How the members of the Whiteaker neighborhood art scene have helped create one of the biggest and most diverse music scenes on the West Coast
by Reed Jackson
On a damp spring night in the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene, Oregon, Ila Kreigh, a 26-year-old musician born and raised in Eugene, sits under a single thread of purple light as she begins to sing into a microphone. Tonight is Kreigh’s homecoming. Her band, the Bad Mitten Orchestra, has just returned from a long string of shows spanning the length of the entire West Coast. The large crowd, made up of tattoo-drenched adolescents and intoxicated artists sipping on jar glasses full of gold-tinged beer, sit quietly as they devote their attention to the stage. Kreigh’s soft acoustic melodies and heartfelt lyrics act as a form of humidity, warming up the room with every brief strum of her guitar and every slight cry of her voice. After she finishes singing, she speaks to the crowd.
“I played that song the other day, and an old woman came up to me and told me she didn’t understand a word of it,” says Kreigh, smiling warmly. The audience responds with subtle laughter, discounting the idea of anyone not comprehending something so beautiful. For them, not only were Kreigh’s lyrics understandable, but they were art to which most people in the Whiteaker neighborhood can relate.
Just like home
As one of the oldest neighborhoods in Eugene, the Whiteaker is also one of the most diverse and culturally rich. Home to beautifully painted murals, eclectic food and drink establishments, and an array of creative residents who have an appreciation for all things different and unique, the “Whit” is a perfect place for artists to engage in their work.
“There’s no denying that people enjoy being around others who share similar interests,” says JC Spiva, host and cofounder of Radio Whiteaker, a weekly ethno-electronica, ambient and world music show. “Artistically, the Whiteaker neighborhood is chalk full of every conceivable genre. This makes for an eclectic, yet like-minded mix of artists and art admirers who share a common denominator.”
According to Drew Caldwell, bartender and music manager at Sam Bond’s Garage, a bar that also functions as a music venue within the neighborhood, these artists and art admirers create hospitable audiences for musicians, and therefore, attracting a wide variety of musicians to play in the neighborhood. Consequently, because of the large number of bands from across the country that venture into the neighborhood to perform, and the exceptionally receptive audiences that fill the venues for the performances, the Whiteaker has one of the largest and most diverse music scenes on the West Coast.
“Having mainly artists in the crowd allows musicians to feel comfortable,” says Caldwell while examining a list of the bands the bar has hosted in the past five years. “Because they can relate to the audience, bands feel at home here.”
Some of the most respected acts in the music business have made the Whiteaker a tour stop as they travel from Portland to San Francisco on their nationwide tours. Les Claypool (of Primus), arguably one of the best bass players in music history, performed a house show in the neighborhood to an audience which was a sea of patched-up corduroys and neon faux fur. The audience was fascinated with his flamenco-like strumming and whammy bar bends. Earlier this year, Frank Black, the lead singer of the legendary Pixies, a band that has had an undeniably huge impact on the world of rock and roll, gave an intimate concert at Sam Bond’s Garage where everyone sat on the floor while Black gave acoustic renditions of his band’s biggest hits.
“The crowd is completely different than where we play elsewhere,” says Wesley Curtis, lead singer of the Ineffectuals, a Eugene-based psychedelic rock band. “People who show up to the shows [in the Whiteaker] don’t seem as concerned with moving on to the next scene or text messaging their friends. They’re just hanging, having a good time, and appreciating the moment.”
The artistic-friendly nature of the people and businesses that make up the neighborhood not only allows musicians to feel comfortable in performing their work, but also gives the impression of being a uniquely different neighborhood, which also provides special incentive for musicians to play there.
“It seems to attract certain kinds of people and businesses that you don’t necessarily find elsewhere,” says Curtis. “Our impression is that it’s always a little outside the mainstream in the Whiteaker, sort of in its own little bubble.”
The influence of music can be seen in almost every restaurant, bar, street, and house in the neighborhood. Sam Bond’s has long been one of the best places in the country to experience nationally touring indie-rock bands focusing more on the bluegrass, old-time, jug genres, which is a staple sound of the Whiteaker neighborhood. Across the street sits Tiny’s Tavern, where frequent performers include a Johnny Cash tribute band and a handful of overly excited punk rock bands that often seek to abuse the concept of audience participation. Even in Papa’s Soul Food, a down-home southern style restaurant, the walls are covered with colorful Creole tributes to past masters of jazz and soul.
Some of the best and most cherished musical happenings within the neighborhood, however, often occur in the unmarked buildings that surround the bars and restaurants. Concerts are often held in the large, creatively colored, Victorian houses that make up the residential aspect of the neighborhood. There, you’ll find banjoes, washboards and crooners howling anthems of late night drinking and carousing amongst crowds of inebriated partygoers.
