Imagination and reality

News from the University of Florida PR shop: A team of UF design and engineering students have won a $3,500 grand in the Witters Competition for their reimagining of Gainesville’s redundant – which is to say shuttered – fire station on South Main Street.

In their fertile imaginations, the old station would be rebranded “Firescape,” and would one day be remade into a performing arts center.

“FireScape serves as a community resource where people can engage with one another and form dynamic relationships through the lens of performing arts. Complete with a vendor space, storage/art display walk, black box room, an open-air theater and more, Firescape is a safe and inviting environment for Gainesville residents to connect and grow together,” is the way the UF PR types put it.

“Safe” and “inviting” being key words in this scenario.

It’s a nice idea. And who knows, it might even come to fruition one day. I hope so, because it would certainly be preferable to the off-the-books homeless shelter the City is currently running in front of the old station.

For the record City Hall claims neither credit nor responsibility for the street people who have pitched their tents and strung their tarps on City property. Doing so would require a degree of stewardship for the settlement that neither commissioners or bureaucrats care to accept.

Suffice it to say that the city provides port-a-lets, lockers and trash collection services for the Fire Station’s Tent Village. And whatever else may happen there is out of City Hall’s hands.

So if the old fire station is now the most visible evidence that South Main Street has turned into a skid row, that’s neither the City’s fault nor its responsibility.

I don’t know if the “Firescape” vision will ever come to fruition. But in the meantime it might be better for the City to lease the old fire station – for $1 a year – to Grace, the St. Francis House or the Salvation

At least those organizations know how to deal with the homeless – and are not afraid to take responsibility for their stewardship.

Black and white and orange

Enough about Dr. Zeus and what he saw on Mulberry Street. Give me Daniel Manus Pinkwater and his paint-spilling seagull any day.

Yeah, I read Zeus to my kids. I guess I wasn’t “woke” enough to ken to some of his racially tinged caricatures.

Anyway, I much preferred Pinkwater’s “Big Orange Splot.” Because after said seagull dumped a big can of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s neat roof (no one knows why) something wonderful happened in his cookie-cutter neighborhood.

First Plumbean and then, one by one, his neighbors began to remake their houses in outrageous colors and designs.

Why? Well, as Plumbean said: “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

Whatever point Zeus was trying to make, Pinkwater’s message was loud and clear”

Celebrate creativity. But also celebrate diversity. Especially in our neighborhoods.

Listen, if we are going to engage in cancel culture, let’s cancel something that matters.

You don’t have to go to Zeus’ Mulberry Street to find evidence of racial and class segregation. We’ve got plenty of both in neighborhoods all over America…and in Gainesville.

And we know from history that exclusionary zoning has played a key role in keeping so many neighborhoods pure white.

“Housing is one of the main drivers of segregation and systemic racism in America,” David Garcia, housing researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR recently.

As it happens, the City of Berkeley – California’s Gainesville – was the first in America to enact single family zoning laws. That was in 1916, and the reason was crystal clear – to keep “those people” out of Berkeley’s neat neighborhoods.

But Berkeley’s city council, following the lead of a handful of other progressive American cities, has now voted to phase out exclusionary zoning rules that have not only enforced segregation but contributed to a shortage of affordable housing in that flagship university city.

Of course, saying you are going to do something and actually doing it are two different things. More than one city commission has seen its resolve dissolve in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition. And even college town liberals who would never dream of uttering the phrase “those people” will go to the mats, ostensibly, in defense of their property values.

We saw it here when commissioners abandoned GNV Rise – a modest attempt to incentivize affordable housing – after being accused of catering to…who else?…greedy developers.

But to their credit, commissioners haven’t given up. Now they’ve hired a consultant to present them with zoning reform proposals that might help ease the segregating impact of exclusionary zoning and create opportunities to build affordable multiple housing units in neighborhoods that currently exclude them.

“I think that most people in Gainesville care about the issue of equity, and one of the great sources of inequity in our city has been our exclusionary zoning policies that have benefited the affluent, and been predominantly white residents, and caused great harm to our traditionally Black neighborhoods,” Mayor Lauren Poe has said. The goal being to correct “the systemic and structural policies that have led to this inequity.”

Predictably, opposition is already building, and never mind that not a single recommendation has yet to be made.

Just as Plumbean’s neighbors initially objected…before they saw the light and turned their cookie-cutter block into something worth celebrating.

It’s time to have that discussion in Gainesville, Florida’s Berkeley.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at Email him at

Signs for the season

I notice that they are getting pretty good about erecting special signs of the season at Depot Park.

This one was up for a while to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

And now this one to commemorate St. Paddy’s Day.

