Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 14, 2015

Roseburg, Oregon

Roseburg is a small city in the southwestern part of Oregon. It’s bisected by north-south Interstate highway 5 , and is the closest freeway junction to a direct route east to Crater Lake. That’s why we were there. We stopped in Roseburg for the night after driving from Portland, about 175 miles to the north, en route to Crater Lake.

According to the 2010 Census, about 21,000 people live in Roseburg. The region — like a lot of Oregon and the Northwest — was hit hard by the recession. Unemployment has declined to about 12% from a high of over 16%. Many of the people who live there make their living in the timber business (city motto: “Timber capital of the nation”), and in ranching. They also run shops, sell shoes, build houses, go to school, play football and take piano lessons. You could say they lead fairly typical American lives.

What sort of place is it? You could say it’s an “ordinary town.” The downtown has a mix of structures in styles from across the town’s 160-year history, laid out in as much of a grid as the course of the Umpqua River will allow. Branching out from downtown are commercial corridors lined with strip malls, drugstores, grocery stores, restaurants, auto dealers, and so forth: just a typical small city in America — an ordinary town.

Here are a couple of the downtown streets as we saw them on a Tuesday evening in July 2014.

IMG_1611 Roseburg Brad Nixon

IMG_1623 Brad Nixon

I shot these photos as we strolled around downtown Roseburg after dinner. We were doing what we, like all curious travelers, do wherever we go: seeing what there is to see and learn; you never know what you’ll find. Roseburg was quiet that night, although a few restaurants and shops were open. As in every town — not only small ones — there were more than a few empty storefronts, but there were just as many longtime businesses still in operation and new ones, too. Earlier, right after we checked into our motel room, we’d gone for a run along one of the outlying commercial strips, getting in a few miles before it clouded up and rained later that evening. We passed shoe stores, laundromats, convenience stores and auto dealerships; another American town late on a Tuesday afternoon, with people headed home from work, shopping or whatever.

Roseburg has its share of historic and interesting buildings. Here, for example, is the historic Roseburg Gymnasium, which has a fascinating history I won’t have space to relate here:

IMG_1628 Roseburg gymnasium Brad Nixon

Roseburg Gymnasium

We saw buildings in styles ranging from the 1870s brick you’ll see by the tens of thousands all across America, to Art Deco, postwar moderne, sixties groovy and everything in between. A sign outside one of the buildings beckoned irresistibly: “BINGO.” We looked inside. Sure enough:

IMG_1619 bingo Brad Nixon

Bingo night in Roseburg

An ordinary town? Certainly. But as our short stroll was already proving, no place is truly ordinary, once you make an effort to look around. The places one can travel, from the dusty crossroad of Nageezi, New Mexico to the teeming streets of Hong Kong are rife with history and an inexhaustible number of fascinating details. They have endless fascination for the canny traveler and — of course — they’re centrally important to the people who live in them.

It’s the people who are most important. None of the so-called “ordinary people” you see, anywhere, are just ordinary. While there are common human things that connect people in Elko, Nevada, a village in southern Italy and a remote farm in Nepal, every person is unique. Ours is a world of nearly seven billion people, all the same in some basic human ways, but each distinct from the another: irreplaceable. No one is truly “ordinary.”

On Oct. 1, 2015, a tragic event brought the small city of Roseburg, Oregon worldwide attention. An individual armed with several weapons killed nine people at Umpqua Community College. This article is not about that event or about the measureless grief and heartache the people affected by it experienced, although our deepest sympathy and concern go out to them. Instead, it’s about Roseburg and the reaction that, perhaps, most of us have had when something terrible happens in a place we’ve visited: “It happened there?”

That’s what I thought when I read the news from Roseburg: Suddenly the regular people of an ordinary town were confronted with the extraordinary in a horrible way. Each one of those who died and everyone affected by those deaths was or is unique. It’s something to keep in mind when we read about other tragedies, whether natural or created by humans. It may be a tsunami in Thailand, or a hurricane in the Caribbean; it may be a bombing in Turkey or a rebel raid in Sudan. Our very ordinariness should bind us together. Our uniqueness should let us mourn for one another. When something happens anywhere, not just somewhere we’ve been, we think about those ordinary lives suddenly made extraordinary. It shines a light — amidst darkness — on our common humanity.

As it happened, I shot another photo in Roseburg that evening: a universal symbol of hope after trouble hovering over the town.

IMG_1612 Rainbow Roseburg Brad Nixon

Let’s wish them well.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2016

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