Guns, students and 1968

When it came out that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President of the United States, in 1963, with an Italian bolt-action rifle that he bought under a false name via mail order for $19.95 (plus postage and handling) Congress fairly leapt into action.

“If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we must have licensing,” newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson said as he signed a bill restricting the sale of mail-order firearms.

Just kidding. 

Actually it wasn’t until 1968 that LBJ finally got to sign a rather tepid gun control bill – one without his licensing requirement.  

Politicians won’t even cross the NRA to protect their own.

Still, let’s not gloss over the possible significance of that five-year – well, call it a “waiting period” – between the time Oswald’s bullets struck home and Congress finally did something about mail-order guns.

Remember 1968? 

The year of the barricades?

“1968 was a year of revolution,” says “In a period of unprecedented material prosperity and cultural activity, the sons and daughters of the most privileged sections of the United States and of Europe decided to make their own revolution.

“The year of the barricades served as a symbol of everything an entire generation of young people detested about the generation of their parents: the ‘It,’ the System, the Establishment.” 

Yes, it was very much a youth-driven revolution. Certainly Gainesville experienced its own days of rage as young anti-war and civil rights protests spilled out into University Avenue and 13th St. 

Speaking of kids, did anybody notice how polite and well behaved were the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting who went to Tallahassee after the bloodshed to ask their elected representatives to please redress their grievances?

Said grievances being their dread and horror over the prospect of being among the next wave of innocent children caught in the crosshairs of an angry young man with an AR15. 

They stood in the House visitors box in respectful, if appalled, silence as their elected representatives deemed it more important to debate pornography than so much as talk about a ban on military-grade guns designed to kill a lot of people in a very short period of time.

Even the teenagers who staged a three minute lay-down in front of the White House carried out their act of symbolic death without fuss, muss or bother. 

Three minutes being the time it took Nikolas Jacob Cruz to extinguish 17 lives at Stoneman Douglas.

Of course, 2018 isn’t 1968. Back then a terrible war without end, racial strife, civil discord, economic inequality and a growing contempt for governmental authority were among the factors that finally sent America’s young into the streets and onto the barricades. 

Nothing like today.

Still, there is little doubt that a new generation of, well, let’s just call them concerned citizens, is waking up and wondering what’s going on. They have grave doubts about the efficacy and fairness of the system they are inheriting. And they are appalled that so many politicians can be so easily bought by a gun lobby that doesn’t care how many children must die to protect their profits. 

Prudent politicians might want to consider, at this critical juncture, that it is better to show this upcoming generation of voters that the system really can work for them. That problems can be solved by policy rather than polemics.

Before the barricades go up and it’s 1968 all over again.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.  This blog post was originally published in The Sun in Feb. 2018. 


Density is our destiny

(This was originally published in The Sun in the spring of 2015, but it seems especially relevant today given the furor over GNV Rise.)

Density is destiny, Gainesville.

If we want to nurture an innovative economy, a place where creative young people desire to come to live, work and play, then density is the key.

If we want to have a truly walkable, bikeable, “complete streets” community, density is essential.

If we desire world class transit, demand will follow density.

The most exciting thing that’s happened to Gainesville this past decade has been the redevelopment of long neglected neighborhoods and commercial districts in and around the downtown-University of Florida quadrant. Aided by UF’s decision to build Innovation Square, we have been slowly but surely reclaiming our urban core. 

This following decades of outward expansion into the western suburbs that threatened to render UF and Gainesville as car-dependent and traffic congested as any number of identity-challenged, cookie-cutter suburban American cities.

Cities that have been simultaneously exploding on the edges while rotting from within.

The social, fiscal and environmental costs of sprawl have been well documented. A joint report by the London School of Economics and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute pegs the costs of sprawl in North America alone at more than $1 trillion a year. 

In addition to the loss of agricultural lands, sprawl forces horrendously expensive infrastructure improvements – new roads, utility lines, sewers and so on – to serve new developments.

And then there are the intangible costs of sprawl, including “consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health.”

A rational society would write land use plans to make it easier and less expensive to develop in the urban core than out on the edges. But instead, American planning dictates have had exactly the opposite objective since at least the end of World War II. The results have been predictable – the slow death of inner cities, a deep urban-suburban political divide that has rendered our democracy ever more polarized, a car culture that has nearly destroyed the fabric of American life. 

