A Community Strives to Overcome a Decades Long Dilemma
Barbara Bellinger, Reporter
“Heroin.” “Needles.” “Junkies.”
Three words used by residents of the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene, Oregon to describe the chronic drug problem that stymies their efforts at revamping their public image.
“The neighborhood comes forward and says if we just fixed up [Scobert Gardens Park] it would be more attractive,” said Tod Schneider, Crime Prevention Specialist of the Monroe Street Police Substation and a resident of the Whiteaker. “Then the scary population moves in…”
That is when the community beautification efforts seem fruitless to those putting in the hard work.
“This is particularly frustrating,” Schneider said. “Every time we build nice amenities they’re a magnet for the street population. They take over.”
Scobert Gardens Park or “Heroin Park,” as it is known locally, received an upgrade a few months ago. Volunteers planted shrubbery, replaced park benches, and gave the park a small facelift.
“They recently redid the park and it’s keeping people from hiding behind the bushes,” said Marcus Baker, bartender at Tiny Tavern. “The Eugene Police Department was cracking down on people hanging out there. But they (EPD) haven’t been around in awhile.”
And, when police are not around a park with benches still wet with fresh paint. When they are not around a park with new shrubbery providing fresh hiding spots. When they are not around any park in a neighborhood with a reputation like Whiteaker’s, one can count on trouble.
“You see people with that scruffy look. Folks passed out on the ground. They scare the families away,” Schneider said. “We start removing bushes and benches. Then the park looks so barren no wonder people don’t come around.”
However, it is not only the state of neighborhood parks that has contributed to rampant drug use in public spaces in the Whiteaker but also shortage of holding facilities for people who live on the street.
According to Schneider, the jail and mental health facilities in Eugene lack the capacity to deal with the influx of drug users, homeless, and mentally ill. The discarded “end up on the street where they are visibly offensive and scare people with their appearance,” Schneider said.
The recently released who find themselves in the Whiteaker neighborhood congregate in Washington/Jefferson Park or in the area around the Tiny Tavern.
“All of Eugene has drugs but this area is the worst,” Baker said. “Probably because it’s least patrolled and has the most people out and about on foot.” Baker believes part of this foot traffic is due to the Eugene Mission being located right down the street from the Tiny Tavern.
Nevertheless, some residents in the Whiteaker believe the reported drug use is exaggerated and overrated.
“(The Whiteaker) is Eugene’s favorite scapegoat,” said Audra McCabe, former resident of the Whiteaker who recently moved back to the neighborhood. McCabe had seen only one needle since her return and was not overly concerned.
Kristi Munro, local business owner, also had a positive outlook of the area. “Whiteaker is a vibrant community with a diverse and original population,” she said.
Schneider and his wife have lived in the Whiteaker for 28 years. They have raised four children in the neighborhood, safely walked the streets underneath the omnipresent old trees, and participated in community activities.
His years of memories provide a foil to the reputation for drugs that has stalked the Whiteaker for decades.
“If you want a place that’s peaceful and quiet, move out closer to the country,” Schneider said. “If you are looking for being in an active neighborhood with lots of street life, places to walk around, and close to downtown then move to the Whiteaker.”
“Some of the reputation the Whiteaker has is more urban myth than reality,” he said.