This is my most recent column in the Sun. There are big plans afoot for the Sweetwater Branch Greenway Loop.
Say, let’s have a party to celebrate neighborhoods, community and connections.
No, wait! Even better, let’s have several parties. Because you can never over-celebrate these things.
I’m just spitballing here. But what if we had festivals in seven historic Gainesville neighborhoods. With each neighborhood offering up events and activities designed to bring us together, to reflect on the barriers that once divided us, and maybe talk about how yesterday’s barriers can be tomorrow’s people-to-people connectors.
Listen, for the last year or more I’ve been promoting the idea of creating a Sweetwater Branch Greenway as a way more closely tie together neighborhoods while salvaging a long-neglected creek.
Sweetwater Branch is Gainesville’s first creek, flowing through the original center of the city on its way to Paynes Prairie. A Sweetwater greenway would connect Springhill in the south to the Duck Pond in the north.
Oh, and once developed, it would be relatively easy to join the Sweetwater greenway to the 6th Street Rail-Trail, and thereby create a six-mile recreational loop through the historic heart of the city.
Enter the Gainesville Thriving Project.
That’s an initiative sponsored by the Community Foundation of North Central Florida in partnership with the University of Virginia-based Thriving Cities Lab. Basically it’s an effort to bring community leaders and stakeholders together to more effectively address the challenges and opportunities facing Gainesville.
As sort of a – oh, call it a demo project – Gainesville Thriving has adopted the greenway loop as a community building exercise.
“We were looking for a project that could help develop capacity building,” said Ty Buckman, executive director of the Thriving Cities Lab. “We want to empower neighborhoods to come together and connect around this idea of a greenway.”
The loop would run through six of Gainesville’s oldest neighborhoods – Springhill, the Duck Pond, Grove Street, Fifth Avenue, Porter’s Quarters, Downtown and Depot Park and the Power District. The lab is proposing a multi-day series of festivals, one in each neighborhood, to heighten awareness of the loop and its community building potential.
Historically, Sweetwater Branch ran through the heart of affluent Gainesville, while the old railroad tracks on 6th Street was the demarcation line between segregated neighborhoods.
The loop “offers the unique opportunity to bring Gainesville residents together in a collaboration which celebrates our unique heritage while as the same time acknowledging and healing the wounds from our divided past.”
This from a Thriving Cities Lab proposal for the festivals, to take place in late February.
“We want to build excitement for the trail, specifically in the neighborhoods that it will connect,” says Phoebe Miles, president of The Cade and a Gainesville Thriving participant. “The trail has a unique ability to unite these once-divided neighborhoods into one story.”
What might these festivals look like? There would be historical presentations and contemporary issue discussions, of course. But also fun stuff – runs, scavenger hunts, pop-up parks, cycle tours, music, story telling and the like. And a strong element of the arts and culture will run through the entire week.
“Place making is an inherently creative process,” says Harley O’Neil, project manager for the festivals. “We can collaborate with a broad cross-section of artists to amplify this notion that we are a place where nature and culture meet.”
Gainesville’s historic neighborhoods were born during an era when residents were in close geographic proximity but kept worlds apart by the constructs of race and class. Those days are past us, and these neighborhoods all continue to evolve in ever more interesting and creative ways.
Now that’s certainly worth celebrating.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org