The Deep State at City Hall

Maybe you really can’t fight City Hall. Even if you are the city manager.

Lee Feldman has been Gainesville’s manager for about a year. During his first few months on the job, as he was planning a major reorganization, city employees began to complain that they were being demoted, discriminated against and talked down to by their new boss.

Now, commissioners have been handed a report recommending that Feldman be fired, as he may have retaliated against a city employee who filed a discrimination complaint against him.

A straightforward reading of the report doesn’t exactly prove retaliation. But the law firm hired to investigate contends that Feldman, as the head guy, should be held “to the highest standards” and sacked.

Feldman is a seasoned manager who has worked in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Bay, North Miami and North Miami Beach, apparently without blemish. Still, it may be that his management style is simply too – let’s say, South Florida acerbic – to play well with others in Gainesville’s bureaucratic mosh pit.

On the other hand, we have seen this movie before.

Feldman’s predecessor, Anthony Lyons, ran Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency quite successfully for more than a decade. It was only after he was kicked upstairs – and had also embarked on a staff shake-up – that Lyons began to incur the wrath of senior employees.

Two years ago, after the commission voted to subject his job performance to trial by public hearing, Lyons resigned.

Still, it’s possible that both Lyons and Feldman were bad hires. It happens.

After all, their predecessor, Russ Feldman, was city manager for more than ten years. And he never seemed to make anybody unhappy.

On the other hand, Blackburn never tried to shake the city’s organizational tree to see what might fall out.

Which raises an intriguing question: Is there a Gainesville deep state?

Are city managers who come in as change agents – who seek to disrupt the status quo – doomed to failure in the face of determined resistance from within?

“We can’t fire our way out of a culture problem,” Commissioner Harvey Ward commented during a special meeting Tuesday night. “We tried that two years ago and ended up in similar place.”

Speaking of intriguing questions: Five years have gone by now and we still haven’t answered The Gainesville Question.

Some of you may remember TGQ. How can Gainesville become more a economically competitive city in which to live, work and prosper?

In 2015 the city commission appointed a blue ribbon committee to answer it. And the finished report neatly framed the big challenge: “We will design a city government so that it serves the needs of the people, rather than those of the city government itself.”

Commissioners turned to Lyons to implement The Gainesville Question. And he gave it his best shot.

It’s clear that, for now, Feldman has the support of the commission majority. Whether he can do his job effectively going forward, in the face of what is likely to be an ongoing investigation into his conduct, remains to be seen.

Anyway, The Gainesville Question may be moot by now. Since it was written, commissioners have left office and others elected. New commissioners usually bring new priorities with them.

Which may be the one thing Gainesville’s deep state has going for it. With commissioners and priorities coming and going, it seems quite doable for entrenched employees to simply wait out the change agent of the moment.

So they can get back to city business as usual.

The wall

For most of this year I’ve been cycling around Gainesville and taking photos of murals. Downtown murals. Pleasant Street murals. Grove Street murals. Main Street murals. Murals, murals everywhere.

But up until now, I haven’t really taken on the Grandaddy of all GNV murals. The Wall. Where it all started. Where primitive scribblings met high art met political manifestos met frat boy symbolism met sheer nonsense met artistic anarchy.

And where the remembrance of the student murders is the only permanent presence. And that only because somebody comes and patiently restores it every time some thoughtless spray paint radical covers it up. Bless you for that.

So on Thanksgiving morning I stopped by The Wall. And the sheer artistic anarchy of it gave me pause. This is not your father’s wall.

And so naturally I thought about “The Wall.” How could I not?

Thus with apologies to Pink Floyd, here is the latest apparition of GNV’s ever changing, ever evolving Wall.

Right now it still has a decidedly Halloweenish flavor.

With just a smidgen of In-Your-Face insolence.

Or perhaps it’s just a manifestation of the sheer frustration of young people who are struggling to acquire (or to avoid) an education in this maddening Age Of Covid.

We are an education city after all. But you can tell the frustration is mounting. And the masks are coming off. At least on The Wall.

On the other hand, maybe it’s simply a youthful nostalgia for all of our favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters.

Or not.

I am reminded of the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti of World War II. With perhaps just a bit of, um, (blood)lust mixed in.

Which is not to say that our street artists are totally unaware of the supreme struggles that confront our nation post-Trump.

Walking The wall, which has been covered and recovered and recovered over and over ad infinitum, I thought: If these paint layers could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

But in the final analysis, you have to settle for the stories of the moment. Because tomorrow they will certainly be gone.

