A poet in Florida

I learned that Shakespeare really lived

so scholars have decided.

Though quite a few have studied me

they’re not as sure that I did.

Peter Meinke

This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.

Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.

Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.

All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.

For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.

Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?

“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”

Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.

Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.

In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”

“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.

Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.

‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”

In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.

And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”

Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.

Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.

“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”

Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible

odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago

slipped by someone’s god into our water…..

Peter Meinke, “M3”

Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.

“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.

Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.

“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”

Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.

Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”

He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”

“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.

“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”

The apple I see and the apple

I think I see and the apple

I say I see

are at least three

different apples…

Meinke “Apples.”

To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?

“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.

“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”

On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.

“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”

And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”

The trick is to live your days

as if each one may be your last…

…but at the same time, plan long range.

Meinke: Advice To My Son

“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.

That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”

And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.

One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.

“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”

Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.

“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”

Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.

“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”

Who’s sick of sonnets?  Iamb  Iamb…


Discarded monuments

I originally wrote this piece in the summer of 2017, when I was traveling in Russia. It seems a good idea to revisit now that confederate monuments are coming down all across the U.S. Give the Russians credit where credit’s due. RC

Stalin’s got a busted nose.

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced.

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths.

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to.

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face.

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials.

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.)

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy.

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park.

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown.

Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand.

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

Downtown’s war zone

In the city’s defense it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

I mean “temporarily” closing off sections of downtown streets so that restaurants could move their tables outside and safely serve more customers in this time of coronavirus.

But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell.

Originally the plan was to block off three different street sections – on SE 1st Street and SE 2nd Ave. But apparently some restaurants objected to losing their front door parking spaces – not to mention forcing their auto-oriented customers to walk all the way from a nearby parking garage (horrors!).

And so in the end the city closed off just one half of one very short block of SW 2nd Ave., giving Looseys the opportunity to offer a European style al fresco dining experience.

Bold move, Innovation City.

But wait, there’s more.

To celebrate this venture in public realm repurposing officials decided to close that tiny stretch of SW 2nd off to traffic in the same way that, oh, I dunno, a war-torn city might block its streets against marauding tanks.

They plopped a dozen squat, heavy, ugly yellow concrete boxes right down on top of the ancient brick street. And just in case somebody still didn’t get the message, they threw in a couple of red and white striped barriers festooned with “Road Closed” signs.

Let’s see you jump that, Evel Knievel!

Talk about downtown dining ambiance. They might as well rename SW 2nd “Checkpoint Charlie” and have done with it.

Listen, best intentions aside, the optics are terrible.

Rather like dumping a truckload of mulch on a skatepark to keep the kids from using it. Whose idea was that?

Oh, and then the city let downtown’s long-running farmer’s market slip away to Celebration Point because Bo Diddley Plaza remains closed on account of COVID-19.

That would be the same plaza that recently hosted a couple thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrators packed in elbow-to-elbow fashion…all with the city’s blessing.

A more rational solution might have been to allow the farmer’s market to reopen at the Plaza with precautions like mandatory face masks (most of the demonstrators were masked) and imposed social distancing between booths. But Gainesville bureaucrats are not generally known as meet-you-halfway kind of people.

If I sound overly critical of city government here it’s because Gainesville seems to be dragging its feet while other cities around the country, and around the world, are racing to make their streets and other public spaces more accessible to people who do not want to wrap themselves inside the steel cocoons commonly called automobiles in order to enjoy public spaces.

“Public and outdoor space has been at a premium during the coronavirus pandemic: bike sales have leapt, park use is way up, and even pavement chalk drawing appears to be having a moment,” reports the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “Now as many cities start to reopen, some are looking at their sidewalks, squares, parking lots and even streets as a hidden asset in boosting their economies.”

“The recovery will happen in public space,” ventures the Project for Public Spaces. “The sidewalks, streets, plazas and parking lots in every neighborhood are an asset that is waiting to be put to work. Many cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Seattle are closing streets to traffic to increase the usable pedestrian space for residents.”

I’m sorry, but Gainesville’s tepid experiment with opening up public spaces – and then making the result look like a war zone – is not nearly enough.

And make no mistake. Downtown is in trouble and looking seedier by the day.