Inexplicably, however, they seem to have forgotten one of our most celebrated holidays.

Where’s our respect for tradition? Back stabbing as a group sport.

Speaking of signs. This one, currently hanging in the window at Volta downtown, reminds me of why I so dearly love this town of ours.

We are passionate about our causes. Can I get an “Amen”?]

This land so strange

As we continue our Florida journey it is best to remember the immortal words of Cabrera de Vaca when he landed here in the 16th Century in search of gold: “In view of the poverty of the land…the Indians making continual war upon us, wounding our people and horses…shooting from the lakes with such safety to themselves that we could not retaliate…we determined to leave that place and go in quest of the sea…”

But never mind all that…suffice to say it ended badly for Vaca and Co.

Floridians come in all shapes and sizes. I ran into the webbed guy and his love interest at Wakulla Lodge, the Deva of Peace in DeLand, down home Barbie in Micco, the flapper in my hotel room in St. Augustine and Marilyn in a phone booth in Sebastian.

Florida memories are made of this.

Speaking of DeLand, it’s one of my favorite Florida places. A college town that never lost its sense of humor or perspective, DeLand simply does not take itself seriously.

Oh, and they call themselves the Athens of Florida, which I love. (Wonder if that makes Gainesville the Sparta of Florida?)

I once spent the night in a fish camp on Lake Talquin while scouting a Bike Florida tour route from Tallahassee to Apalachicola and back.

That is all.

The Dead Lakes is one of the eerier natural wonders of the Florida world. Trees up to their keisters in water. What’s that all about?

Nearby Wewahitchka occupies a state of mind on the Chipola River roughly midway between Blountstown and Port St. Joe. It is literally as sweet as Tupelo Honey. And they have a Lake Alice, just like GNV.

Which is to take nothing away from Cape San Blas, just a piece down the road. Almost blindingly white sand on which near naked people repose. It sticks out on the Forgotten Coast like a lobster claw.

Eastpoint faithfully guards Apalachicola’s eastern flank and St. George Island’s northern retreat. It is almost entirely built upon a foundation of oyster shells and beer bottle caps.

I would have more to report on this phenomena, but, frankly he scared the bejeezus out of me. And so I ran away (a little maneuver I learned from Monty Python).

I know there’s a story here. I think it has something to do with our upcoming invasion thrust into Georgia’s soft underbelly (because you know why the St. John’s River flows north, right?).

When we win we’re going to take our Apalachicola River water back.

Words simply do not suffice. Sometimes you simply have to, um, drink it all in and let it go at that.

As my late, and lamented, friend Joe Bizarro once wrote (to the tune of “Camelot”): “Florida, Florida, you know it sounds a bit bizarre. But in Florida, Florida, that’s how conditions are.” (Miss you Joe.)

Gainesville off-the-books

Listen, I don’t really object to the City running an off-the-books homeless camp on Main Street.

I just think they ought to own up to it.

After all, it’s been a long time since city government has done very much to promote or support downtown as a desirable place to live work, play or do business.

So it should surprise nobody that the area has been deteriorating into a skid row for quite a while now.

But I do object to the disingenuousness of our local government allowing a downtown tent city to sprout up in front of the old fire station, sending trucks and employers to periodically haul off the trash and tidy things up, and even providing campers with lockers and port-a-potties…all the while asserting that what goes on there has nothing to do with the City.

You see, if Gainesville admitted that it was running a downtown homeless encampment,, then the City would have to staff it, budget it and assume liability for it.

It is City property – which is to say, our property – after all.

If the growing collection of tents, sleeping bags and their owners were occupying private property, one might reasonably assume that there may be health and safety code violations involved. But apparently the city doesn’t enforce such codes – certainly not when they occur on taxpayer property.

I am not suggesting that City Hall does nothing to combat homelessness. Quite the contrary. The support Gainesville has given to organizations like Grace Marketplace is commendable. And the latest initiative to dispatch social workers among the homeless to better understand their problems and how they might be assisted, is long past due.

But it is also true that people who work, live and do business in downtown Gainesville have long complained – mostly in vain – about aggressive panhandling, people sleeping in their doorways, harassment, litter and other problems associated with the presence of more and more street people in the city core.

If I were running a restaurant, hotel, apartment building or other downtown enterprise, I’d wonder about the logic of Gainesville offering up its old firehouse exterior to accommodate some of the same people who are making it harder and harder to do business there.

But that’s just me. I’m sure they know what they are doing at City Hall.

BTW: Wouldn’t the City Hall lawn make for a much better campground? At least then our public servants could keep an eye on what’s going on right outside their windows.