Rebuilding Amazon, One Step At a Time

By: Brooke Brown

The Amazon needs a little TLC.

Before you get too excited, we’re talking Eugene, Oregon here. The Amazon neighborhood may not be a massive rainforest, but it has its perks too. There are no lions or spider monkeys, unless you count some unruly college students in that category.

There are helpful, friendly neighbors in a laid-back atmosphere nestled closely to the University of Oregon. There are tight-knit families, rental houses full of college students, and only minor issues that plague its residents regularly. When the sun comes out, there are housewives gardening and children playing in the streets.

But, undeniably, there are plenty of improvements that need to be made. Every great foundation has the tendency to crumble in certain areas, but who has the energy to do the dirty work? The following stories are about Amazon residents who are constantly moving building blocks and trying to create and nurture something better for their community. Dave Stucky focuses on the neighborhood growing together through sustainability, Geni Morrow is giving the community a place to learn and a gathering place, and Helmut Plant wants to inspire others by sharing his passion.

Dave Stucky created a completely sustainable garden that helps feed 5 families in the neighborhood.

Gardening For Good

A man smiles while fearlessly placing his hand inside a beehive.

Unflinching, 47-year-old Dave Stucky watches his bees like a proud parent. The bees land and cover his hand but do not sting, as if sensing his natural compassion for their lifestyle.

The bees reside in two wooden beehives inside Stucky’s immaculate and expansive sustainability garden in Eugene’s Amazon neighborhood. In a plot of land the size of an average backyard, he produces an incredibly long list of items including fruit, vegetables, potatoes, tea, spices, plants, and even hops. While most of us have trouble dragging ourselves to the grocery store to get things for dinner, Stucky almost entirely eats food that he has produced from his garden.

The garden doubles as the Amazon Bee Co-op, a hub from which Stucky organizes a neighborhood-wide beekeeping group. The group finds homes for beehives in Eugene and allows people to experience caring for the misunderstood insects while learning more about them. Last summer, his hives produced around 40 pounds of honey.

“But honey is not the main idea,” Stucky says. “They’re amazing, interesting creatures. A lot of people are afraid of them, but bees are almost completely non-aggressive.”

The bees add a natural and necessary component to Stucky’s sustainability garden. Not only do they pollinate his flowers, they help the garden remain a complex, abundant growing environment. According to Stucky, the more plants and animals in the garden the better.

“Complexity is always better. Look around in nature, you don’t just see one thing. There are thousands of species around. Good healthy gardens are really complex,” he says.

Stucky is a garden master and sustainability advocate, but he makes his living as a technology consultant. His hands are coarse and weathered like a modern-day cowboy, permanently damaged from all the building and planting. His garden is grown and maintained in an entirely organic environment and he has built virtually everything in it, from the wooden walkways to the chicken coops.

Rather than relying on electricity, he likes to chop wood in order to heat his home.  For Stucky, this way of life is where he finds balance. “It’s a much more grounded form of just being happy. If I want this planet to be available to my kids I need to live a certain way.”

Stucky's garden and beehives have become a neighborhood attraction.

Producing just as much as you take is a major element of Stucky’s life that he is looking to share with others. In the middle of an urban area he created a tiny farming mecca that has become a neighborhood sanctuary while feeding five households on a daily basis. “Three families eat a whole meal a day out of that garden,” he says. The Illinous-native’s smile is always welcoming, and he leaves a chalkboard out in front of the garden for visitors to say a quick hello. He does not sell any of his crops, but always wants to allow others to enjoy them. Many of these neighbors help him care for the plants all year long.

“The garden seems to be infectious,” Stucky laughs.

It’s hard not to take a second look at the lush plot of land as you pass by. Some people stop in out of curiosity, some come to help him care for his crops, and others need to take a breath of fresh air. The small wooden signs posted to the fence read “Amazon Bee Co-op,” and attract visitors from college students to kindergarteners.