For that matter, all American downtowns are likely headed for tougher times, predicts the on-line Governing news service. Thanks to the virus “many cities find themselves with a downtown that is now in danger of an extended period of decline. Finding a way to bring their downtowns back quickly is part of the post-coronavirus challenge they face.”

Will Gainesville rise to the challenge to save its downtown? Early indications are not encouraging. I ride through downtown Gainesville nearly every day, and every day obvious signs of neglect and deterioration become more apparent.

Fine, we’ve managed to keep tanks away from Looseys, at least temporarily. But in the long run City Hall timidity and indifference may end up wiping out decades of progress in downtown development.

In the age of coronavirus, San Francisco environment commissioner Tiffany Chu writes in Forbes, cities “are repurposing streets—once used exclusively for automobiles—for pedestrians and cyclists. The creativity, adaptation, and unprecedented speed behind this will keep us safe and lay the foundation for a more sustainable recovery.”

But not in this town, pal, not in this town.

More autoAmerican anarchy

“How bad might the post-pandemic carpocalypse be?” asks Streetsblog USA. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

Should it surprise anybody that the internal combustion engine has become the counter-insurgency weapon of choice in autoAmerica? Cops, truck drivers and other grumpy Americans with lead feet have been using their vehicles to plow into Black Lives matter protestors. “It’s unclear how many vehicles were aimed at demonstrators,” reports USA Today, “but witnesses said that the incidents seemed intentional and that the drivers accelerated as they went through the crowds.” Collisions being as American as apple pie.

Seems the state of Georgia suspended on-road driving tests as a COVID19 expediency. Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, objects: “While we support the desire not to put instructors at risk, if we want to protect public safety, a better policy would be to stop issuing driver’s licenses until it’s safe to take the test again.” Not in autoAmerica Rebecca.

That’s probably why a West Virginia Fire Chief was surprised at being fired just because he posted on social media a “an image of a blood splattered truck with the caption ‘Just drove through Minneapolis, didn’t see any protesters,’” and a photo of himself “wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘All lives splatter. Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road.’” Clearly the good chief was a victim of political correctness run amok.

Which is not to say that the automobile cannot itself be victimized in these riotous times. Turns out that some riot cops have been deflating tires as a means of venting their, um, frustrations. Reporting on the slashed tires surge in Minneapolis, CBS News says cops “deflated tires to keep the vehicles from being used in attacks against law enforcement or protesters and for the vehicles to be towed if a collection of evidence was necessary.” Et tu Brute?

Elsewhere on the law enforcement front comes evidence that nearly half of American drivers are not at all deterred from using their devices by the inconvenient fact that doing so is against the law. “While drivers acknowledge that certain activities behind the wheel – like texting — are dangerous, some do them anyway,” say David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (Come to think of it, I think I read that in a text.)

In the What Else Is New Dept., it turns out that federal auto safety standards were only designed to protect people inside vehicles, leaving outsiders, like pedestrians, to fend for themselves. The Government Accounting Office “is pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do what forward-thinking countries around the world did over a decade ago, and finally require automakers to start testing how likely their cars are to kill a pedestrian in a collision,” reports Streetsblog USA. Good luck on that.

One reason for the above may be that a lot of transportation planners continue to think that “distracted walking,” is a major factor in pedestrian deaths. So why inconvenience motorists when it’s the walker’s fault? According to Rutgers University researchers “Transportation professionals who worry about distracted walking were “more likely to support educating walkers about ‘safe’ walking behaviors, and less likely to support reducing driver speeds — even though driver speed is among the strongest predictors of pedestrian mortality.”

Turns out that while the pandemic has wrecked havoc on car sales, pickup trucks are still, um, trucking along. “While sales of passenger cars and SUVs have fallen sharply, pickup sales have held up surprisingly well as Americans take advantage of low-interest financing offers and refuse to let economic concerns stop them from getting the vehicle they’ve had their sights set on,” reports USA Today.

If you though the pandemic economy would steer more people to smaller, less expensive and more efficient cars, think again. This is still the land of Big Ass Trucks pal, and auto dealers know that. Which is why “The good small cars still aren’t coming to the US,” reports jalopnik.com.

