What makes 'The Whit' tick.
On a random day in the Whiteaker neighborhood west of downtown Eugene, Arcimoto engineers were building a prototype electric vehicle in the fledgling company's space at Fifth Avenue and Blair Boulevard. Next door, workers were sliding vegan pies into the oven at Pizza Research Institute. A few blocks north on Van Buren Street, Ninkasi was brewing and bottling its award-winning beer. And around the corner, Seattle transplant Samuel Decker, a glass blower who trained with Dale Chihuly, was creating a vase in his workshop.
This only scratches the surface of all the activity in the district nestled along the Willamette River, from Skinner Butte to Chambers Street.
"It's kind of a working man's neighborhood, and it's Eugene's oldest neighbor hood," said Bill Mahoney, who has lived in the Whiteaker area for 25 years and started the New Day Bakery there in 1989.
At night, the neighborhood catches its second wind when Ninkasi's tasting room hosts the after-work crowd; Sam Bond's Garage on Blair Boulevard fills with live music; Izakaya Meiji Co., a tavern just north of the landmark Red Barn Natural Grocery, serves Japanese cuisine and drinks until 1 a.m.; and the Blair Alley Vintage Arcade welcomes players of vintage pinball and arcade games in an alley behind Ninkasi until 2 a.m.
Over the years, the Whiteaker area has been called a lot of things: the "bad" part of town, the epicenter of Eugene's anarchist community and, according to a 2007 Esquire article, "one of the weirdest neighborhoods in America." But lately it's become increasingly known as a hotbed for new businesses.
In the past few years, at least 10 new ventures have started in Whiteaker's business core, which stretches along Blair Boulevard approximately between Third and Seventh avenues.
"It's amazing," said Mark Jaeger, owner of Jaeger Real Estate and a partner in Sam Bond's Garage, a music venue and pub housed in the 1918 garage that truly used to be the repair shop of a guy named Sam Bond.
"It's been flourishing this whole time," he said. "You think of the number of new businesses that have come in - Papa's Soul Food Kitchen, Pizza Research Institute, Izakaya Meiji, and, of course, Ninkasi is really the big player down here now."
Ninkasi, which moved its brewery to 272 Van Buren St. in 2007 and later added a tasting room and patio, has brought more visibility to the neighborhood. It, along with a cluster of new businesses along Blair Boulevard, are bringing more people to the Whiteaker area from other parts of town, according to business owners in the area. Many of the newest ventures are the brainchildren of creative, young entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s.
That's a good sign, said Portland economist Joe Cortright, who has studied the impact of young educated workers on economic growth.
The entrepreneurs themselves help to create jobs, he said, pointing to Ninkasi, which employs 57 people, as a prime example. A collection of young, inventive people in a neighborhood helps create an attraction that makes the community more desirable to everyone, including more young people, Cortright said. And employers looking to locate or expand want a place with lots of talented young workers where it's easy to recruit more, he said.
Whiteaker has "a reputation now as sort of the happening neighborhood, and the young people like that - all ages like that," Jaeger said. "They like to see the cutting-edge stuff. There's just a lot of energy down here."
That energy hums along Blair Boulevard from the southern end at Seventh Avenue, where Redoux Parlour sells locally designed clothing and jewelry, to Izakaya Meiji, the new tavern at 345 Van Buren St., owned by Quinn Brown, 27, and his wife, Ayumi Kamata, 40.
"People tend to think of cool ideas and then just do them, and I think that attitude can be very infectious," said Mark Frohnmayer, a 37-year-old Whiteaker resident who founded electric vehicle company Arcimoto in 2007 and who was instrumental in renovating three buildings on Blair that house Arcimoto, Pizza Research Institute and a massage therapist.
People who live and work in what they call "The Whiteaker" or "The Whit" describe it as a colorful, Bohemian, artsy, interesting place to be - the alternative part of town.
In the span of a few blocks there is the rainbow mural on the Glass Menagerie glass pipe store, the saltwater-taffy-colored bungalows in the East Blair Housing Cooperative, the Red Barn Natural Grocery, the blue and gold domes of the St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Christian Church, and the teal and black industrial facade of Ninkasi.
"I almost see Whiteaker as Eugene's Eugene," Frohnmayer said. "It's a place that really represents the full spectrum of Eugene's various social and political groups.
"For me, having a neighborhood that as a whole sort of thinks outside the box is a fairly constant source of inspiration," he said.
