Invisible Landscapes

A Clark Honors College class investigates a Black settlement displaced by Eugene’s Alton Baker Park 

An illustration of the redline boundaries of Eugene city limits in 1949Story by Lauren Church, CHC Communications
Photos by Maddie Knight, CHC Communications

In July 1949, following previous warnings from Lane County government, the Black families who had created a thriving settlement on the outskirts of Eugene were given 10 days’ notice to evacuate their neighborhood.

Where children play and bikers ride today, no markers indicate—much less tell the story of—the diverse community that was self-established and county-demolished where Eugene’s Alton Baker Park sits now.

In the 1940s, Black families who could not find safe housing in Eugene due to deed restrictions and “sundown town” racism established a settlement known as “the Ferry Street Village” or “across the river” at the park’s site, just beyond what was then Eugene’s northern boundary. In 1948 and 1949, Lane County removed the residents and bulldozed the area to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge.

Today, nothing remains of the settlement. Children chase each other on the park’s well-manicured lawn and bikers commute on its nicely paved trails. Ducks waddle in and out of the pond where a house, a home, and a farm once stood.

Calling attention to this invisible history is exactly what Clark Honors College professor Liska Chan wanted to achieve in her honors college class, Invisible Landscapes. Chan, a landscape architect and associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, specializes in unearthing and commemorating the stories, myths, and veiled layers of a space—showing why they are important and explaining how we can learn from histories that have been deeply buried.

Chan wanted her students to explore both the visible and invisible elements of a place that intersect to tell its story. 

Chan saw the Ferry Street settlement as an ideal example of an invisible landscape obscured beneath manicured Alton Baker Park. Its popularity, proximity to campus, and sanitized, largely untold history made it an excellent case study for her class.

 

Lisa Chan's illustration of what was there now, and what was there thenStudents across disciplines gathered virtually for Chan’s colloquia course last spring to explore how what can be seen affects perceptions of places. They learned how to set such predispositions aside when reading a landscape—a practice she calls “disorientation.” With this shift in perspective, she says, students can imagine ways to pull others out of their own “orientations” through art, ushering them into a new experience of the landscape.

“We had a sequence of projects warming students up to the idea of ‘making’ as a form of inquiry,” Chan says. First, students observed landscapes as a tourist would, asking themselves what makes spaces attractive and visually satisfying.

“We also talked a lot about the semiotics of tourism,” Chan says. “What kind of information are you filtering before you get to a place? Does a place meet your expectations?” 

The class then switched focus from pristine and photogenic tourist landscapes to what Chan calls “lonely” or “lost” landscapes—spaces that are undesigned and often overlooked, such as alleyways or junkyards. Chan asked her students to notice the “lost landscapes” they pass every day, assigning them to create a marker allowing others to see the space’s beauty and depth. 

Students commemorated the lost landscapes they recognized with guidebooks, photography, videography, prose, pamphlets, drawings, and paintings. Chan says few students in the class had a background in art, so she was impressed with the creativity and depth of their projects.

When the class delved into designing monuments and markers that would reorient tourists’ perceptions of a landscape, Chan and her students discussed the implications of artistic representation. The class had challenging conversations about the potential for art to evoke emotion as audiences see themselves reflected honorably or offensively in it.

“When we use a single image of a single person to represent the lived experience of a demographic, it can be damaging,” Chan says. “This is especially the case when a person of privilege uses the image of an individual meant to represent a marginalized group.”

 

The location of one of the family homes that was displaced by the city of Eugene in1949. Chan first taught Invisible Landscapes in 2013, although she says the 14 students in this year’s class brought new attention and urgency to the classroom.

She guided her students through a walking tour of where “across the river” once was. “When I met them at the site for the first time, they were so curious and I think, in many ways, hoping to see something there,” Chan says. “They realized how hard it is to read a landscape and how hard it is to be sure of what you’re seeing.”

Senior Anna Pearl Johnson took Chan’s course last spring and was shocked to see just how invisible Ferry Street’s history was at Alton Baker. “It’s just completely erased,” she says. “Without that context of understanding the legacy of erasure and hurt, you just see a bridge.”  

Seven decades after the county demolished the settlement, the city of Eugene has decided to publicly acknowledge its legacy as the origin of the city’s civil rights movement and a potential multicultural epicenter.

On a county webpage, a map and timeline present the history of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in Lane County. An educational walking tour of Eugene is planned for the lands and landmarks of marginalized communities, and the city will collaborate with the Black community to design a memorial for Alton Baker Park to mark the land’s historical significance. 

Those may be the first steps to help make known what lies within the site’s hidden history.

“Most of us will look out at a landscape and see what we see and sort of take it for granted,” Chan says. “There’s so much more to it. Everything from the microbiome in the soil to the climate to geology then, of course, very importantly in this class, the cultural history of the folks who lived across the river.”

 

Professor Liska Chan and student discuss the displacement where the duck pond is today in Alton Baker Park.