And from our Kids Do The Darndest Things in autoAmerica Dept.: A cop in Utah pulled over an SUV that was doing 32 MPH on a 70 MPH road. Turns out the driver was a five-year-old boy who told the cop he was “heading to California for the purpose of buying a Lamborghini.” This after an argument with his mom, who probably told him they can’t afford a Lamborghini.

Next, Fast Company explains why pedestrian and cyclist deaths are still rising even as many American cities are actively promoting walking and cycling. No mystery here: “Modern U.S. cities are designed largely for motor vehicles,” FC reports. “From the 1950s forward, city streets lost their conviviality. Roads were engineered for fast-moving and unhindered vehicular traffic, with few pedestrian crossings or bike lanes. Even today, motorists in many cities are able to turn onto streets at intersections where pedestrians are also crossing. Most pedestrians and bicyclists are killed or injured while they are obeying the law.” Why did the pedestrian cross the road? (To at least try to get to the other side.)

And if you thought the lockdown was going to mean safer streets, think again. Reports Streetsblog USA, “Drivers aren’t just speeding up on our empty roads — they’re also braking harder, scrolling cell phones longer, and crashing more, new data show.

“In the five weeks after many states announced lockdown orders on March 16, the data company Zendrive said drivers’ use of cell phones behind the wheel is up 38 percent over pre-lockdown numbers. The number of drivers who exceeded speed limits was also up 27 percent, as was hard braking (25 percent) and collisions per million miles (20 percent.)”

So no big surprise that on emptier roads, auto fatality rates spiked by 14 percent in March compared to the previous March. “What really strikes me is the incredible speed of the changes we’re seeing on a roadways,” Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR. “Looking at other recessions what you usually see is a decrease in the number of deaths, or the injuries and fatality rate holding steady or decreasing slightly.” Nobody can say we autoAmericans don’t try harder to keep those stats up.

And it’s not just pedestrians that need to be careful out there. Endangered Florida panthers keep getting run over too. “The May Panther Pulse report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows that 13 cats have been killed this year, 12 by vehicle strikes and one after being hit by a train in Polk County,” reports Florida Today. Clearly we need to do something about trains if we want to save the critters.

Finally, a bit of poetic protester justice: After the death of George Floyd, thousands of Minneapolis residents protested by marching on I-95, tying up traffic. “It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region,” noted CityLab.com. “This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee, I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.” Well played, marchers.

Cycling mural city

I love this town. There are murals everywhere, and it seems that new ones are being painted on Gainesville walls every day. Here’s a collection of murals I photographed just today during my ride through the middle of town.

This one is on the wall of the old Walker Furniture building on North Main. They look very angry, except for the cat who looks bored.
Just a block or two later, still on North Main. She’s got a lot on her mind.

Next to the Friends of the Library building on North Main. Dogs in shades.

Same place.
Gainesville’s newest murals, on a wall on SE 5th Ave. in the Springhill neighborhood behind GRU.

And this.

And this one.

And these.

A memorial to Breanna…and to love.

Child’s play.

Here’s looking at you kid.

And finally, this intriguing, vine-covered image on NW 1st Ave. Just behind the new Midtown Wawa.

Is this a great town or what?

Between the signs

Some people like to take photos of grand monuments or sweeping vistas when they travel. But I like signs. What they say, what they don’t say, what they say between the lines and what they really mean. Here’s a sampling of my Signs Of The Times collection from hither and yon.

I found this quote from Andy Warhol painted on a street in Chicago.

The photo display was taken out front of City Hall in London.

Flamingos in Iowa? Took that one at the end of a RAGBRAI (bike ride across Iowa).

A bank in Greenville, S.C. says nothing doing to gunnies.

Buskers and beer in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Dream, work and beer banner…can’ remember where I took it.

I was intrigued by this fashion ad I found on the wall in the ancient seaside town of Hvar, in the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia. Wondered why she looked so sad.

The bike week photo came from nearby Trogir. Can’t help but feel that she would be smiling if she only had a bike.

You can’t climb the walls in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Don’t run in front of cars when you are in Ireland.

No spitting in Smith Falls, Ontario.

Snapped the aristocracy is doomed sign in New York City.

And algae alert, sadly, comes from Florida.

All from San Francisco. I love that town.

The smoking horn is from Florence.

Live Music was on the sidewalk in downtown Greenville, S.C.