There may be is no community in Florida that has more hotly debated and railed against sprawl development than Gainesville. Since I arrived here, in the mid-1970s, I’ve heard it again and again: We don’t want to turn into another Miami. Our fear and loathing of South Florida-style sprawl has dominated the public debate over everything from road funding to land conservation to the location of new schools.

But now, with City staff proposing Land Development Code revisions that would have the effect of encouraging and facilitating urban infill – specifically in the UF-downtown core – we’re all of a sudden worried about Gainesville turning into…what?

New York City? Boston? Austin?

“It’s an open invitation for hyper-development,” former Mayor Mark Goldstein told The Sun. “It is the worst thing I have ever seen in 44 years of participating in local government and living here.”


Worse than the steady march of western suburbanization we’ve experienced over the past, oh,  44 years? Worse than Plum Creek’s proposal to leap-frog sprawl into the eastern reaches of the county as well? Worse than the looming “hyper-development” of Butler Plaza and all that it implies for still more traffic congestion and loss of green space and community?

The truth is that Gainesville is never going to turn into Miami, nor Austin for that matter. All of our hand-wringing over runaway development notwithstanding, Alachua County has continued to grow at a slow, steady, predictable pace year after year, decade after decade. The market forces simply don’t exist to support the “hyper-development” of inner Gainesville.

That said, the planning objectives of our university city ought to be to facilitate urban redevelopment and discourage sprawl to the greatest degree possible. 

Yes we can build an innovation economy by making it possible to locate high-tech and spin-off companies within easy walking, biking and busing distance of Innovation Square and UF proper.

And yes we can expand our downtown commercial and entertainment district north to 8th avenue and south to Depot – and even beyond.

And yes, we can remake 13th Street into something better and more functional than a typical Florida gas station, fast food and convenience store corridor. 

And yes, we can make it possible for students, faculty and staff – not to mention young entrepreneurs – to live an auto-free life in quality mixed-use neighborhoods close to where they work, play and study.

But density is key to all of those objectives. And land development regs that encourage density by design are crucial to making it all happen.

Because density is destiny, Gainesville.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Only kidding Gainesville

A lot of folks like to think of Gainesville as being a progressive university community. But, really, we’re a typical suburban American city.

The signs are everywhere – the way we’ve designed University Avenue, 13th St. 16th Ave. etc. for the express (pun intended) purpose of getting motorists in and out of town as quickly as possible, for instance. And never mind the occasional dead cyclist and pedestrian, or the sacrifice of walkability and economic vitality in our urban center. 

But we got another reminder of our suburban sameness when the city commission backed off GNV Rise in the face of an angry public backlash. With opponents hurling accusations of corruption and incompetence, the city’s modest plan to encourage a more affordable housing mix was dismissed as just another venal scheme to enrich South Florida developers and destroy neighborhoods.

To turn Gainesville into Orlando. Another Miami.

Oh, and that ugly word, “gentrification,” got tossed around in hand-grenade fashion. Never mind that the flip side of gentrification is segregation.

And that’s what we’re really talking about here. 

Like most American cities, we in Gainesville self-segregate ourselves. Mostly by income, but also by race. And we are comfortable in our little niches.

Daniel Herriges puts it very well in his recent Strong Towns essay: “Go to any planning meeting in an American suburb and you’ll hear plenty of talk about ‘protecting neighborhoods,’ but from what? From the side effects of new residential construction.”

In the end, what’s what the knee-jerk opposition to GNV Rise amounted to: Protecting neighborhoods from “others” – prospective neighbors who don’t look, sound and earn like we do. Students, low income workers, single moms and their kids, young people just entering the workforce and, of course, people with different shades of skin.

We’re freezing ourselves in amber here in Gainesville. Which by default means fostering sprawl, sprawl and more of the same.

It’s not that GNV Rise couldn’t use more work, any plan can. Conspiracy theories aside, it was at best a modest attempt to begin to grapple with a very complicated challenge. 

These days UF’s biggest housing problem doesn’t involve students. It’s finding affordable and proximate housing for lower income workers, entry level professors, graduate assistants, lab workers and so on. Lacking options folks inevitably end up in the suburbs – or maybe Putnam and Levy counties – and driving to campus each day; creating a horrible parking situation on campus and daily traffic snarl for Gainesville. 

