“The Parks Department may not want me here, but this land tells me otherwise.”
We were standing on the north bank of the Willamette River, where I had come down to check up on a friend who had lived on the river next to the boat landing for as long as I had known her. I had come to the riverbank bearing root beer, but Mary Ann met me at her entryway bearing bad news and a yellow piece of paper. Maintenance workers had just come through the area earlier in the afternoon, and the yellow paper had been left taped to her door. She was being evicted from her home.
I looked around, forgetting for a moment as I always did that her “home” was not a house in the traditional sense, but a primitive hut built from waddling and covered with a canvas tarp that was tucked away within the confines of a city-owned park. My experiences camping at various pagan festivals over the years had instilled in me a great appreciation for makeshift dwellings, especially for ones that were cleverly built and aesthetically pleasing, and hers was second to none in that regard. It was an extraordinary spot, and it was indeed her home in the strongest sense of the word. Literally built from scratch with her own two hands, her riverfront hobbit-hut was truly otherworldly, quietly hidden and secluded with the river as her only neighbor.
So secluded, in fact, that it had taken the parks department over a year to find her within the tangled overgrowth of the riverbank. But find her they finally did. And unlike a legal eviction from a “legitimate” residential dwelling, which allows for seven days and a judicial hearing, a legal eviction of a “homeless camp” from a city park grants neither adequate time to vacate nor any form of due process. Her hut was literally set to be bulldozed the next day, and she had no recourse. She also had nowhere else she felt she could go.
“This place is a sanctuary, and this land wants to protect me,” she said to me, tearfully. “This ground beneath my feet, it welcomes me here. We have a relationship, an understanding. I don’t care if they need to trim the blackberries. I am of the Earth and this is my home. I have a connection with this space. Myself, the trees, the bushes, the river. We get along, we are friends. Nobody bothers me here. This place wants me here. This is the only place I’ve ever felt such safety.”
I looked at her and realized at that moment that not only was she losing her home, she was also being severed from a deep and powerful spiritual connection that she had forged with this odd little patch of sand and brush. In the eyes of the parks department, she was simply another illegal camper who was squatting on public land and interfering with their futile attempts at controlling the blackberries. As I saw it, however, the home she had crafted and her connection to this place was nothing less than sacred. I looked at her again and realized I was gazing into the eyes of a fellow priestess who was facing the loss and destruction of her hand-built, self-defined sanctuary.
Sanctuary. I muttered the word under my breath. She was far from the first person to tell me that this specific strip of riverbank felt like an energetic sanctuary for the disenfranchised, but never before had I considered the issue while literally standing in the place in question. Sanctuary. I closed my eyes for a moment, cleared my mind, and allowed my inner awareness to tune into my surroundings. It felt calm, deep, rooted, potent.
I looked into the eyes of my friend once more, trying to comprehend in the moment what it could possibly be like to live in a blackberry thicket that swirled with such a force, and what it meant to develop such a deep relationship with one’s surroundings in a place such as this. I knew there was nothing more I could offer her at that moment other than understanding and sympathy, and the only thing I knew to do in the moment was to hug her as hard as I could. We said our goodbyes, and I climbed back up the ridge of the riverbank to the path above. Halfway up, I glanced back and over at her beautiful dwelling, soon to be demolished, and I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. That wasn’t just a homeless camp. I truly felt that her little spot was sacred ground.
As I walked home, my rage and sadness quickly transformed into an unshakable curiosity regarding the energetic resonance of that chunk of the riverbank and Mary Ann’s strong belief that the land specifically wanted to provide her sanctuary. I was reminded again that I had heard similar claims before, from people that weren’t nearly as spiritually attuned as my friend was. There were dozens of parks scattered throughout this city, countless hidden spots scattered up and down the riverbanks where one could make a temporary home. Why did people gravitate to this specific place? What is it about this place that feels welcoming and safe to those who are otherwise living in exile, despite the fact that people are rousted from here just as much as anywhere else? I tried my best not to dwell on it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be something more to it.
A few days later, I was having coffee with another friend when I mentioned my experience in the park and the unanswered questions that were still lingering.
“What is it about that place?” I asked her, not necessarily expecting an answer. “I can’t help but feel that there’s something specific about that spot that’s creating or contributing to a widely-sensed feeling of safety. Mary Ann’s been getting the message from the land directly since she was first drawn to that spot, and I sense that there’s a true authenticity to her connections and experiences. But then other folks, many who don’t subscribe to spiritual thinking and would scoff at the idea of talking to the trees, will still tell you that that there’s a “welcoming vibe” down on that part of the riverfront.”
She looked up. “Well, you know that’s where the old black settlement used to be, right?”
My friend had lived here for many years, and was an indispensable and often spontaneous source of local history. She immediately realized by the look on my face that I had no idea what she was talking about.
“There was a tent city on the riverbank sometime around World War II that existed as the only black community for several years. The neighborhood was eventually bulldozed in order to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge, and those who lived in the settlement were mostly forced out into the wetlands at the other end of town Some weren’t even given time to claim their possessions before their homes were destroyed. But for years before the bridge was built, the north bank was the only place that black folks were allowed to live, the only place where they were safe from harassment and left alone.”
“The only place they were allowed to live?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Well, yes,” she continued. “Back then, city limits ended at the river. The north bank was county land.” She paused. I stared at her, processing what I had just been told. We both started to speak at the same time. I let her go first.
“You do know that this used to be a sundown town, right?”
She had just answered the question I was about to ask, and I was suddenly hit with a burst of clarity. As a recent transplant that was still in the wee learning stages of understanding the history, politics and dynamics of this area, that one powerful piece of factual information immediately started to trickle its way into the various questions and thoughts about this area that I had been filing away in my head all this time.