Down the street, inside one of the many anonymous warehouses that lay quietly against the old railroad tracks, one may find a musical demonstration of more significant value. For example, when the Apocalyptica Fire Factory, a fire dance production group, held a concert in an abandoned lumber company building, mixing cutting edge fire spectacles with the music of local bands all in the hopes of raising money for one of the group member’s dogs, appropriately named Scooby Doo. With hundreds of people in attendance, local brewery Ninkasi providing alcohol, and some of the finest music the Whiteaker has to offer, the benefit raised over $900.
The art influence
The Whiteaker neighborhood was once known as one of the worst areas in the state. In 1986, Eugene’s Register-Guard reported that the neighborhood’s crime rate was twice the state average. The neighborhood was especially notorious for its drug-related crimes. In 2001, the Associated Press named Lane County, along with the Fresno area, as the methamphetamine capitals of the country. It was often said that the center of Eugene’s methamphetamine activity was the Whiteaker neighborhood.
Since then, however, the neighborhood’s crime rate has sharply fallen due to a number of reasons. The development of a music scene has had a significant role in the overall crime reduction. In conjunction with many newly developed businesses, local art and music has helped the Whiteaker become the trendiest district in the city, bringing in new customer traffic for local business and new residents.
“Some of the past stigma of the ‘other-side-of-the-tracks’ seediness has faded,” says Spiva when asked whether or not the music scene has helped improved the neighborhood. “Lately the neighborhood is enjoying a reputation as the new trendy, alternative spot in Eugene.”
Spiva also believes that the local business owners, like the rest of the neighborhood, are either artists or art admirers. Thus, art and music have had a significant influence on their attitude and approach to running a business.
“There’s a notoriously secretive and private group in the Whit called the Whiteaker Cocktail Society, which is based around music, art, partying, and an overall celebration of the Whiteaker district,” says Spiva. “Some of the higher-ranking members are the business owners you see in the Whit today.”
Kari Johnson, chair of the Whiteaker Community Council and a well-known muralist of buildings in the neighborhood, also believes that music and art have had a large role in changing the neighborhood, though she does not necessarily think of it as an entirely positive transformation.
“White artists tend to be a gentrifying force,” says Johnson. “They help make a neighborhood more attractive to the middle class, who can afford higher rents, pushing out the Latino, working class whites, and eventually the homeless neighbors who are perceived as being criminal.” Johnson’s comments may come as a surprise to some, but many local residents who, like Johnson, have lived in the neighborhood for decades, tend to share a similar outlook on the situation. Although there is significantly less crime and poverty, the neighborhood has lost some of its so-called “obscurity” that once made it so alluring for artists.
“The Whiteaker used to be considered the dingy side of Eugene,” says Kreigh in a post-show interview. “It is common for creative people to draw inspiration from the moments in their lives that may have been scary or uncomfortable, and we migrate to those types of areas or situations sometimes to find inspiration and, in doing so, run into like-minded people.”
Regardless of whether or not the economic upturn and crime downturn are viewed as a good thing or a bad thing, it is very apparent that music and art have greatly altered the landscape of the neighborhood.
The music scene in the Whiteaker is largely made up of musicians from across the country playing in the neighborhood’s venues; however, there are a large number of musicians who play in the area who actually live in the neighborhood as well. Like the visiting musicians, the live shows of these artists are greatly influenced by the distinct crowds that attend shows in the Whiteaker. What’s more, because these individuals live in the neighborhood, they have a very characteristic sound that is reflective of the people, art, and diversity of the neighborhood.
In the 1990s, the Whiteaker rose to prominence during the third wave, SKA Swing Resurrection. Multiple bands lived and performed in the area and were instrumental in the increased popularity of the post-punk genre of SKA. Dan Schmid, a Whiteaker resident, formed a band in 1988 brashly named the Cherry Poppin Daddies and reached multi-platinum status with the song “Zoot Suit Riot.” Since then, the SKA Swing craze has died down, but the Whiteaker is still home to many talented, genre-bending artists.
Although the local musicians are not known for one specific sound, they all share a similar desire to craft songs that do not tailor to conventional audiences.
“The most distinct aspect of the Whiteaker’s music scene is the fact that the musicians are trying to inhabit much of the space outside of pop culture,” says Kreigh. “Musicians want to be different here, whereas in much of the country, the musicians want to follow the popular mainstream.”
Groups like the Blair Street Mugwumps, Yelton and the Whopner County Country All-Stars embody this sentiment of avoiding the mainstream by crafting music that stays clear of catchy melodies, simple lyrics, and other requirements of contemporary radio, which in turn, creates a unique brand of music that is reflective of the Whiteaker.
“Coney Island Whitefish,” a song by the Blair Street Mugwumps, for example, cherrypicks ideas from a broad spectrum of styles, pulling in Appalachian folk, classic rock, and old Mississippi blues to create a musical synthesis with more in common with the band member’s parents and even their grandparents rather than the music of their peers. This sort of music coincides with the band’s main motto, which is “to reclaim that creative freedom rural America distilled throughout the Southeast in the early part of the last century.” With that said, the band makes sure to add that they’re “not naive to the problems of the era, and we address them in our song choices.”