Eventually UF’s strategic planners – whose consultants have bullishly promoted Boston-type urban infill as key to our town-gown quality of life future – are going to figure out that Gainesville is only kidding when we say we want the same thing. 

No, infill is gentrification. It’s a developer’s plot. Infill won’t protect neighborhoods.

Anyway, there’s plenty of developable land remaining on the west side between here and Cedar Key. And if the Plum Creekers get their way, eastward sprawl is just over the horizon. 

All we need are more cars. We’ve already got the stroads to accommodate them.

There’s an election coming up. If history is any indication, Lauren Poe is in trouble (only one incumbent, Pegeen Hanrahan, has been reelected since we started picking mayors separately from other commissioners). Poe’s opponents will likely run on the “protect neighborhoods” platform, just like Tom “The neighborhoods are getting hammered!” Bussing did.

There is also a pretty good chance that City Manager Anthony Lyons is going to be forced out. All of which means that the city commission will likely become more cautious about taking chances and making changes come the new year. 

GNV Rise will likely not rise again in 2019.

And if that comes to pass, Tigert Hall may begin, slowly and quietly, to back away from its strategic partnership with Gainesville on the grounds of municipal fickleness.

But at least we will have protected our neighborhoods from others.

Child of the Anthropocene

I am a child of the Anthropocene.

In my lifetime I have leaped, not just from one century to the next, but from one geological epoch to another.

Scientists calculate the beginning of Anthropocene at roughly the mid-20th century, when World War II ended and humanity reached the 3 billion served mark. 

That’s when we plunged feet first into the “Great Acceleration,” and all of our consumptive indicators suddenly jumped off the charts.  

The great acceleration of population, energy use, industrialization, technological development, globalization…next-gen warfare. It’s when we filled our atmosphere with all of the detritus of our excesses, from carbon dioxide to radionuclides. When we began in earnest to alter the very face of the Earth itself with our machines and our ambitions. When we began to treat our water like dirt. On a global scale.

Talk about being there at the creation.

They weren’t kidding when they called us baby boomers. It was the booming birth of sprawl, suburbanization, highways snaking out in every direction, strip mines and oil derricks and all of the accoutrements necessary to nudge our planet into the next geological age. The booming dawn of a period of Earth’s life span when the prime force of change would be the activities of a single species.

Anthropocene Man.

But you can call me AM for short. 

And, listen, there was nothing we couldn’t do.

We literally moved mountains to get at the coal under them. We drilled deep into the ocean bed to bring up the oil. And when conventional carbon wells seemed exhausted, we used pressurized water and chemicals to coax out the leavings. 

We piled up plutonium in cooling pools, where they will remain for generations to come, so we could hard boil eggs. 

Listen, there was nothing we couldn’t do with cheap oil, cheap water, cheap food, cheap mobility, cheap politics and cheap asphalt and concrete.

We split the atom and then scattered radioactive isotopes to the four corners of the world. We develop new chemicals to wash our hair, scrub our skin, debug our crops, clean our clothes. And then we spewed all of those chemicals into our air and our water and, ultimately, into our very bodies.

Sure, all of the chems we’ve been creating and absorbing may be lowering our collective intelligence and making us more susceptible to cancers and other diseases. 

But that’s surely a small price to pay for the Great Acceleration.

Because the payback is The American Dream writ large. That five bed-three bath on a cul-de-sac. The McMansion. The Quarter Pounder. Donald Trump. Big shiny SUVs stacked up eight-, ten-, 12-lanes abreast as far as the eye can see and beyond. 

A new new epoch. 

The last epoch, Holocene, lasted 11,000 years, just long enough to create a near-perfect environment in which to grow our civilization. Imagine what AM will create. 

Melt the ice cap? Why not? That’ll just open the Northwest Passage and make it even easier for us to get at all oil and gas reserves that have been hiding from us under the Arctic ice.

Stronger, wetter and more destructive hurricanes? Listen, every time one blows ashore it creates the opportunity to build bigger and more expensive beach houses and condos atop the wreckage of the ones that washed away. 

Rain forests? Indonesia needs that land to grow the palm oil we need to run our cars on “clean” bio-fuels. And if we were doing proper forest management (cutting down trees) to begin with, we wouldn’t have all those fires in California. The President Of The United States says so. 