Recently, Stucky discovered a group of curious young children in his garden looking at his beehives, and he spent the next couple hours teaching them all about bees and gardening. “It literally does not get any better than that,” he says, smiling as he remembers the day.

Needless to say, he doesn’t sit around much. It was lucky to find a still moment with him, sipping his favorite licorice tea from Allan Brothers Coffee. But as soon as we left he found a bag of old coffee grounds to haul back to the garden, praising their power in soil and not wanting something that could be reused go to waste.

Dave brings the old coffee grounds to help fertilize his garden.

To Stucky, happiness is producing your own goods, being one with nature, and not always being perfectly comfortable. “I like to be out in the cold rain and really be out in nature, then come inside for a nice cup of tea,” Stucky says. He barely ever drives anywhere, and is out working in his garden or on his computer most of his waking moments. His family likes to joke that he is the anti-thesis of the ‘that was easy button.’

Stucky’s goal of helping the community will soon be fulfilled in yet another way as he works toward creating an orchard co-op for the Amazon neighborhood. He and many of his friends are working toward planting fruit trees in yards and unused lots around Amazon in order to share the fruit with families in need.

Between his ongoing efforts to improve his community and living in harmony with nature, Stucky has found a balance he couldn’t be happier with.

“People try to buy their way out of unhappiness, that’s such an unsustainable thing to do. I think the stuff that makes us deeply happy provides a strong path to being sustainable.”

Geni Morrow, founder of the Amazon Reach Center.

Reaching Out For A Reason

Chances are, you drive past hidden treasure every day.

We’re not talking buried gold or pirate’s booty here, so put down the compass, Captain Jack Sparrow. This treasure is more of a communal thing, a pot of gold that hundreds of people can cherish all at once. And yet, it remains hidden when it’s right under our noses.

Amazon resident Geni Morrow could be crowned explorer extraordinaire for her discovery and cultivation of the Amazon Reach Center. The Reach Center is a building that holds a melting pot of art forms and passions from different people all around the Eugene community.  In one day there could be everything from dance, cooking, breakdancing, writing, piano and voice classes to children’s camps and neighborhood gardening.

“There are so many different kinds of art forms, it’s really wonderful to have that collective energy,” says Morrow, her eyes beaming with pride at seeing her dream come together.

All this commotion takes place in a dingy, paint-chipped eyesore of an old church on the corner of 25th and Harris, right in the center of the Amazon neighborhood. After living there for 25 years, 56-year-old Morrow finally decided to figure out what the building was used for.

What she found was that for years, the building stood bare, with its only inhabitants being a Chinese church who gathered once a week. It takes a special kind of vision to see coal become a diamond, and she had just that.

The activity center began as a church, and sat virtually empty for years before Morrow bought it in 2007.

Morrow is the founder of Dance For A Reason and The Edge dance companies, and has been teaching dance and tumbling most of her adult life. She smiles constantly and likes to adhere to one of her favorite sayings: “A cartwheel a day keeps the doctor away.” It’s not quite the traditional saying, but after a moment with Morrow, you can’t help but wonder if that’s the secret recipe behind her explosive energy.

After moving her dance companies around to different venues for years, her students needed a space to practice in Eugene that they wouldn’t outgrow.  From Agate Hall to the Eugene School of Ballet, they had exhausted almost all of the affordable options. For Morrow, it was time to get creative.

One Man’s Trash Is Another Woman’s Treasure

In 2001, Morrow walked into the old church and approached Reverend Bill Phillips from the Willamette Valley Baptist Association, the owners of the building at the time. She laughs as she remembers his dry sense of humor. “Us Southern Baptists, we don’t dance,” he joked.  “But I’ll pencil you in as aerobics.”

The Reverend penciled them in for the next 9 years, with the dancer’s only payment being to set up the chairs for the Chinese church after they practiced. It wasn’t long before Morrow and her crew brought life to the empty space.

Morrow converted this room into a dance space 9 years ago.

Crafted from the bones of the decrepit old church, an up-and-coming community hub was born. Morrow saw past the flaking blue paint and cracked walls, and focused instead on the spacious rooms, perfect for dancing and tumbling. What she calls the neighborhood’s “white elephant” soon became her pride and joy.

