With apologies to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
I’m not sure when the south end of downtown’s First Street began to turn into skid row. But the signs were there.
Like when the outside seating disappeared from Starbucks.
And when they tore down Jon Wershow’s old law firm building, and the adjacent pocket sculpture garden, to be replaced by a dirt parking lot with a shabby wooden slat fence.
Each morning street people congregate along the fence – joking, smoking, panhandling. Still more gather in the Sun Center courtyard.
Some even bring their own chairs because, well, you can’t sit outside Starbucks anymore.
The parking lot is supposed to be temporary. Presumably when it’s a hotel the “pop up” skid row will pop up somewhere else.
Still, these days you can practically follow the trail of shopping carts, sleeping bags, blankets, cans and bottles down South Main.
Listen, our homeless issues pale in comparison to those of many other American cities. And we are an intelligent, and compassionate, enough people to manage those issues without panicking.
But here’s the thing about our downtown street scene.
When students descend en masse, from sunset into the wee hours, the street people tend to be lost in the crowd. It is in the cold light of day that the area’s growing air of seediness is revealed in stark relief.
Downtown doesn’t have a homeless problem so much as a people problem.
Ours is basically a two dimensional downtown: Party central at night, a parking lot for government workers during the day.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And thanks to a still-blossoming town/gown strategic partnership we may soon have the opportunity to decide what downtown Gainesville ought to be when it grows up.
City Manager Lee Feldman is negotiating with the University of Florida to create a master plan for downtown Gainesville. “We’re just in beginning stage of talking about how we will approach a new planning process,” he says. “Downtown is critical, not only to city but also to the university. And we both recognize the need for it to be successful.”
Of late we haven’t had many downtown champions. GDOT (Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants) has gone dormant and is about to reorganize under another name. The Chamber of Commerce is located downtown, but its heart has long been in the suburbs. And while the city has invested millions of dollars to reengineer Main Street, redesign the Bo Diddley Plaza and build Depot Park, its day-to-day downtown stewardship might best be described as one of benign neglect.
“We’re looking at this to see how we can engage all the stakeholders in a process to come up with a common idea of what to do about downtown,” says Andrew Telles, UF’s collaborative initiatives director. “We have interesting resources at the university, cultural (institutes), arts in medicine, programs that are of the university but can’t exist without the people of the community.
“What can we bring downtown that will draw more people to the area during the day, late afternoon and evening? What can other stakeholders look to own? People will avoid that area unless there is something to draw them in.”
Downtown has been through cycles of prosperity and neglect, often driven by economic and social forces beyond our control. But if we are half as smart as we think we are in this university community, we ought to be capable of creating the downtown we want and deserve: A thriving, three-dimensional, 24/7, live work and play Heart of Gainesville.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.
Pop quiz. What did Margaret Mitchell have in common with Olson Bean?
No, the veteran actor was not in the celebrated author’s hit movie “Gone With The Wind.” Although, being 11 when it was filmed, in 1939, Bean could well have qualified for a child extra role if he had been hanging around Hollywood.
No, being in the entertainment industry is not the most intimate thing that connects Mitchell, who died in 1949 at the age of 48 and Bean, who died on Friday, at the age of 91.
Mitchell was an early causality in the autoAmerican war on pedestrians. Bean was one of the latest. They belonged to fraternity whose members risk life and limb for the singular privilege of presuming to cross American streets on foot.
Mitchell was crossing Atlanta’s Peachtree Street when she was run over by an off-duty taxi driver. She was on her way to see a movie. She died five days later. The cab driver had been drinking and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Bean, a veteran actor whose credits stretch back into the 1950s, was crossing a street in Venice, Ca., when he was clipped by one car and then fatally struck by another. Too early for any talk about charges, but we live in an age when drivers are seldom punished overly much for taking another human being’s life. These days we mostly talk about “distracted walking” and shrug it off with an “oh well, accidents happen,” and then move on.
The thing that really connects Mitchell and Bean is that they were run over while being famous, which means their deaths got the requisite five minutes of fame before we all moved on.
We know virtually nothing about most of the 6,227 pedestrians who were killed in 2018 alone. If my local newspaper is any indication, the average dead pedestrian gets about three paragraphs in the next day’s “briefs” column before being consigned to old news.
What we do know is that while traffic fatalities on the whole have been decreasing for years, pedestrian deaths jumped by 41 percent in the last decade alone and now account for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities.
“There was a 30-year decline starting in 1979 in the number of pedestrian fatalities,” Richard Retting, of the National Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told citylab.com. “Now, the U.S. is reaching the peak of a decade-long surge. Something’s gone terribly wrong in the last ten years.”
What’s gone terribly wrong? Cell phones. Texting. Distracted drivers. Distracted walkers. The surge in SUV and heavy pickup sales. The average driver’s need for speed. The prioritizing of fast and efficient traffic flow over public safety. The refusal of cities to design their streets for all users. Pick your favorite villain.
But let’s at least be honest about who we are and what we do.
We are a callous society, and our indifference to the wellbeing of our fellow man is never more on display than when we seat ourselves behind the wheel of our climate-controlled, gadget festooned, power packed vehicle of choice, shut the door to the outside world and press the ignition.
Yesterday on my short cycle home from downtown I had two occasions to signal for left hand turns, both times on relatively quite Gainesville residential streets. On both occasions vehicles coming up behind opted to speed up and pass me – on the left! – rather than slow down and wait for me to safely make my turn.
Either one of those cars could well have ended my life. And I have no doubt that if that had happened, the social media comments at the end of the news article reporting my death would have been of the “well, he shouldn’t have been there anyway” variety.
I ride every day. And seldom a day passes that some friend doesn’t ask “but isn’t that dangerous?” And the truth is that the world will little note nor long remember my passing if it comes at the lead foot of some entitled driver.
But every now and then somebody of note gets run down in autoAmerica. A Margaret Mitchell or an Orson Bean. And then the world sits up and takes notice.
At least for five minutes.