Konoba, home of the Flintstones, is in Omiš, Croatia.

Napoleon Vagrant was shot in Halifax.

The folk dancers were in London.

And Hamlet complements of Thornhill, Scotland.

My friend Otis Chandler was freaking out over the wild oysters in Palatka.

Whatever you do, don’t step on the microbes in Sedona

Stay away from the coyotes in Nova Scotia

And don’t feed the condors coins in the Grand Canyon.

Or flirt with zebra mussels in Page, Ariz.

If you are looking for unity, go to the Eau Gallie arts district in Melbourne, Fl.

Want lights on your path? Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Contemplate a nice cuppa tea? Yaroslavl, Russia.

Life of the grasses reflected through the window of the Reykjavik airport in Iceland.

Russia’s most discredited sign now reposes in a park set aside for yesterday’s symbolism in Moscow.

Snapped this yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in Palace Square, St. Petersburg.

Warren Nielsen and I found the place where Dostoevsky used to get drunk in St. Petersburg.

This poster emblazoned concert hall in St. Petersburg used to be a refuge for bureaucrats.

And this tribute to the victims of political oppression looks out across St. Petersburg’s Neva River to focus on a prison that is still in use.

Found this tribute to Trump in Buena Vista, Virginia.

American Sector sign was in a museum in Ottawa.

Love was in the air, and everywhere else, in Woodstock, Virginia.

Peace, love and beer in Philly.

Local market bankrupt by big box in Woodstock, NY.

And you can get any spiritual thing you want in Casadaga, Fl.

Assembly point, maturing whisky, unhappy chocolate lovers, handout sign, Bloody Stream and strong Guinness all taken in Dublin.

All these photos taken during a bicycle tour of southern Scotland, where they are apparently terrified of red squirrels and have lost their bull.

Gotta love Venice. They want the Mafia out and have no use for homophobes.

My favorite Ontario town, Perth, is a happening place.

Sweetwater turns sour

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you appreciate a good park.

During the lockdown parks in Gainesville, and around the nation, were well used indeed.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” Bridget Marquis, of Civic Commons, tells City Lab regarding the surge in park use in this time of coronavirus.

Unfortunately, she adds, “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

She might well be talking about Sweetwater Branch Park.

Sweetwater Branch Park is a three block stretch of trees and creek that borders downtown on the west and the Bed and Breakfast District on the east. Its neighbors include the public library, the Matheson Museum and historic Matheson House and the Thelma Bolton Center.

One might consider this oasis of green amid so much asphalt and concrete an invaluable public asset. You might imagine Sweetwater Branch regularly playing host to, say, Shakespeare in the park, paint-outs to showcase local artists, ARTSPEAKS poetry readings, local history reenactments, used book sales to benefit the library…activities that would lure visitors to spend money downtown.

And there is this: Sweetwater Branch terminates at SE 4th Ave. The only thing between it and Depot Park is two blocks of GRU property that the city wants to redevelop into the Power District. Unearthing the long-buried stretch of creek on that property would make it possible to create a greenway extending from Depot Park to University Avenue and perhaps beyond.

But judging from its stewardship, here’s what the City of Gainesville seems to consider Sweetwater Branch Park’s “highest and best” use: Wasted space.

Much of Sweetwater Branch is hidden under a thick cloak of invasive vegetation. This makes convenient cover for enterprising, um, homesteaders who rig shelters along the creek.

Some nearby residents won’t use the park for fear of aggressive panhandling. The staff at the Matheson knows all about the squatters who sleep in nearby bushes and leave piles of garbage strewn in their wake.

It’s hard to believe that the same city that created Depot Park as an activity-intensive people magnet is content to allow Sweetwater Branch, downtown’s green heart, to languish in neglect and disuse.

This should be unacceptable to downtown business owners who are struggling to attract customers post-virus. To the B&B proprietors who want their guests to enjoy the grace and beauty of “old” Gainesville. To library patrons and museum visitors. To residents who wish to use their park for recreation and reflection without being harassed.

Let me be clear. It isn’t street people who are ruining the Sweetwater Branch experience. They have simply claimed a park that the city doesn’t seem to have much use for.

The responsibility must fall squarely on a bureaucracy that apparently can’t be bothered to properly maintain and program a park that lies just one block away from City Hall.

