Downtown Eugene

Thursday, January 27, 2005

What will work

When Eugene's population was only 3,000, downtown Eugene was a busier place than it is today. And Eugene's population is now 130,000. On a busy night, there may be 3,000 people downtown. Everyone else needs to come and see what's happening, and get away from the TV, the multiplex and the malls.

With 130,000 in a city, anything is possible. We started a Tango Center in downtown Eugene, Oregon. It works. Other odd things downtown: a lovely tea shop, two independent playhouses, dozens of unique concert venues, cafes, bars, clubs, and restaurants. There are a dozen galleries, two independent grocery stores, five independent bookstores, two independent music stores, etc.

But the place is still relatively empty. This is because of a number of looming buildings that used to house major department stores. Even if they were still running, the downtown wouldn't be very exciting. The department store district of Seattle is the least interesting part of the city. In contrast to this, we want downtown to truly become the heart of the city.

Even though the franchises are gone, most of the activity downtown is still based upon consumption of imported goods. The major exception is the Saturday Market/Farmer's market, where the people selling are required to also make what they sell. This is by far the most dense actvity in downtown Eugene.

This success indicates that new actvity downtown needs to revolve around small-scale production & sales of local goods. These can be combined with education -- drop in classes, public lectures & demonstrations, interactive learning centers, and appreticeship programs. Already, there is a small herbal apothecary downtown which takes this approach, and the Tango Center does too. So does the bicycle center (CAT), two textile shops and a jewelry/bead shop. Teaching & specializing works ... and it makes the town a more vital, self-reliant place.

In the Tango Center we'll be starting two new programs ... a Bistro/cooking school, and a shoe-making & costume center. A printmaking shop will let us promote downtown activities in a fully expressive manner, and a recording studio will be part of our international Tango Musician's network activities.

One bookstore downtown is considering offering bookbinding/restoration classes. We'd like to find ways of getting all the bookstores to stay open late, creating a late-night bookworm scene, like Powell's in Portland. One way to do this would be to have writer's workshops downtown. These could also be playwright workshops -- we have so many playhouses. And screenwriting, lyric-writing, poetry ... tying book sales to the creative act brings us back to the origin of bookstores. Combine them with hostels, so people can camp out with others who share their obsessions.

There is a reasonable base to create a non-profit film/video school & center, along the lines of DCTV in Manhattan. This would also have a film library for rent, arrange film festivals, show local work, and host the local Cable Television network. Films letting out can feed a number of late-night activities & shops with customers.

But people need to build things. Ceramics, metalwork, woodwork ... around specialties. The bike center (CAT) teaches metalwork, but it is a bike-building center, not a "metal shop". This gives it focus and purpose.

One purpose is "practical public art", which the Art Noveau movement advocated a centurry ago, resulting in works like Guimard's Metro stations in Paris. A shop could be dedicated to creating beautiful amenities throughout the city. It would be an easy thing to get people downtown with such purpose, all hours of the night.

If a hundred important projects had storefronts, then people could simply vote with their feet, and get involved, with the issue they feel is most pressing. This could lead a civic approach to resolving problems of inequality, poverty, healthcare, and the creation of meaningful work.

Speaking of which -- everyone wants to see a tram system in Eugene. There used to be one, and it shaped the town. Also, we'd like to see better bikeways. Both of these things usually delegated to city government, which begs for money (back) from the feds, so they can buy expensive trams. But it is possible for a community to make its own trams ... in fact Portland did this with some historic reconstructions still in use today. Imagine the economic consequences of the revival of that small-scale industry locally! We could restart the running of passenger trains all over the northwest. No more cramped cars, late Amtraks or old Greyhounds ...