I looked up at my friend and smiled. “You just gave me a real important piece,” I said to her. “Thank you.”
I had been aware of the overall history of sundown towns and their effects, but until that moment I hadn’t a clue that this liberal, Pacific Northwest college town, with its reputation as a hippie mecca and its emphasis on human rights and diversity, also had a notable history of racial discrimination. As a former New Yorker, one of the first things I noticed about Eugene was how overwhelmingly white the population was, but I had assumed it was mainly the result of the same discriminatory housing practices that were once widely practiced throughout the nation. But the newly-acquired knowledge that this town had a history of systematically excluding the entire black population from the city limits after sunset affected me almost instantly in my understandings and perceptions of this place. Not only was it simply important on its face in terms of my desire to understand the basic history of where I lived, but it provided a powerful and important historical context that was quite relevant in relation to the current patterns of exclusion and oppression that I had been observing and noting, and the ideas and questions that I had been tossing around and pondering in response to those observations.
I immediately thought back to Mary Ann and her sanctuary. The reason that Mary Ann and countless others hide out on the north bank of the river is because they are constantly subject to local laws and policies that have resulted in the systematic harassment, persecution, and exclusion of the homeless population from the city center. These exclusion policies and practices are numerous: ordinances that criminalize sleeping anywhere on public property, strictly enforced park curfews that prohibit people from gathering at night, a deliberate and complete lack of public benches combined with an ordinance that prohibits sitting on the sidewalk, a constitutionally-suspect judicial remedy known as the “exclusion zone,” and an infamous team of private security guards who are specifically tasked with forcing homeless people to move along.
Especially at night, it is essentially illegal to exist in the downtown area if you have nowhere else to go at night, and choosing to willfully remain in the downtown area is to risk arrest, assault, or worse. These various laws and strategies create the effect of a sundown town for anyone who lacks a home. The similarity had never been lost on me, but it took on a much stronger significance for me now that I knew that this place actually had been a sundown town. I had been criticizing and speaking out against these policies without ever knowing or understanding the degree to which this city had a history of discrimination and exclusion, a history that not only is unknown to most, but has arguably been effectively and deliberately erased by forty years’ worth of liberal rhetoric that has consistently projected the image that Eugene has always been a haven for diversity and tolerance.
I then thought about the history of that stretch of the riverbank, and the similarities in the two narratives, historic and present, as they related to that specific area. There have been countless tent communities and temporary homesteads erected along that stretch over the years, inhabited by folks who had been driven out from the city center, and eventually they were generally all subject to the same fate in the form of a bulldozer, often without any notice or warning. The same exact fate, I now knew, that another community of makeshift homesteads had succumbed to over a half-century ago in nearly the exact spot. Another community that was forced to retreat to this area and build their own huts and shanties after being systematically denied the right to live within the city limits.
I recognized that the knowledge and recognition of these historic connections and patterns was an essential part of my ongoing process of forging a deeper relationship with the land, and in developing a more solid understanding of the habits and tendencies of both people and place. I couldn’t define exactly what these connections meant in the large sense of that process, but I understood exactly why I was led to discover them as I did. As someone who has long been committed to fighting for justice, stumbling upon such ugly yet important truths about this town’s discriminatory past only strengthened my commitment to recognizing and standing up to oppression in all its insidious forms.
A few months later, I finally found Mary Ann on the riverbank again, a few hundred yards upstream from the spot where her hut had been demolished. Her new place was further hidden away and nowhere near as enchanting as her previous spot. A simple tent had replaced her former hut of sticks. “I don’t see the point right now,” she told me. “I’m still too angry. I don’t want to start over. For all I know I’ll be evicted from here in a week. They don’t understand that I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how to make them understand that the land wants me here.”
I told her what I had learned about the history of this area. “I kept thinking about your feeling of sanctuary,” I said. “And I can’t help but to keep going back to the historical parallels as a reference point, and then bounce right back to thinking about your sense of this place.”
I may have been fascinated by it all, but she didn’t look the slightest bit surprised. “What have I said again and again? This piece of land doesn’t believe in exclusion,” she told me. “This place protects the oppressed. I know that, I told you that. I don’t need to dwell on why it is. It just is.”
I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t about to argue.
Perhaps that stretch of the riverbank is exactly as Mary Ann says it is, and the spirits of that land truly and simply wish to protect those who are oppressed and excluded. Perhaps they’ve always done that, and it was my job to pick up on a small piece of that pattern. Perhaps the history of that spot as a sanctuary for those who have been excluded has left a subtle psychic echo that many happen to pick up on, in a wide variety of strengths that range from “feeling safe vibes” to the absolute steadfast religious belief that the river and the trees want to shelter and protect the oppressed. And perhaps there are no true connections at all, and the entirety of my observations amount to nothing more than pure coincidence. Perhaps the belief among many that the area offers them safety is purely in their heads. It could be that its nothing more than a matter of simple location that accounts for the similarity between the history of that spot and the current usage as it relates to those who have sadly experienced exclusion and oppression throughout the years.
What I do know is that the true value of the lesson has very little to do with any one definitive answer, and much more to do with illuminating and reinforcing the importance and power of knowing the various histories of the places in which we inhabit and interact. I find that often, hints from the land itself will point me straight to the answers, the history that you need. Other times, these hints serve as a caution and reminder as to the dangers of forgetting that history, and in the importance of seeking out and researching patterns and connections.
I consider the stories that make up our history to be sacred, and to learn about, research, remember, and retell such stories not only serves to honor those who actually lived those histories, but it also ensures that if and when we ever find ourselves in patterns of repetition, we carry within us important pieces of our collective memory and experience that can serve as a point of reference and reflection.