A notion to protect

By Mark Baker | Local News | |

You ask for an interview with the two of them, the creators and administrators of the Save Kesey Square Facebook page. But they are not the only ones who show up to talk at the controversial city-center public space on a sunny Thursday morning.

There’s also a man in a pirate costume, a young woman twirling hula hoops, a former SLUG queen (dressed the part), a longtime University of Oregon literature professor, a man who says the square must be saved because “it’s a dancing square!” and an assortment of other folk.

“This is not about me, this is not about Gwendolyn, this is about all of us,” says Zachery Quale, referring to Gwendolyn Iris, with whom he co-created the Facebook page.

Quale is all of 27 and grew up in Yachats, coming to Eugene around 2008, not long after graduating from Waldport High School.

His family lived near Wakonda Beach Road, off Highway 101. Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” was set in the fictional Oregon Coast town of Wakonda.

“That’s a deeply personal connection,” says Quale, who has a long shock of charcoal- and gray-colored hair.

But Broadway Plaza — the official name of the heart of Eugene that many know only as Kesey Square, and which incorporates the intersection of Broadway and Willamette Street and all that surrounds it, including the now-famous sculpture of Kesey reading to his grandchildren — is a relatively short memory for him.

Stories about, for example, the large concrete fountain, a long-ago-removed remnant of what was once the downtown Eugene Mall, are just that: stories, not memories.

Quale and Iris, 33, want desperately to keep Kesey Square the way it is. The square, they say, is part of who they are.

In a city immersed in protest, Kesey Square has become the latest hotpoint. The protagonists are familiar: real estate developers, potentially development-friendly city officials, and an impromptu brigade of anti-development activists. In fact, Quale and Iris met — and were arrested — at an anti-bank protest in downtown Eugene in 2011.

“Heart of Eugene”

The city is considering three options for the space: its sale or lease for private redevelopment (including plans for a six-story apartment building with first-floor eateries and retail shops); a public improvement project; or leaving it as is.

“To me, it’s connected to the history and culture of Eugene,” says Iris, who lives off Highway 99. Iris works odd jobs, from delivery person to landscaper, but considers herself an artist: She paints and sculpts and participates in something called public ritual theater.

“It’s an important public space. It’s been here 40 years.”

The community “picked this place for the Ken Kesey statue because it’s right in the heart of Eugene,” she says.

Eugene’s culture of art and performance defines the city, she adds. “And Ken Kesey, who is one of our people who become famous worldwide, epitomizes that.”

Iris mentions gentrification and says Eugene doesn’t need trendy, high-rent apartment buildings, rather more places with more affordable rents.

“The idea of them putting one of those projects over a free public use space, it feels like colonization,” she says.

Quale and Iris met on Nov. 17, 2011, when they and 15 others were arrested downtown as part of an Occupy Eugene campaign to close five downtown banks on a day of civil disobedience aimed at protesting corporate influence and income inequality.

Quale says he was sentenced to 30 hours of community service after being charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

Barbara Mossberg, a longtime literature professor and poet in the UO’s Robert Clark Honors College, puts the saving of Kesey Square this way:

“In cities, there has to be space, so we can think about human responses to our environment,” she says, standing at the square. “This is a threshold moment for Eugene, that we’re really thinking about how we go forward.”

Mossberg, who has taught at the UO for 40 years, says Kesey often was a visiting speaker in her classes.

“All great cities honor their writers. I think that Kesey had an epic vision.”

Statue of possibilities

One of the groups that wants to develop the property, 2EB LLC, has told the city that it’s committed to finding a home for the Kesey sculpture, erected in 2003, two years after the famed author died at 66 of cancer.

Conceptual drawings show possible locations on the wide sidewalks along East Broadway or Willamette Street. Other possibilities include telling Kesey’s story using “interactive digital display and lighting.”

But Mossberg and others see no need for an apartment building on Kesey Square.

“Public space creates and increases consciousness about what we can create and what we can imagine,” she says.

Quale is now typing, on a turquoise 1960s-era Remington Monarch typewriter, as he sits by the Kesey statue. The sculpture was created by Dexter artist Pete Helzer, at a cost of $125,000, with contributions coming from the likes of actor Paul Newman (who starred in the film version of Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion”) and authors Tom Wolfe and Tom Robbins.

“I just quit my job,” Quale can be heard saying of a home-healthcare position he held for three years. “And this is what I want to do now.”

He calls it “spontaneous prose,” in the spirit of Jack Kerouac.

Find kindness in every stranger. Shake hands and don’t be afraid of germs.

Juggling bubbles in Kesey Square, the jangling of wheels and those with coffees. Italian restaurants and royalty checks, Portlandia rises and DVRs and always a good place to stop and enjoy ..

That’s the beginning of what Quale, who also says he’s an artist, has banged out as he talks about discovering Kesey Square when he came to Eugene seven or eight years ago.

“I needed to sit down,” he says. “And I couldn’t find many places. I was passing out resumes, and I had very little to my name.”

So he took a seat on the statue’s bench.

“I envision this as a smaller Pike Place Market,” he says, referring to Seattle’s famous marketplace. He sees easily movable platforms that could be transformed into stages.

“If there was always something here, I don’t see how that could be detrimental to businesses.”

“I was a traveler”

Many Eugene residents complain of people dubbed “travelers,” transients who congregate at the square, often drawing the ire of local business owners.

The young woman twirling the red, black and white hula hoops, wearing bushy red and black leg warmers, says she came to Eugene five years ago from St. Louis.

“I was a traveler, and I came here with nothing,” says the woman, Jessica Love, 28, a bartender at Shoryuken League, a half-block away. “I lived in my car, and I worked really hard to get a place, just to be functional.

“The more we use the space in a positive way, the less it will be used in a negative way,” Love says. She wants more craft fairs, community events, movies, etc.

“I’ve had people tell me to be careful here, but I never felt like it was a safety issue. There’s nothing bad that’s happening now. All I see is good things happening.”

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