In an effort to improve safety and livability, Eugene City Councilors are considering restrictions on smoking and dogs in the downtown core. There is support for the proposals but a feeling there’s more that can be done to improve what’s become a sketchy neighborhood.
Downtown Eugene can feel very unsafe, even in broad daylight. That’s especially true for young women who experience harassment, catcalls and even aggression from groups who loiter on the sidewalks.
Cummings: “I’ve had several altercations in the downtown and mostly they’ve been with men surrounding me and saying sexual comments to me, very inappropriate and threatening things they want to do to me.”
Caroline Cummings works downtown at the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network. She says it can be scary. And she’s especially upset because bystanders have just walked by and ignored these incidents. Since she’s testified at city council meetings, Cummings says other women have shared similar experiences, saying:
Cummings: “And I have been afraid to speak out or I’m worried that what they’re doing is not illegal and so nothing’s going to happen anyway so they just ignore it. And it becomes normal. And that, I’m not okay with.”
Eugene leaders have tried several initiatives to help with the problem of bad behavior downtown. City spokeswoman Laura Hammond says this includes increasing the number of police officers on patrol, establishing a community court for misdemeanor crimes, and a placemaking project to improve public spaces. She says the proposed bans on smoking and dogs are part of this.
Hammond: “The smoke free areas is really about community health, making downtown a healthier place, making it accessible for people who might not be able to be around second-hand smoke. Making it cleaner in terms of litter that is often going right into our rivers and streams. So those are really some health initiatives we’re looking at.”
Hammond says restricting dogs was successful in the University district where large groups of dogs and people used to congregate.
Hammond: “Those things don’t mix too well. It can cause some problems, cause some safety issues. So, just to create a healthier place, a safer place for people and dogs. If you can limit those congregations it tends to make it an easier place for people to walk and be.”
Hammond says there would be exceptions to both rules. Dogs would be permitted for people who live and work downtown. Smoking would be allowed in designated areas and during certain hours outside of bars.
Hammond herself works downtown. Outside her office, a bearded man sits on a ledge, nearby a brown dog is curled up asleep. Tony Smith says he’s just watching the dog for a friend. He says he doesn’t think the proposed smoke free and dog free zones are a good idea.
Tony Smith: “I think people should be held accountable if their dog bites somebody or something. But otherwise, no. Dogs have the right to be downtown.” [laughs]
But, Thomas Pettus-Czar, who owns the Barnlight, a café and bar in the heart of downtown, says he and other business owners are frustrated with the bad reputation the area has for safety. And it keeps getting worse.
Pettus-Czar: “Not just speaking for myself, but I think a number of retailers downtown, local businesses downtown, because of that unfortunate change in the climate, they’re probably willing to try anything at this point to make it a more welcoming environment for folks from all over Eugene to come down here.” Pettus-Czar_
Pettus-Czar says he doesn’t think the smoking and dog bans will adversely affect his business since there are exceptions. But will they solve the problems?
Pettus-Czar: “There’s a multitude of issues going on downtown which contribute to this perception of an unsafe or unwelcoming environment. The degree to which smoking and dogs play a role in that, I’m uncertain.”
Caroline Cummings says there needs to be a cohesive strategy to address the behavior of certain people who hang out downtown. She says it’s not about targeting certain groups.
Cummings: “I’m not having issues with any individual group. I’m not anti-homeless. I’m not even anti-transient. Hey we live in America. If you want to travel around and live, that’s great. But, I have issues with the behaviors. People who loiter, litter and lash-out.”
City Councilors and advocates have discussed opening a public shelter for homeless people. Cummings supports this. She’d also like to see day work programs that might give unemployed folks a sense of purpose and connection to the community. The Council is expected to make a decision on the proposed bans on smoking and dogs downtown next week. The Eugene City Council is holding a public hearing on the proposals tonight (Monday 2/27).