Red tides? Easier to catch fish when they’re already dead.

Plastic landfills the size of cities? Our descendants will be mining them for generations to come, picking through the detritus of our greatness for the leavings. 

Call it the ultimate recycling revolution.

I suppose this is all very easy to say at my age. The advantage of being born at the very dawn of the Anthropocene is that I won’t be around to witness the worst of the inevitable downsides;  rising seas, mass extinctions, desertification, droughts, floods, fires, killer storms, acid oceans, exhausted fisheries, waves of climate refugees, exotic plagues, resource wars and on and on. 

I’m a pioneer by birth. We break new ground and leave it to others to figure out what comes next.

Like the crew of the Enterprise, AMs are going where none have gone before.

And God help our children. And their children.

But don’t worry about the Earth. The Earth will be fine by the time we’re over and done with it. We really can’t hurt the planet. 

Oh, we’ll alter it in lots of negative ways. At least for the short term. 

But the Earth Abides. Always has and always will. 

Our species? Different story entire. 5CF0F34E-5FDB-4EDE-8F2E-DD4D92BEFE6D

The art of climate change

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida, Ange said aloud. She found herself swaying without pants or shoes on her porch. Poor alligators. Poor ibises. Poor stupid, greedy human beings. Boy, are you all in for it.”

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Cross and double cross

Impressive things I saw on my trip to Russia in the summer of 2017.

The Kremlin. The Hermitage

Young couples pushing baby carriages. 

No kidding, they were everywhere. 

That might not sound impressive until you consider the “Russian Cross.” 

That was the infamous point in 1990 – amid the economic chaos that ensued after the fall of Soviet communism – when the rising death rate crossed the falling birth rate. 

The Russian Cross didn’t reverse itself until 2012.  And that didn’t come about by accident. 

Rather, it happened because Russians made a conscious decision to invest in children. Women were awarded “pregnancy allowances” worth several thousand dollars, and lucrative “motherhood capital” benefits for a second child…with still more tacked on for triplets. Child care and pre-school was heavily subsidized so parents could work without worrying about their kids. 

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the reverse of what we Boomers have been doing back here at home. For years now we have been front-loading our tax breaks and government entitlements toward the goal of making life easier for us seniors in our golden years. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with any society taking care of its elderly. But there’s no question that my generation has chosen to do so at the expense of our children. 

So It was no great surprise to hear, shortly after returning to the U.S. from my Russian visit,  U.S. Sen Orrin Hatch say:  “The reason CHIP’s having trouble is that we don’t have money anymore.”?

CHIPS being the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides care for about 8.9 million American kids. 

Or at least it did before we…um…ran out of money.

Call it the “American Double Cross.” That point at which the political imperative to award tax cuts to the wealthy surpassed the fiscally prudent strategy of investing in our children. In our future, really.

I’d like to think that we are a better country than that, but they keep proving me wrong up in the D.C. Swamp. Especially now that we have well and truly entered the Imperial Age of Trump.

Which is not to say that we are not capable of choosing to invest in our children right here at home. Indeed, in this election just past, Alachua County voters opted to bank on its children on at least two fronts. 

A healthy majority of voters agreed to raise their sales taxes in order to help fix up Alachua County’s aging schools – the State Legislature long ago having, um, economized on public school funding so as to pour more tax dollars into charters and private education.

And while they were at it, local voters also raised their property taxes to better fund basic children’s services: That initiative will raise $6 million to $7 million a year for pre-school education, after school care, early childhood health and nutrition services and more.

Right here at home.

Apparently at least we in Alachua County are better custodians of our children than the likes of Donald Trump and Orrin Hatch. 

One more recollection from my visit to Russia. While on a bicycle tour in St. Petersburg our young guide took us to a small park to show us a monument to the children who helped form the backbone of the local resistance when Germany laid siege to what was then called Leningrad during World War II. 

Just kids, really. But for nearly 900 days they played dangerous cat and mouse games with hardened Nazi shock troops amid the rubble of Tzar Peter’s grand city. And when it was finally over, predictably, the majority of Leningrad’s casualties were women and children.

It is a stirring image of defiant kids. In a green park. In a now prosperous city. In a country that  hasn’t forgotten its children.

I wish we could say the same thing here at home.

(A version of this blog appeared in The Gainesville Sun in Dec. 2017.)

