There are two types of Saturdays in Eugene.
One exists at the Eugene Saturday Market. Cats sit on vendors’ shoulders and barefoot musicians dance on stages. Birkenstocks, tie-dye, marijuana and organic food are on every corner. The counterculture movement that once consumed Eugene in the ‘60s and ‘70s appears to be alive and well during this event that attracts 3,000 to 5,000 people every weekend.
The other is found at Autzen stadium. Every game day, 54,000 fans show up to watch the Ducks. Numerous television cameras, an abundance of Nike swooshes and countless food and beverage stands all contribute to the business that made Oregon Duck football the 12th most profitable team in America between 2014-2016.
Each of these places represents a different side of Eugene. With the University of Oregon continuing to grow with new projects every year, such as the $1 billion Phil and Penny Knight Campus, can these two different cultures grow together, or will the growth of one inevitably lead to the destruction of the other?
Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, who has lived in Eugene for the last 27 years, sees the perceived cultural divide between the university and the city as more ambiguous than others may.
“I believe it’s a false dichotomy,” Vinis said. “I don’t think that divide really exists because there are plenty of people who now and in the future will do scientific research at the Knight Campus and then come downtown on Saturday to buy their fruits and vegetables.”
While this may be true, students and faculty spend the majority of their weekdays on campus — segregated from the rest of Eugene. When I emailed a professor about interviewing him on this subject he replied, “I spend 99 percent of my time at the university and I have no idea what the culture of Eugene is really like.” So while students and professors may interact with Eugene and its citizens during the weekends, they often act more as tourists than anything else.
Vinis believes that the university and city have a mutually beneficial relationship, but she also agreed that not everyone feels this way. What defines growth and improvement in Eugene is subjective to each citizen.
“Not everybody in Eugene wants to see the community grow. People would like it to stay the same scale and more or less the way it always has been,” Vinis said. “There is always tension around growth and change.”
But as Eugene’s population continues to increase, change becomes inevitable. In 2017, the population increased by nearly 2 percent. In addition, the number of out-of-state residents coming to Eugene has jumped 18 percent since 2007, with 49.1 percent of students now coming from out of state. Mayor Vinis said that the university helps bring new businesses, employment and other resources to a growing community that needs these things.
One long-time Eugene resident, Scott Landfield, owner of Tsunami Books, spoke about the changes he has seen in his 40 years in Eugene.
“When I came [to Eugene], I was a part of a certain crowd of people, tens of thousands of them, who were attracted to this area for the nature, intellectual freedom and outdoor work,” said Landfield.
Landfield continued, “Football had 15,000 fans, and they were the worst team in America, so that didn’t take over the culture. The most dramatic change is that football has taken over the culture.”
In addition to talking about the past, Landfield said Eugene is one of the last liberal strongholds in Oregon.
“The corporatists, who are often times Republican, have this piece of land in their sights, and that includes the university. They want control of it; they don’t like the fact that the alternative community was in control — and still is.”
While President Schill may be the head of UO, the argument could be made that Phil Knight has a more substantial impact on the university’s future. Up until 2016, Phil and Penny Knight’s donations to UO had topped $2 billion. In last year’s midterm elections, Knight gave $2.5 million to Republican governor candidate Knute Buehler and an additional $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Buehler supported ending Oregon’s decades-long standing as a sanctuary state, voted against universal gun background checks and opposed landmark climate legislation. Compared to a city that elected progressive Lucy Vinis as mayor in 2016, this seems to be a major ideological difference.
The principal donor of a university being conservative doesn’t necessarily mean that the university, or surrounding town, will become conservative. That being said, the largest individual donor to Buehler most likely has different long-term goals for the UO and Eugene than the majority of the citizens in the historically liberal Eugene do.
Hilary Lord, the senior associate director for UO’s study abroad unit, Global Education Oregon, has worked at UO for 22 years while also raising a family in Eugene. Lord agreed that Eugene does have a variety of dynamics; however, she also said that isn’t always a bad thing. “I don’t think that it necessarily means that it’s not possible to coexist in the same place,” Lord said. “Every community struggles with different issues. Our community’s [struggle] might be the liberal community that may be feeling concerned about the corporatization of our campus; but that isn’t a concern that is just unique to Eugene.”
Whether it’s the tech industry in Silicon Valley or Amazon Headquarters in Seattle, Lord believes that in every community, there will always be forces that cause conflict. It is up to the community to solve those issues.
Cities across America have learned to survive with different cultures present; however, as money continues to pour into Eugene, I fear that it will destroy what makes Eugene different. As new stadiums are erected and billion-dollar academic facilities are built, affluent people will continue moving in. While there isn’t anything wrong with growth, in addition to driving housing prices up, the people that come with it often want to live in a clean, safe and comfortable environment. It happened in Boulder, Seattle and Jackson Hole. While Eugene may be dirty, uncomfortable and maybe even a little scary at times, that’s all a part of what makes it different than any other placed.
When I decided to come to school in Eugene two years ago, I didn’t come here because I expected a clean and comfortable town. I flew across the country for experiences that I couldn’t have gotten at any other university or city in America. I hope UO and the city of Eugene can work together to ensure that both continue to grow while also preserving the culture that makes Eugene one of the best towns in America.