“I love the building. I’ve had a love affair going on since the time I first saw it,” she says, beaming with an infectious smile.

She finally bought the building in February of 2007, after saving up for years, and with some prodding on behalf of Reverend Phillips. After only being open for 9 months, the Center 24 different classes, with a steady stream of community members taking part. This participation is mainly in part to Morrow’s never-lacking enthusiasm. She talks about the Reach Center like a proud parent, finding joy in the hard work by the people she’s around.

This enthusiasm helped her to overcome many big obstacles in the way of opening the Center. The City of Eugene closed it down swiftly after she purchased it, citing regulations on a privately owned business in a neighborhood, as well as issues with the building’s safety. After hunting down the right paperwork, the City agreed that the Reach Center could operate as an activity center housing her dance companies as long as 2/3 of the center was used for non-dance activities. Thus, Morrow and the Reach Center embraced almost every community member who came looking to rent out space to practice or teach their passion.

“It’s a hub, bursting at the seams with want-to-be nine-to-nine action,” says Morrow. “It’s got so much life inside it already.”

All this activity and the years of Eugene rain have done a number on the building. Even after opening, there are constant battles Morrow faces daily to keep the Center running. “Neighbors always ask when the building is going to be painted,” she says, but funds have yet to add up to such a big project. Minor problems like electricity, heat and graffiti take constant wear and tear on her pocketbook. When the building isn’t bustling, she describes it as a financial dead zone.

But the struggles are ignored when the rooms are each filled with what Morrow excitedly describes as “their own individual brain powers” during the day. In one room there are breakdancers, another holds a yoga class, and yet another is a meeting for the Young Writers Association. The ultimate goal is to recreate a sense of community and a place for people to learn and nurture their art, explains the Newport, Oregon native.

Morrow is also working with Dave Stucky, an Amazon sustainability gardener and community organizer, to use the yard of the Reach Center for the neighborhood orchard co-op. “Geni’s got really incredible energy; what she’s doing for the neighborhood is an inspiration,” says Stucky.

Morrow hopes to make the yard an outdoor gathering place with the orchard trees, and to possibly donate the fruit to local families in need.

Inspired to Give Back

As a lifelong dancer and dance teacher, Morrow is accustomed to seeing potential grow and flourish with hard work. As a break from her daily tasks of running the center, she teaches a dance class once a week and finds inspiration through her students.

“It’s not about which kid can do a double-back perfectly. It’s about teaching them to be as good as you can be for you,” she says. “I had forgotten how fun it was to straighten someone’s leg.”

Ballet shoes hang at the entrance of the Reach Center.

Many of the children in Morrow’s classes are what she calls ‘scholarship kids.’ As many as 28 young dancers have taken classes for free because their families can’t afford to pay for their classes, and Morrow refuses to say no. “Even when I know I’m struggling financially, I can’t turn these kids away,” she says. But only under one condition: To avoid putting pressure on the children, she makes sure the parents don’t inform their children they are on scholarship.

With 3 grown children of her own and decades of teaching under her belt, she had considered retiring before opening the Reach Center last September.

“I’ve had those moments where I just think, maybe it’s time to go back to Newport and bake muffins,” says Morrow. Her healthy, athletic lifestyle has given her a youthful, energetic look and demeanor. But her knees ached from the years of spotting, and teaching began to take its toll on her body. Yet every time, she looked back and was thankful for not throwing in the towel yet.

Morrow's office door is covered with newspaper clippings of her father, a huge inspiration in her life.

This persistence comes from a lifelong inspiration in her late father, successful high-school football coach and former Oregon State quarterback Gene Morrow. Old newspaper clippings of him cover her office walls as she tears up while describing his huge influence on her life. “So many kids were inspired by him, it’s so empowering. That’s what changed my mind a few years ago. I thought, are you really done teaching?”