Graveyard of ‘heroes’

(Wrote this in the summer of 2017 for the Gainesville Sun. Still relevant today.)

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.”

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

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.

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.

Gainesville’s strong compact

I love this town.

I know, I’ve been saying that for years. But I’ve never been more enamored of Gainesville than I am right now, in the wake of this otherwise dismal election. 

Yes, Florida went red (we think). Floridians elected Rick Scott (probably) despite his filthy legacy of algae green lakes and rivers and red tides. They went with a Trump puppet for governor because, I suppose, the Democrat looked too much like Obama (if you catch my drift).

Which is a shame because Andrew Gillum had the very best basic training imaginable for the office. 

He is a mayor. Mayors can do almost anything. They pretty much have to.

But never mind all that. It isn’t because Gainesville came in reliably blue that I’m singing its praises. That’s just Gainesville being Gainesville.

No, it’s because the social compact that binds us together as a community remains strong and resilient.

The phony siren’s song that we can have it all without paying for it may seduce a lot of voters. But not in this town. 

We have an obligation to our children. So voters in this county decided by a nearly 70 percent margin to impose a half-mill property tax on themselves to fund the Children’s Trust initiative. 

Our schools are falling apart. And so, while federal and state officials keep marginalizing public education, we local voters enacted a half cent sales tax to rebuild and modernize our classrooms.

Because if not us, then who?

And it’s not just that we’re willing to tax ourselves for the greater good. 

Gainesville voters refused to swallow whole the lies and false promises made by Keith Perry, the Chamber of Commerce and other backers of an initiative to separate Gainesville GRU-owners from direct control of their public utility.

We are nobody’s fools. We didn’t just say “no.” By a nearly 67 percent margin we said “Hell No!.”

But neither are we bereft of trust in our local democratic institutions.

The essence of the “independent” GRU board argument was that we can’t trust city government to make our decisions for us. Not only did we reject that nonsense, but we went one better.

By a 70 percent margin we approved a landmark city election reform measure that will give commissioners more time in office, increase voter turnout and ultimately broaden civic participation in municipal affairs.

Oh yeah, and save tax dollars.

Is this a great town or what? We aren’t fooled by politicians that do not have our best interests at heart. We insist on home rule. We won’t be deprived of our ability to hold the elected officials closest to us accountable. And we trust those officials enough to give them more leeway to make better decisions. 

Be proud, Gainesville. Call yourself progressives. Call yourselves liberals. Hell, just call yourselves “common sense,” voters, to borrow a meme that seemed popular with Republicans this year. 

You are Gainesville. You vote. And you do so well and intelligently. 

I love this town. 

Out out damned blot!

Like Jimmy Stewart’s father in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” I always fancied myself a fighter of lost causes.

Which is to say that I was a newspaper editorial writer. 

My resume of causes lost is long and impressive.

Abolish the death penalty? Lost. Gun control? Lost. Free the Ocklawaha? Lost. Unify Gainesville and Alachua County? Lost. 

I could go on but, really, it’s too depressing. 

And now that I’m off the editorial writing payroll and well into my freelance dotage, my zest for lost causes hasn’t faded. 

Stop Trump? Lost. Save the springs? Lost. Give Yoho the heave-ho? Lost.

Which makes all the more baffling to wake up the other morning and realize that I actually have a win in my win-lose column.

How depressing is that? A perfect record spoiled.

Gainesville voters have decided that it makes eminent sense to move city elections from every year in the spring (in splendid isolation) to every other year in the fall.

There to nest comfortably with federal, state and county elections. 

Not only will it save taxpayers money, but it practically guarantees a higher voter turnout for municipal elections.

Which have been known to fall into the single digits because, well, because there are lots of more interesting things to do in the springtime.

Like smell the flowers, dive head first into the gene pool, go to the beach.

Everybody seems to agree on this now.

The FOG (Forces Of Good, aka Gainesville progressives/liberals).

The city commissioners who put it on the ballot.

And the 70 percent of city voters who said “Hell yes!”


You see, for more years than I care to remember there was pretty much one drummer beating the drum for this particular good government reform.

The lowly, ink-stained wretch who occupied the editorial page office on the second floor of the Gainesville Sun.

Not that it was my idea. 

