Businesses and people find ways to make their community grow.
By Claire Staley
EUGENE, Ore.- At first glance, the Whiteaker isn’t exactly what you’d call a nice neighborhood.
The main thoroughfares are characterized by shallow curbs, endless potholes, and the occasional interruption of a panhandler or two. Along some of the dilapidated fences are piles of trash and empty twenty-four ounce cans. Interspersed among colorful homes with well-kept gardens is low-budget housing, including studio apartments fashioned out of an old motel. People drink cheap domestic beer on the balconies, shouting and toasting each other in a continuously changing dynamic that bounces between pissed-off and neighborly.
But there is something else here. It’s intangible sometimes, but it’s there. There’s the reason that so many people celebrate this Eugene neighborhood as the place they choose to live, work, eat, drink and play.
“This is the best part of Eugene,” Red Barn grocery store clerk Jasmine Henderson says, dead-pan and disarmingly serious. She’s the kind of person you except to find in the Whiteaker—the nouveau free spirit. Short and wiry, sleeves cut off her t-shirt, and with her head shaved on the sides, she is the second-coming of the hippie that is endemic in Eugene, and native to the Whiteaker.
Henderson isn’t alone in her figuring. There’s genuinely something about these streets, which are some of the oldest in Eugene, and home to a number of the town’s most fundamental institutions. The very best are known by affectionate diminutives among all Eugenites: Sam Bond’s, Papa’s, PRI.
“We have so much culture and community,” Henderson reaffirms.
Community is the defining element in the Whiteaker. Everyone in the boundaries of this neighborhood northwest of downtown Eugene seems to share the same camaraderie. There’s a shared appreciation of art, music, and good (organic, local and often macrobiotic) food. Those who own and work in the neighborhood’s wide variety of independent stores, shops, restaurants and bars chose this neighborhood for this reason: the Whiteaker is a genuine community. And despite the potholes and the poverty, they wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.
Brad Coffey opened up his eclectic gift shop/art gallery Olivejuice about a year and a half ago. The store shares walls with another small art gallery, Voyeur, and a hole-in-the-wall taquería, featuring 99 cent tacos as well as a playfully obscene name. Coffey is a longtime resident of the Whiteaker, and made the choice to open his Blair Street business because he wanted to bring some more life and color to the block. “It was a bad area,” he says. “People were afraid to walk down here.”
Barista Thomas Howard has seen some of the rougher crowd in his 2 years at Wandering Goat Coffee Company. “I’ve had to kick people out before,” he says, shrugging. The small café, which serves house-roasted coffee, vegan pastries, and local beer, has established itself as a fiercely independent mainstay in the Whiteaker. Economic woes haven’t really hurt them. “We were a little worried, but it seems that we’ve pulled through,” says Howard. “People depend on these things too much,” he continues, referring to the places, like Wandering Goat, that people cherish as part of a daily routine. No one, it seems, wants to let go of the simple pleasures of their day. A cup of strong coffee, roasted right next door, is one of them.
The people who frequent the Wandering Goat are people who keep coming back. As a tall, rough looking man walks in the door, dog in town, Howard lowers his voice slightly and nods towards the approaching figure. “If you want stories, you should talk to that guy. He’s got stories,” he says. His recognition was immediate. He knows his people here. In fact, he lives about a block away from the coffee shop.
“There’s two types of Whiteaker residents,” he says. “There’s the non-community oriented people…” He pauses. “You don’t really see them. But the people who come here, work here—everyone’s friendly.”
All in all, things seem to be looking up. On Coffey’s block alone, new businesses have brought a little more class and culture to an intersection which once featured a 7-11 on one side and a 76 gas station on the other. Pizza Research Institute, the locally-famous vegetarian pizza joint, moved from its cramped Lawrence Street location to a new and more spacious one on the corner of 6th and Blair. Voyeur just opened its doors across the street. Things seem to be going well.
In an area historically notorious for its homeless population, alcohol and drug abuse, and general poverty, the national economic downtown has certainly affected businesses and residents of the Whiteaker. But the people who work in this neighborhood have created their own safety net. It’s not an air of competition. It’s the outlook that everyone here is in the same boat.
“It’s kind of a hang-out sort of mentality,” says PRI pizza-slinger/college student Jordan Bentz. “It’s not like we’re competing for capital or anything. We just help each other out.”
The sentiment is prevalent.
“It’s just the community sticking together down here,” Coffey says. The independent business owners, employees and customers make up a network. There’s an obsession with the local, and that’s understandable when such a microcosm of support and enthusiasm exists in such a small space. Wandering Goat carries beer created by nearby breweries Ninkasi and Oakshire, and they’ve organized events in collaboration with nearby Tiny Tavern. Employees from the café play music there or at Sam Bond’s Garage. Almost everyone participates in the Last Friday Artwalk. Everything’s connected, and that’s one of the reasons many Whiteaker residents say they love their neighborhood: everything they need is right here.
Looming over every other building north of 3rd Avenue is the Ninkasi Brewing Company. The brewery is only celebrating its fourth anniversary this year, but has already joined the ranks of regional breweries Rogue, Deschutes, and Widmer in producing over 15,000 barrels of beer last year. The brewhouse is surrounded by chain-link fencing, men in hardhats, portable toilets and forklifts. The buzz of activity is constant. Ninkasi is in the middle of a $4 million revamping, updating the brewhouse where their eight varieties of Northwest-style beer are created in order to keep up with their success. Their tasting room, attached to the brewery and open daily, opened up last fall.
“It’s obviously been a great success,” says Zoe Gadsby, during a brief break from pouring pints and tasting platters. The tasting room is sleekly furnished, belying the construction chaos outside, and the small bar is full of people wrapped around pints or small samplers.
The success of the brewery has bolstered business in the Whiteaker. “We’ve hired 23 people in the last year. It’s created tons of jobs.” The sights and sounds of construction around the tasting room are less than inviting, but come summer, Ninkasi will be opening up a patio with outdoor seating and a revolving supply of local food booths, including the roving sandwich-mobile Devour.
The economic hardships that have befallen other businesses haven’t seemed to slow the success of Ninkasi. No matter how little money they have, people don’t seem to want to give up their patronage to the brewery. They’ll forgo the fancy dining and fine wine, but beer, especially made by craft breweries like Ninkasi, is too precious to Oregonians. “People are drinking beer,” Gadsby says. “And they’re drinking good beer.”
Standing on the corner of 3rd and Van Buren, perhaps in the drizzling rain and under the steel-gray sky that are characteristic of the Willamette Valley, no, the Whiteaker might not look like much. It’s sometimes dirty and unkempt, and an air of poverty still clings to certain corners. But even these things are part of what gives the Whiteaker its unique and indomitable character. There’s verve and a tenacity that pervades its commercial centers. It’s the community, the network that binds together the people who have invested so much time and money into building successful businesses that makes it special. It’s the reason that people flock from all corners of Eugene to Sam Bond’s for Bingo Night on Mondays, and the reason that everyone can stand on the sidewalks, drinking white wine out of plastic cups while admiring off-the-wall (or sometimes, literally, on-the-wall—both murals and graffiti adorn buildings) art.
It’s the nouveau hippies. It’s the organic food, the hyper-local coffee, the up-and-coming brewhouse, the artwalk. But it’s also just the hang-out mentality.