But Morrow has even bigger goals for the Reach Center, aside from creating a meaningful gathering place for the community. She’s hoping for the Center to be used by the University of Oregon, Lane Community College, and the YMCA as overflow for any space needed with their programs. Ralph Steadman, the newly pronounced general manager of the Center, is confident that it will continue to flourish in the community. “I believe in Geni a great deal, and I believe in what she’s doing,” says Steadman. “It’s so Eugene that people can smell it in there. So far, there’s nobody that hasn’t responded with a positive attitude.”

Her ultimate dream is to create the first totally green and sustainable neighborhood activity center. “It could be a model for other city’s community centers on how to go green,” she says, excited by the prospect of inciting such positive change.

For now, Morrow and the Center are working toward getting more people involved in activities and expanding their horizons. The old blue building is rooted in passion and looking to grow into something big, beautiful, and unforgettable.

The Reach Center may not look like gold, but inside is where the potential for real treasure lies. “I can’t wait until we get to the point where we can ask the community, ‘What would you like to see here?’ There’s so much we can create together.”

Helmut Plant uses dance to stay fit and connect to the community.

Play That Funky Music

There may be a secret to looking twenty years younger.

It sounds like an ad for some cheesy anti-aging pill, but the answers may not be in medicine after all. Helmut Plant, a local Eugene dance fanatic and retired University of Oregon professor, seems to have cracked the aging code through one simple, fun and addictive activity: dancing.

Plant is a noticeably fit 78-year-old who has been dancing since he was a child in Munich, Germany. From tango to the Cajun-based 8-count swing, dubbed zydeco, he has explored and enjoyed all different kinds of dance in the past 70 years of his practice.

“It’s a quick way to burn calories and enjoy yourself. I love to share it with others,” says Plant of his dancing addiction. The lines around his mouth are deep from plenty of smiling, and his eyes are full of life under wire-rimmed glasses.

He moved to the U.S. after WWII in 1952, enlisted in the U.S. Army and attended college with the GI Bill. Since 1967, he’s been in Eugene and taught German literature classes at the U of O. It was here that Plant learned most of his dancing technique, when he began taking ballroom dance classes at the University.

“It’s funny, I learned all my German folk dancing here and not in Germany,” he says, “I probably took every dance class they offered here.”

Plant dancing as an 8-year-old in Germany.

As a child his interest was sparked when he was put in a musical in Munich. But it wasn’t until a college P.E. requirement that he ventured back into the realm of dance. Now, he is very active member of the Eugene Zydeco Dance Community, and even holds a one-credit German workshop to teach students German culture and folk dancing every Spring.

One of Plant’s favorite activities is to hold a free dance hour two Sundays a month at the Amazon Reach Center.

“I have an income and I want to give [people who can’t afford to pay] access to dance. I’m also aiming at students, because by definition students are always broke,” he says with a smile.

He doesn’t take donations at the classes, but simply wants people to enjoy themselves through the art. “It’s more like a group of friends coming together and dancing,” says Plant. He does not claim to be a dance teacher, but often pays them to come teach the 12 or 15 people who show up on Sundays. When a teacher’s not there, Plant leads a free dance hour by playing songs from his iPod for different dance styles.

“I have a one-hour playlist,” Plant says, “I just love to give people a place to dance for free.”

Plant teaches German folk dancing to students every year.

It could be the fresh Oregon air or his positive spirit that keep Plant looking and feeling healthy, but there’s a good chance all the moving and shaking has something to do with it.

“I think somebody asked me once: What do you do to stay alive?” Plant laughs, “I keep moving, physically and mentally.”

Rebuilding Amazon slideshow:

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2 Responses to Rebuilding Amazon, One Step At a Time

  1. eminormajor says:

    NICE!!! I wish I met that Helmut guy, he seems like a real character. Well done, I’m sure Dave is proud! Haha, have a good summer.

  2. Charlie Magee says:

    Excellent stories Brooke! Very well written, and you’ve got a great eye for detail. You captured Geni’s Morrow’s personality as if you’ve know her for years. Good job!

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