The City of Eugene has been working on an interpretive art piece over the last two years that commemorates the experiences of its Black citizens both today and in the past. The effort was underway before recent protests sparked conversations about systemic racism.
In the 1940s it was illegal for Black citizens to live within city limits so many settled “Across the Bridge” in what historians called Tent City. The neighborhood was later razed in order to make way for construction of Ferry Street Bridge.
As part of the Downtown Waterfront renovation, the city is creating three interpretive art pieces. One is an inclusive water fountain that will be located near the Defazio Bridge where people can look across to Alton Baker Park which used to be the Across the Bridge community.
“But the piece just does a beautiful job of sharing both the good and the difficult,” said Emily Proudfoot, Project Manager. “And the message about it is that, ‘all are welcome, all are invited to drink.’”
According to Proudfoot the piece was developed from guidance that the renovation include cultural representation of the Willamette and the idea that the river both provides and divides.
Both Proudfoot and NAACP Executive Director Eric Richardson feel the piece is a way to explore the narrative of racism in Eugene.
“So this effort is similar to what we see of taking down the statues. You know, in this case we’re putting up history,” said Richardson.
Richardson credits this progress to government leaders using their positions to affect change and the progressive character of the city as a whole.
“And by embracing that history, it’ll give the youth and the people more opportunity to become a part of our community,” Richardson said.
Proudfoot hopes this will begin more efforts like this within the parks department.
“My vision is that we could start some sort of this cultural mapping across the city,” Proudfoot said. “Eventually when we start to think of communities of Color and also Native American people - That they’re not just a fact of history. That they’re present today in our communities.”
Richardson sees the fountain’s aspirational message of inclusivity as the wish of those who suffered through living in the Across the Bridge community, but cautions that history should not be sweetened.
“Art is wonderful. Aspirational art is wonderful,” said Richardson. “But let us not forget the difficulties and the hardship in which our African American community has had to overcome and is still dealing with after generations of neglect.”
You can read more about the Downtown Riverfront renovation here and here. The Mims House (330 High St.) is also open weekdays from 9-12pm for people to borrow books and learn about the history of Eugene’s Black citizens.