Hedin Manus Brugh weighs down his bike trailer early Saturday morning with polished stones, crystals, jewelry and a grip of ornately handcrafted “magick” wands. Wearing a kilt and a patchwork hoodie, the modern-day Merlin sets off on a slow cross-town bike ride from his west Eugene apartment to Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in the heart of downtown.
Brugh and other vendors who set up shop outside the Lane County Courthouse are part of the swirling “organic chaos” some call Saturday Market Unincorporated, a wild and controversial bazaar that brings together the far-out fringes of Eugene society, and one that is causing discord with the nearby, official, Eugene Saturday Market.
“It’s something a lot of people have never seen before,” Brugh says.
By the time he rolls up, Free Speech Plaza is alive with artists, musicians, punks, hippies, jugglers, street preachers and scads of bleary-eyed homeless who bum cigarettes off one another.
Directly across 8th Avenue, the official Eugene Saturday Market comes together quietly in a tightly organized fashion. From far enough away, it’s hard to tell where one market ends and the other begins. Up close, however, the fundamental differences become plain.
The south side of 8th Avenue is distinctly family-friendly — no dogs allowed, though. Hired musicians perform scheduled sets. Thousands venture downtown to stroll the welcoming corridors of numbered tents displaying committee-approved handicrafts.
A block north, the smell of pot smoke wafts through Free Speech Plaza, drug deals take place in the open and dogs romp off leash. Vendors hawk their wares wherever they find slivers of unclaimed space. Once things really get going, the noise generated from the weekly drum circle adds a trippy sense of fevered confusion to the mix.
“This is how it should be all the time,” says a smiling woman seated at the edge of the ecstatic drumming. “This is my therapy.”
Cutting loose outside the courthouse every weekend is the only thing keeping her sane, she adds. A lot of people here share similar sentiments and describe the community gathered around this pagan rave-up as a “second family.”
The feeling among many Free Speech Plaza art vendors is that the two markets are at simmering odds. Annual membership dues, weekly spot rental fees and tithings, not to mention Saturday Market’s strict guidelines governing what can and cannot be sold, keep the Free Speech Plaza rabble on the outside looking in.
“[The Saturday Market folks] think we’re freeloaders,” Brugh says. “They don’t want us here.”
Saturday Market Promotions Manager Kim Still says it’s hard to speak for the official Saturday Market because it “is made up of lots of individual members. Some are in support of the folks at Free Speech Plaza and their being able to sell in a free and unregulated environment. Some folks do feel that they are not contributing a fair share and are taking advantage.”
Market members tend to agree, however, that drug use and violent outbursts at the Free Speech corner are not good for business.
“It’s a public space,” Brugh counters. “We can’t control who comes and goes, and we shouldn’t have to. That’s the cops’ problem.”
Eugene police come through Free Speech Plaza, vendors say, but not to serve and protect. They allege that weeks ago officers stopped at every table to warn vendors they’d be fined $1,000 next time they were caught doing business without permits.
EPD spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin tells EW that downtown officers have been “focusing on fostering relationships with the vendors.” She adds, “We have no plans regarding the illegal vending at this time. However, we routinely get complaints of open marijuana smoking in the Free Speech area, which is affecting the Saturday Market customers. We will be addressing this.” The fine for public pot smoking is $1,000.
“A lot of the people here don’t have the resources to join [the Saturday Market],” Brugh says. For some, selling their art outside the courthouse is their only alternative to panhandling.
“I’ve been homeless,” Brugh says. “I’ve panhandled. When someone hands me a dollar out the car window, I feel like shit. This gives people a sense of self-worth.”