I stole it from a rival city. When I found out that the League of Women Voters had teamed up with the Leon County Supervisor of Elections to change Tallahassee city commission elections from spring to fall.

What a concept. 

But nobody listened. Even though I annoyingly brought it up every time we had a so-quiet-you-can-hear-crickets-chirp city election.

That’s just grumpy old Cunningham again. What does he know?

Imagine my surprise to find that now, five years into my retirement, It actually happened. 


Sure, it was the right thing to do, no matter who said it first (I did). 

But that’s not the point, is it? 

The point is that, now, I have to live with this. 

This damnable blot on my otherwise perfect lost cause record.

What next? Will everybody suddenly wake up one morning and realize that I’ve been right all along? About Reagan. About Bush? About Scott. About the NRA, and algae in our water?

About Trump?

Oh bother.

The spinx and the water

ST. PETERSBURG: This is a city of grand palaces and colorful onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, of giant mosques and fortresses and spacious parks and even a sad, still-functioning Cold War-era brick-and-barbed wire prison. 

And it is a city of monuments: Bronze and stone tributes to tsars and saints and heroes and sinners. 

Consider the twin sphinxes that stand sentinel over the wide, blue Neva River. Mirror image studies of grace and torment. Each twin’s face split down the middle – one side reflecting a haunting beauty, the other a grim, skeletal mortality.

“These are my favorite statues because they represent the soul of my city,” Victor, the young bicycle guide we hired to show us Russia’s grand city of 6 million people, said. “We have so much beauty, and we have seen so much suffering.” 

The bloody reign of the tsars. The brutal Nazi siege that could not bring St. Petersburg to its knees. Seven decades of grim Soviet rule.

And the surging water. Always the water. 

Slayer of tens of thousands over the city’s 300-year history, flooding has been St. Petersburg’s most constant tormentor since Peter The Great decided – against the advice of just about everybody who knew the terrain – to build his grand capital in the Neva’s low, swampy delta. 

There is a reason they call St. Petersburg the Venice of the North. The river dissects the city with surgical precision, and along its banks are a network of side canals that these days teem with excursion boats. 

Those canals built, not to enchant tourists, but to get rid of unwanted water. 

Floods happen with predictable regularity due to prevailing winds that send Baltic Sea ice melt surging into the city. One flood in 1824 alone killed as many as 10,000. More than 300 floods have swept over the city since its founding in 1703. 

In his epic poem “The Bronze Horseman,” Alexander Pushkin writes of water that “seethes up from below, manifesting itself in uncontrolled passion, illness, and violence. It rebels against order and tradition.” 

Rather like Harvey rebelled against Huston. 

Like St. Petersburg, Houston sprouted on shallow, swampy lands that should never have been selected to host a city in the first place. Houston grew and drained and dredged and filled and sprawled with no rational planning and little heed for the world’s single most destructive force – water. 

Harvey wasn’t Houston’s first flood, only its deadliest. Like St. Petersburg it has suffered the curse of excess water repeatedly.

Which is not to say these two great cities are sphinx-like mirror images. 

Beginning in 1979 Russia began construction of an elaborate series of 11 dams and related  flood-control structures to protect St. Petersburg. Work was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but began again in 2005 under Vladimir Putin. 

Finally completed in 2011, St. Petersburg’s network of dams, tunnels, discharge sluices and flood gates have since been credited with helping the city survive at least two serious storm events without sustaining major damage. 

Total cost for the project: An estimated $385 billion in U.S. dollars. 

Meanwhile, after the “Tax Day Flood” of 2016 that killed 16 people, Houston asked Congress for a modest $311 million for flood mitigation. 

Congress couldn’t be bothered. Tax cuts these days being deemed a better investment strategy than life-saving infrastructure.

Now Congress must try to figure out how to pay down at least some of the estimated $190 billion in damages Harvey visited on Texas. 

Nobody in D.C. wants to come right out and admit it, but as climate change aggravates both the frequency and intensity of killer storms, we will be forced to choose between two mitigation strategies. 

One is a gradual retreat from the coast, surrendering cities like Houston and Miami and New Orleans to the elements and relocating their populations ever inland. 

The other is to follow the Dutch, Russians and others who that have decided that great cities like London, Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are worth the not inconsiderable infrastructure costs necessary to sustain them. 

Call it America’s own twin sphinx dilemma. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun in August 2017.)