The neighborhood's alternative-ness, its residents' deep support of locally owned businesses, its sense of history, its walkability and its accessibility to the thoroughfares, Sixth and Seventh avenues, are all draws, entrepreneurs say.
With the exception of the 7-Eleven on West Sixth Avenue, "There are no chains in The Whit," Frohnmayer said.
Residents believe in "keeping it local and supporting people who live and work in the neighborhood," Jaeger, of Sam Bond's Garage, said. "It's sort of putting your money where your ideals are."
The community comes out in droves every August for Whiteaker's Block Party, and the last Friday Art Walks each month attract people from inside and outside the neighborhood.
"That's usually our biggest day of the month," Ninkasi CEO Nikos Ridge said.
Eugene's oldest neighborhood has a sense of place that many residents and business owners find attractive.
Blair Boulevard became a historic commercial district in 1993. The Hayse blacksmith shop, built in 1914 - now Red Barn Natural Grocery - is on the National Register of Historic Places. In Eugene's early days, Blair Boule vard was part of the Willamette Valley's first north-south highway, which explains its odd diagonal orientation on the street grid.
Chad Boutin, owner of Blair Alley Vintage Arcade, put it bluntly when he said that people are starting businesses in the Whiteaker area "because it's not downtown."
"Downtown was ruined during urban renewal," he said. "Eugene basically destroyed our downtown. They tore down our historic buildings ... and put up horrific '70s architecture and made it unliveable. Here in the Whiteaker we're a unique thing. We still have our historic buildings. Urban renewal didn't touch us because we were that little wart down there by the river."
Much of the Whiteaker area was already developed with a mix of houses, stores and industrial uses when the city officially established zoning in 1948.
So it "has one of our most generous allowances for mixed use - residential, commercial or industrial in close proximity of each other," said Gabe Flock, a senior planner with the city of Eugene.
"I think it encourages things to happen when we have a nice mix," Jaeger said.
Flexible zoning, and the neighbors' acceptance of a broad range of business activities, was important to Decker,
the 36-year-old glassblower who moved to Eugene two years ago with his wife, Katrina, and three young children.
He said they looked at sites in Coburg, near the University of Oregon campus, along West 11th Avenue and downtown before leasing a former auto glass shop at 1093 W. First Ave.
"Downtown didn't feel too welcoming to a business like us," he said. "We're too noisy."
Rents in the Whiteaker area are cheaper than in many parts of town. And it's still possible to start a business without a huge outlay, especially the mobile food carts that roll up to Ninkasi's patio and other locations throughout the neighborhood, business owners said.
"Not all the businesses make it here," Mahoney, of New Day Bakery, said. "But at least they have the opportunity."
Entrepreneurs also benefit from business development loans from the city of Eugene and assistance from other organizations, including NEDCO, Oregon's first Community Development Corporation, which was founded in the Whiteaker neighborhood in 1979.
Although some Whiteaker businesses, such as burrito restaurant Laughing Planet and waffle shop Off-The-Waffle, have expanded into south Eugene, many business owners say they're not interested in moving beyond their home turf.
The owners of Ninkasi and Sweet Life Patisserie - both businesses that developers have approached about expanding elsewhere, said they're not interested right now.
"Managerially it's just not on the list of our priorities and it's not our core business," Ninkasi's Ridge said.
"We're not opposed to another location," said Cheryl Reinhart, who owns Sweet Life with her sister, Catherine. But it's not their immediate plan, she added. "It would give us a whole new set of overhead expenses."
Whiteaker business owners say those attempting to revitalize downtown can learn from their neighborhood, which, like downtown, has struggled with transients, drug-dealing and some people's perception that it's not a safe place to be.
A big difference between downtown and the Whiteaker neighborhood is "we have people living here; their homes are here," said Mahoney, of New Day Bakery.
Jaeger, of Sam Bond's Garage, encourages downtown to "be more welcoming."
"There's a lot of fun stuff going on down here (in The Whiteaker)," he said. "There's music, there's a lot of foot and bike traffic, there are food carts."
Having lived in Brooklyn for four years, Ninkasi's Ridge said he always thinks it's funny when people say Eugene has "bad" neighborhoods.
"As long as you start providing things that people are excited about and ways that people can have fun, then that (negative perception) will take care of itself," he said, adding that he's hopeful that the redevelopment projects under way downtown will help create that kind of environment.