Cynthia A Bowen, president of the American Planning Association, writes that downtown parks “are the essential places for play in the live/work/play environment that cities across the country are striving to provide. As a result, people expect more from our parks. They must now be green and provide relaxation, as well as offer entertainment, social interaction, communication and unique experiences.”

A city that aspires to lure residents and businesses alike back to Gainesville’s historic center simply cannot allow its downtown park to fall so woefully short of expectations.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.

Sweetwater in distress

This is Sweetwater Branch Park. Other than the Duck Pond, it is the longest stretch of Sweetwater Branch Creek still accessible to the public. It is Gainesville’s downtown park.

2. It’s not a big park. Just a few blocks of graceful trees and gently flowing water.

Still, it is the largest area of green space remaining in downtown Gainesville. A tiny oasis of nature in an area that has more than its share of concrete and asphalt.

It is also strategically located. It is bordered on the west by the downtown entertainment district and on the east by Gainesville’s Bed & Breakfast District. Its neighbors include the Matheson Museum and the historic Matheson House, the public library headquarters and the Thelma A. Bolton Center.

Anyone who knows downtown redevelopment understands the strategic importance of a green park to the heart of a densely developed city. If you are trying to convince people to live, work and play downtown, they are going to want a park in which to stroll, run and contemplate nature’s beauty and serenity.

And yet Sweetwater Branch may be one of the most underused parks in Gainesville. The city’s Parks and Recreation Staff schedule virtually no events there. Strollers, runners or dog walkers are seldom seen in appreciable numbers.

Which is not to suggest that there are no signs of use, or abuse, of Sweetwater Branch. Indeed there are many such signs. If you talk to people in the neighborhood about why they don’t use Sweetwater Branch Park they are likely to cite public safety concerns and aggressive panhandling.

Sweetwater Branch once ran free and clear through the historic center of Gainesville.

But over the years, in the name of progress, the creek was ditched and diverted and much of it was buried as a inconvenience to development.

To the point that, today, Sweetwater Branch Park remains one of the longest relatively undisturbed portions of the creek still visible and still accessible to the public.

Unfortunately, much of the creek in the park is overgrown with invasive plants, silted up and strewn with broken bits of concrete and debris. It is a creek under stress. A creek that is less an attractive water feature than a partially hidden eyesore.

A downtown park should be a beehive of activity.

Sweetwater Branch Park could be a center for cultural events that would create an economic benefit for all of downtown: Shakespeare in the park, a showcase for Gainesville’s history, used book sales to benefit the library, Paint-outs to showcase local artists.

The possibilities are endless.

But first the city must exercise responsible stewardship over the park.

And neighbors, surrounding businesses and other stakeholders must take ownership of “their” park and demand that neglect of this most abused natural asset stop.

The four hundred steps

It is a climb of 400 steps to the top of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.

Through vertical neighborhoods of quirky Art Deco buildings and cozy bungalows tucked away amidst lush vegetation.

The trek is stimulating and the views fantastic. But the real reward for making the assent is to be found hidden inside the tall, spiraling Coit Tower.

Built in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the tower’s expanse of stark, blank inner walls seemed a too dismal reflection of the hopelessness that gripped the country.

And so under the auspices of the Roosevelt-era Public Works of Art Project, 26 local muralists were hired with the charge of covering those stark inner walls with scenes of everyday life in San Francisco.

How people worked.

When there was work to be had.

Together, to feed a city.

Most of the artists were left-leaning socialists, many of them disciples of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

And their work reflected a city that was as diverse as it was teeming with life and activity…and chaos.

And like Rivera they preferred to apply their paint onto still-wet, fresh plaster, so that the very walls would absorb the colors.

Unveiled to the world, some of the works were deemed objectionable because they reflected crime, unflattering depictions of city life, or, worse, liberal views.

And because this was a public works project, it had to be periodically reported to the federal government that the artists involved were all “very moral and conscientious, not drunken, promiscuous” or “orgiastic.”

San Francisco today remains a city of startling sights, sounds and experiences.

But tucked away in that tower, 400 steps up from the bay, are the images of a bygone city of industry, despair and hope. It is a feast for the eyes and not to be missed.