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.
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.