Listen, all the world is a canvas. Even the trash cans and the sidewalk in a pinch.

I keep thinking that a lot of this stuff is in code. And if only I could find the Rosetta Stone of graffiti interpretation all would become clear.

On the other hand, do I really want to know what this is all about?

Maybe artistic ignorance really is bliss.

Hey, I knew that if I walked The Wall long enough I would finally catch sight of my old girlfriend.

And her mom.

Welcome to Gainesville, pal! Nothing is as it seems.

Yes, at the end of it all, I did stomp on Trump. After all, he was on the sidewalk and not The Wall.

Didja ever notice?

Random things I noticed on my Thanksgiving morning ride through Gainesville.

Hey! Remember that cute little Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoons? Well he grew up and lives on 34th St. Now.

Can I get an Amen?

Question: Doesn’t it sort of defeat the purpose of public art if you have to put an ugly chain link fence around it to keep the public away?

Good news! I appear to have found the Stairway to Heaven. Bad News. It appears to have been designed by M.C. Escher.

The election’s been over for days, but liberal old Gainesville is still rubbing it in.

Now here’s something you don’t see in Pleasant Street everyday.

There’s nothing sadder to see than the bones of a once-classic downtown restaurant.

And nothing more encouraging to see than the resurrection of an iconic Gainesville building. Thanks, Keith Perry.

Wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels within…..

And, listen, if you are going to dream of a better 2021, where better to do it than the Dreamer’s Garden.

That time in Scotland

Continuing our armchair traveling adventures during this time of Covid, we recall a few summers ago when Jill and I did a weeklong bicycle tour of Southern Scotland. Yes, there were cows, and also sheep galore. Not that many cars, though.

Many thanks to Esther and Warren, of Galloway Cycling Holidays for providing the bikes, routes, accommodations and luggage support. We couldn’t have done it without them. Highly recommended.

We began our trek at the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost point in Scotland. From the lighthouse you can see Ireland, England and the Isle of Man. I think I saw a man on Man wave.

Great routes. I had no idea where we were at any given time. Thank goodness for GPS.

And of course the signs were all encouraging.

Did I mention that Trump visited while we were there?

Low tides, green grass, charming villages, ancient thatch…and a biosphere.

The good news is that my ship finally came in. The bad news…..

Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Very nice folks these Scots. But they don’t say too much.

Let’s just call it a fixer-upper and leave it go at that.

Scotland rocks.

Apparently people have been dying to get into Scotland for a very, very long time.

All roads lead to something or other.

As I understand it, Iron Man once lived in this castle and fought with a frog-like being called Mystique. And all was well. (Hey, it’s history.)

Oh, and we took a pilgrimage to the workshop and the burial ground of the father of the bicycle, Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

Sometimes we cycled for hours and never saw a car.

The egg and me. Don’t ask.

We were impressed to find palm trees this far north. Apparently that’s complements of the Gulf Stream.

I dunno. There were cows in the water. I’m sure they knew what they were doing.

Talk about your road less traveled.

It wasn’t easy, but we finally found an Italian restaurant in Scotland.

We had a great time. But, seriously, these Scots really need to cheer up.

Stream of (un)consciousness

Or what bored bloggers do on a football Saturday night when the home team played hours and hours ago.

I won. I won.

We won! We won!

You lost! You lost!

SEC! SEC!

We won! We won! Da!

We are one! We are one!

We wonder what the hell that was all about!

We won! You are toast!

No, I’m toast! And I won!

I second that emotion! He one! Er, won!

All is being and nothingness! One is won is…..zzzz!

Count your sheep, dog! Wool won!

We won ! It’s right there in black and white!

Remind us again what we won!

I’m tired of winning already!

I’ll drink to that! Hell, I’ll drink to anything at this point!

Wonder what ever happened to these guys? They’re a loser! And they’re not what they appear to be!

If I declare a winner, can I get the hell out of this blog?

There is no way out! And that’s the one-der of it all!

Won-der-ful!

The art of sounding off

Listen, Old Joe never was much of a conversation starter.

Yes, we jawed endlessly over the confederate memorial that sat on the west lawn of the Alachua County administration building. Keep it, some said. Get rid of it others insisted.

But mostly we were talking at one another. Not too each other.

Anyway, that’s history. The county commission has regifted Joe back to the Daughters of the Confederacy.

And soon it will be replaced by a better conversation piece.

Commissioners have given conceptual approval for a new sculpture on Joe’s old spot facing Main Street. Dubbed “The Gainesville Megaphone,” it is intended to give residents a novel platform in which to sound off about…whatever.

