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Eugene: Compare to Where?

December 17th, 2018 by dk

There’s no place quite like Eugene, but what other place comes closest? That’s not a question we ponder very deeply, but what good is an Oregon winter without a little quiet pondering? I’ve thought about this question a lot and my conclusion may surprise you, even if it shouldn’t.

I can list a dozen characteristics that would make another place seem familiar to us, but I’ll limit myself to three. What essential attributes are required for Eugene’s doppelganger?

It must first be a place where words like “doppelganger” can be used. College towns display eccentricities that stay hidden in most other places. Students and professors alike come to believe they have nothing to lose. Call it “the tenure effect.”

It’s not enough for our lookalike town to host a university. The university must be considered the undisputed center of the civic life. When it’s the only game in town, it’s easier to forget it’s only a game. This rule eliminates major cities, adjacent suburbs and all state capitals.

Eugene doesn’t get trapped in self-delusion the way many other college towns do, because we have the majesty of natural wonder surrounding us. Whenever we feel like we’re at the center of the world, a hike in the woods, a kayak down the river, or a climb to a summit reminds us otherwise. We’re searching for another college town that also offers nearby grandeur.

We hear the same list of towns that people compare to Eugene all the time. But none of the usual suspects have all three criteria that I’ve suggested.

Boulder, Colorado is really a suburb of Denver. They might insist otherwise, but the maps don’t lie. Santa Cruz and Berkeley residents can get to San Francisco is less than an hour.

Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas have earned their stripes as quirky college towns, but they are both state capitals, so every other city in their state can’t afford to ignore them.

Burlington, Vermont might qualify, if you’re a hard core ski bum, but most would say its grandeur melts each spring. Other cities meet two of my criteria, and sometimes almost all three. On the East Coast, there’s Ithaca, New York. On the West Coast there’s Eureka, California. But I think there’s a better choice twin that you may not have considered.

If a Eugenean clicked her heels together and wished for someplace like home, she would wake to discover that the answer was in her own back yard all along. By any measure, the closest college town to Eugene would be just that — the closest college town to Eugene.

Corvallis resembles Eugene more than any other college town. Rivalries aside, ducks and beavers often share the same pond. Two college towns less than 50 miles apart would normally sprawl together, but not here. Thanks to Oregon’s land use policies, the Willamette Valley has grown two very distinctive towns that are really very much alike.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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