Eugene’s Singular Celebration

Published Friday, Sept. 7, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Might the Eugene Celebration better be named the Eugenes Celebration? Can a pluralist community have a singular celebration? As with so many silver anniversaries, we can look back 25 years and see that we’ve grown up and, yes, apart.

Much has changed since 1982, when Cynthia Wooten and others decided we needed a party to take our minds off the dismal economy. We’re not the same place today. Truth is, we’re barely a single place at all. We share four leading digits of a ZIP code, but what else?

Housing has boomed in north and west Eugene. Downtown has lost its luster. Glenwood’s been sold to Springfield. The non-geological edges of town are testing the strength of Oregon’s dotted lines.

The Eugene we celebrate this weekend should reflect these changes and welcome the next ones, whatever they may be. Go ahead and mark the anniversary. Enjoy the silver, but go for the gold! Let’s not allow the Eugene Celebration to become (or remain) the South Eugene Celebration.

When people talk about Eugene, whether with flushed cheeks or rolling eyes, they are usually talking about south Eugene: tie-dyed activists, cogitating and dreaming but avoiding real work, swearing they drive only so people can read their bumpers. Too many English majors too close together. (I count myself among them, even though counting is not my best skill.)

Eugene is more complex now. We have our Starbucks-swillers, our McMansions, our gated communities. Wal-Mart finds plenty of customers, and Trader Joe’s does too. We’ve discovered there’s room for everyone. But we’ve unconsciously divided ourselves. Some doomsday scenarios ask what will happen during a natural disaster if we locate all our best medical facilities on one side of the river. But we’re seldom making friends on the other side ourselves. We “celebrate diversity” with others who are just like us.

I recently convinced a friend to leave a lifetime in Colorado for a part-time job in Eugene, because we have such a special place here. She flew in last weekend and had 36 hours to buy a house. She did it. When you have to learn a town quickly, stereotypes are handy. Her realtor may have described the various neighborhood profiles as appealing to hippies, cowboys, and suits. (She picked Santa Clara, cowboy country. Larger lot, fewer sidewalks, lower taxes.)

Of course, we all understand that not every individual fits the profile for any particular neighborhood. In this case, the exceptions prove the rule. Those who don’t fit KNOW they don’t fit.

I think of Eugene as having not a single culture, but three. North and east of the Willamette River, every Saturday they wash their car. West of the river, every Saturday they wash their truck. South of the river, every Saturday they wash themselves.

The quirky, self-styled, old Eugene is mostly the odd Eugene — literally. The odd numbered ZIP codes cover campus, the south hills and downtown, plus enough area just north of the river to keep an eye out. Oh-two, oh-four, and oh-eight sprawl north and west. It’s as if we never left gym class, counting off and forming teams. But this is the (singular) Eugene Celebration. We have those first four digits in common.

Each of us can do our part this weekend to bridge those divisions. If you’re an “odd,” invite an “even” to the party. If you’re an “even,” call an “odd” to be your guide.

The river has always divided us, but now we want to “return to the river.” Consider what that means, as we look ahead to our next 25 years together. We want the river to join us, not separate us. We want to embrace our differences, not avoid them. We want to do more than build bridges. We want to rise above our peculiarities.

I see the hot air balloon theme and I think of the south Eugene rhetoric that has gotten us this far, but can it take us further? Can we use this party to begin to cross the boundaries we’ve gotten so used to? The slogan this year is “Lighten Up!” — but that can be taken as just more rhetoric. The pragmatic mindset of newer Eugene might see the balloons (and the party itself) as a means to an end, an opportunity to rise above our differences. Their slogan for this weekend could just as well be “Get Over It!”