“It’s very important for the citizens voices to be heard and for the county to hear them,” says county Chief of Staff Gina Peebles. “This is something we’re hoping the whole county can rally around and embrace.”

Although the precise form of the sculpture has yet to be determined – the city is in the process of issuing a call to artists – the concept seems to come from large wooden megaphones erected in the forests of Estonia. Those sculptures, called Ruup, have been described thusly by the Huffington Post: “Large enough for an onlooker to climb inside, the idyllic carvings look like the remnants of a centuries-old fairy tale; the one bits of remaining evidence that something magical happened between the trees.”

Heidi Stein, who suggested the concept to the county, winning a $1,000 competition in the process, says “I wanted to help heal some of the hurt associated with the past, but also wanted something that everyone can relate to. I love how a megaphone amplifies voices.”

Not that the county is stealing the city’s thunder in the free speech department.

The timeless city-county rivalry being what it is, I think it only fair to point out that Gainesville has already erected half a dozen free speech stumps up and down Main Street between University and Depot avenues.

Just kidding.

Actually those concrete pads aren’t speaker stumps at all. They are remnants of an inspired idea that somehow fell by the wayside.

Gainesville’s Main Street Sculpture Project, launched in 2015, was going to create a sculpture walk that would lend an artistic flair to Gainesville’s main downtown drag.

The idea may have come from DeLand, home of one of Florida’s most attractive and bustling downtowns. That city’s popular sculpture walk boasts an impressive collection of works – each displayed for one year before being replaced.

The lure of DeLand’s art walk is such that artists compete for the privilege of having their works selected.

“People have a craving for this kind of thing,” Nava Ottenberg, a downtown proponent of the project told me five years ago when the Gainesville project kicked off. “And now it’s really happening here.”

Only it didn’t happen here. With one exception the sculpture pods on Main Street remain unused oddities.

The only actual sculpture on display is called Guardian of the Swamp. It is a rusty, forlorn collection of scrap metal that signifies…whatever.

An accompanying plate says it is on temporary display.

It’s been there temporarily for five years.

The guardian stands sentinel outside the old Warehouse restaurant, which was recently revived as a Venezuelan cuisine eatery called Tinker. If I were Tinker I’d ask the city to remove that eyesore. It’s enough to ruin one’s appetite.

Not sure exactly why the Main Street Sculpture Project was abandoned. But just as art imitates life, that sad old swamp thing feels symbolic of city hall’s larger failure to exercise stewardship over Gainesville’s downtown. Anyone who has visited lately knows that downtown is looking quite seedy and unprosperous. And you can’t blame that entirely on the pandemic.

But, hey, the city-county rivalry being what it is maybe Alachua County’s new megaphone will shame Gainesville into reviving its moribund art walk project.

Talk about a conversation starter.

GNV antidepressant

I woke up depressed and listless Wednesday morning. Hardly slept at all. It wasn’t so much the suspense that was killing me as a deepening suspicion that the only thing still uniting us as a nation is our mutual loathing for one another. We seem to have turned our backs on each other.

And so I did what I always do when I’m feeling down. I got on my bike and rode through the heart of Gainesville. Stopping to take photos along the way. Looking to connect with that old, familiar “I love this town” rush.

At first I felt like the Guardian of the Swamp. That old, rusting sculpture on South Main Street. A sad leftover from a city public art experiment gone wrong. It felt like I was looking at the town from behind a gray barrier.

But by the time I got to the Thomas Center I was reminded of the grace and beauty and endurance that seems to define life in this college town. And I began to view the world around me through a different lens. Several different lenses.

And the anxiety began to roll away like heavy drops of water.

By the time I got downtown one of our newest murals reminded me that, yes, there is nearly always something to celebrate…something to drink to…no matter the times.

That life goes on. And that sometimes you just have to hop on the bus and go with it.

By the time I got to Depot Park I was also reminded that all is not simply Republican Red or Democratic Blue. Rather we exist within an infinite universe of shades and colors.

On this crisp autumn morning the colors seem to explode all about me. How dreary everything looked the night before. How bright with anticipation this day brings.

And I remembered what we are all about in our university city. We are a community of ideas, of collaboration and of inquiry. At our best we are capable of envisioning and inventing our own brighter future.

I have no idea how the struggle for America’s soul will end. No one does right now. But we will get through this. And in the meantime, there’s nothing like a bike ride through GNV to help shake off a little electoral depression.