in American history,” Babbs said. “His presence hovers over the city of Eugene, and everyone in the know knows his spirit is alive and well, and we the living continue his good works,” wrote Babbs.
The Status of Kesey Square
The recent renaming of Kesey Square represents just a small slice of the city’s ongoing struggle to define the area, to establish not only a sense of practicality and meaning, but also a sense of place where the community feels safe and welcome. Kesey Square, being a central point of gathering for Eugene’s homeless community, presents an obstacle to this endeavor.
“I always worry about the homeless people, but that’s always going to be an issue no matter what,” Zane Kesey said. “They are particularly attached to Dad’s statue; they feel safe there and I appreciate that. But part of it is they think that Dad is all about drugs and the Grateful Dead. I like that they’re attracted to it, but I also don’t want the straight people to be scared of going downtown. It’s gotta be a give and take.”
After watching the open space evolve over nearly 30 years in the community, local artist Betsy Wolfston — who was commissioned in 1996 along with David Thompson to create public art for the square — said she wonders if the space is becoming “infused with Merry Prankster stuff.” That is to say, the homelessness in the square might exacerbate Kesey’s negative stereotype, making a bad name for him and his statue.
“Eugene always has had this large population of homeless kids who have lived down there — that has never gone away,” Wolfston said. “If anything it’s gotten a bit bigger.”
“The public spaces downtown aren’t adequately serving the people who are here already,” said Will Dowdy, Eugene’s urban design planner.
Moving into summer, the city will be implementing a project called Vibrant Downtown: Kesey Square will be a venue for various music, dance and art performances, chess tournaments during “Slow-Motion Sundays” and other events over the summer months that will highlight the space’s potential.
According to Dowdy, the end of the summer will be a reflection opportunity and a time to seriously consider the implementation of PPS’s urban renewal recommendations. As a focal point of commerce, arts, culture and entertainment in Eugene, it’s imperative that Kesey Square accommodates as many community members as possible.
“One of the big things for us to do is to try this out and see if it’s successful, see if it creates problems or opportunities. We’re going to have a learning process and that’s really the important first step,” Dowdy said. “We want to stay open and flexible and find out what happens.”
Created by Eric Schucht