Check out this link to hear “Coney Island Whitefish” by the Blair Street Mugwumps.
In a way, the Mugwumps’ motto could be the theme for the whole Whiteaker neighborhood. The emphasis is on local eccentricities rather than on conformance to a broader cultural standard. The musicians, artists, and residents of the Whiteaker neighborhood coalesce around this revolutionary idea; that there was a time not so long ago, prior to the era of ever-present, constant media pressure, where people were better able to develop their arts with greater individual freedom than today, and with less pressure and less psychological flooding of instant imagery. Through their songs, paintings, sculptures, and other artistic expressions, it is obvious that the people of the Whiteaker are unyielding in their desire to retrieve the artistic sovereignty that was once lost.
As her set finally comes to a close, Kreigh still sits with a smile on her face. Universal applause erupts from the crowd, shaking the oddly-shaped indigo lamps that hang from the ceiling. Although not everyone in the room knows each other, at this moment, one and all are in temporary agreement as they display their common understanding of the woman’s artistic message. In this once outcast neighborhood, recognition for creative expression has been a unifying force amongst its residents. As a result, music, an art form that gains nourishment from the response an audience, has flourished in the Whiteaker neighborhood.
“What makes the Whiteaker neighborhood a truly unique place to see a show, is you can count on Whiteaker residents to be a part of the audience: your bartenders, your cooks, your artists and your drug dealers,” says Spiva. “
Try and find an area-specific group of people like that anywhere else, and I’ll give you a quarter.”
Mayor Piercy Acknowledges Positive Role of Art in Whiteaker
Kitty Piercy has lived in the Whiteaker neighborhood since the early 1970s. Over the past 40 years, while making the transition from schoolteacher to mayor of Eugene, Piercy has noticed the positive affects art has had on the community.
“The neighborhood is full of young entrepreneurs and artists who like to have fun and care deeply about the environment and social justice issues,” says Piercy. “There is a surge of energy in the neighborhood and a natural and exciting hipness that you just cannot help but enjoy.”
Music, says Piercy, along with the work of other local artists like glassblower Geoff Stengel, is the main conductor of this overwhelmingly positive energy.
Although she no longer gets to attend music and art happenings as much as she would like to due to her political obligations, she still attends events like the Whiteaker Block Party, which showcases local businesses, artists and musicians.
“The Whiteaker Block Party is amazing,” says Piercy. “[They have] everything from Ninkasi brew, to roller derby gals, to new age and hard rock music, to a triceratops vehicle from Burning Man.”
Piercy enjoys these types of events so much that sometimes she’
ll go beyond the role of spectator and participate amongst the artists.
“I actually did a spontaneous rap with Medium Troy at the party,” says Piercy while smiling. “ I don’t think I could have done it if I had been asked ahead of time. It’s on youtube.”
In addition to the Block Party, Piercy also attends shows at Sam Bond’s Garage, Papa’s Soul Food, and the Pizza Research Institute when she can. All of which, she says, play an important role within the community in providing friendly, fun-filled atmospheres for local residents and visitors of the neighborhood.
Is Gentrification a Problem in the Whiteaker?
Like many growing cities, in Eugene gentrification has become a code word for large-scale displacement of working-class African American, Latino families by wealthier – primarily white – homeowners.
Being that the Whiteaker is one of the most racially diverse, economically poor and now trendiest neighborhoods in Eugene, it seems like an obvious target for gentrification.
Some neighborhood residents like Kari Johnson, chair of the Whiteaker Community Council, already believe that the middle class has already started pushing out Latino, working class whites, and homeless residents of the neighborhood.
According to ethnic residents of the neighborhood, however, gentrification is not yet an issue.
“If there’s any gentrification around us, we hardly notice it,” says Marcela Mendoza, Executive Director of Centro Latino Americana, a multicultural agency in the Whiteaker dedicated to helping the Latino community of Lane County. “We serve many Latino families counted among the working poor living in apartment complexes around here, and our clientele has remained steady.”
Mendoza also added that to the best of her knowledge, most of Centro’s clients who live in the Whiteaker are not yet worried about being pushed out.
“I haven’t really though about it,” says Shelly Romero, a Latino 21-year-old resident of the neighborhood. “I’ve noticed the neighborhood getting better, but nothing has really changed for us.”
Although gentrification may not be a problem yet within the Whiteaker community, as the neighborhood’s businesses continue to grow and attract new customers and residents, the risk for increased rents, house prices, and property taxes increases.
Recently, the state’s biggest city, Portland, experienced a huge amount of socio-cultural changes as its inner city neighborhoods experienced economic revitalization, bringing in higher property values and pushing many long time residents out.
To residents like Romero though, the Whiteaker will not fall victim to this because of the strength and unity of the ethnic community within the neighborhood.
“With all the ethnic-owned businesses and people around here, I can’t see it happening it to us.”