A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.
Looking back to the time before Covid, it’s amazing to think about how casually we made decisions and plans and then flew off to the far corners of the Earth.
One day in 2013 a few friends were having a few beers at Swamphead Brewery, and somehow the talk turned to places we haven’t been and always wanted to go.
And the next thing you know about a dozen of us were in Iceland for New Year’s Eve.
Quite amazing, really.
They take their snow very seriously in Iceland.
But that’s about the only thing they take seriously.
Oh, they take their statues quite seriously as well.
Grim and foreboding images indeed.
As though possessed by the very soul of unremitting winters in a land where the sun never shines for very long.
Which is not to say that there are not exceptions.
Reykjavik is a lovely provincial seaport.
A quirky mixture of Gothic and frivolity.
With some surprisingly contemporary architecture thrown in.
In Iceland the Blue Lagoon is not a movie about lost teenagers on a tropical island. Rather it is a hedonistic dip in a volcano-heated reservoir where one goes to sip wine and slather mud on one’s face.
Indeed, one can hardly walk around this land of ice and fire without having to sidestep vents of steam escaping from the ground.
Or raging torrents of water.
Or frozen blue glaciers.
It is an unstable land of grinding plates and erupting earth.
And remote, desolate landscapes.
That require monster trucks to get the tourists from here to there and back again.
They will take you to see tiny horses. Who were brought here by the Vikings….after they stole them from the Mongols.
Or tiny fishing villages where they will teach you to repair nets.
They are very proud of their Viking heritage.
They also take their fireworks seriously.
Very seriously indeed.
As seriously as their New Year’s Eve bonfires.
Quite an amazing land in the middle of nowhere North Atlantic Ocean.
Now that we’re all more or less armchair travelers it’s fun to reflect upon the places we’ve been before things went to hell. Who knows, maybe we’ll get there again one day.
Oh what a great cycling city. And a surprisingly vital metropolis for a town whose motto is “It’s not cold all the time.”
Speaking of cold. Reykjavik in December is both cold and dark. But it’s an amazingly artsy town to wander around in. ‘Course you’ve got to mind your footing because the sidewalks can be quite slippery.
True story. I once sat across the table from my son in a Castro District restaurant and casually remarked “This is a great city, I believe I could live here.” He went pale. Maybe the first time I ever shocked the kid. He’d come all the way across the country to get away from home.
The Andy Warhol museum, the Steelers and fire hose art that looks like a skyscraper. What’s not to like?
One day a week a stretch of Thames riverfront becomes a massive used book buyers paradise. Plus 007.
It’s not just the giant spider, although that’s pretty cool. A world class arts museum and a canal system that turns into a giant ice skating highway in the winter.
Flights are regularly canceled due to low lying fog. But once you get here and the sun comes out it’s quite lovely. And quirky; hence the drooping light poles.
As Bob Dylan said “I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough.” This after being lost in Juarez in the rain and it’s Easter time too.
The Dalmatians are haunting. The architecture ranges from Ancient Greek to Napoleonic French (depending on which empire was occupying which island at the time). And the blue haired lady standing sentry over a medieval village alleyway was just the icing on the cake.
In Greek theater, the mask was the thing. The actors wore them to convey tragedy and comedy alike.
Ironically, when The Hippodrome (from the Greek “horse” and “race”) finally reopens, it is likely to be the folks in the audience who are masked.
But nobody knows when the show will be able to go on again at The Hipp. Meanwhile, Gainesville’s only professional theater is struggling to keep, um, body and staff reasonably intact.
“It’s a tough time,” says Hipp creative director Stephanie Lynge. “Our summer show (traditionally a big money maker) is gone, it just wasn’t safe. We can’t do live theater, but we are rehearsing, remotely, for a play that we will record and put on line for sale” later this month.
In the meantime, here’s something fans can do to help keep at least a few Hipp employees drawing a paycheck.
And more specifically a Depot Park mask, a Mudcrutch mask or a Night Sky Over Paynes Prairie mask.
Or go really go crazy and score a Potato At Turlington mask (don’t ask), or a Dr. Cade’s Studebakers mask.
All of the above, and more, thanks to a creative collaboration between The Hippodrome and former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.
Who, since the onset of COVID-19, has become sort of the Tzarina of Hogtown Maskdom.
Since early March, Hanrahan’s nonprofit group, GNVcovidmasks.org, has assembled hundreds of volunteers to sew and distribute thousands of masks throughout the community.
While that work continues, she has a new site, HippMasks.org, to market and sell a line of Gainesville-centric masks.
Proceeds from the sale of those masks go to support three theater wardrobe department workers who, having no costumes to sew at present, have instead been turning out hundreds of Hipp Masks.
“They produce between 150 and 175 masks a week,” Hanrahan says of the Hipp sewists. “I just choose the fabrics and the patterns.”
Not to mention the quirky that’s-so-Gainesville names.
“Our entire wardrobe team has been sewing for over three months,” says Lynge. “They help design the masks and Pegeen pays them. They are good quality masks with filters. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”
In recent weeks Hanrahan has been on Facebook soliciting name suggestions for this new line of Hipp Masks. There’s a Gainesville High School mask and a Harn museum mask, a Kanapaha Gardens mask and a Santa Fe Zoo mask.
And here’s the thing. If we’ve learned anything from the events of the past few months, it should be that masks are not going to go out of style any time soon. We will almost certainly be donning nose-to-mouth covers in public places for the foreseeable future, if not longer.
Hipp Masks have been for sale at Satchel’s Pizza. Now they can be bought on line.
“If someone told me a year ago that I’d be marketing face masks using Gainesville themed fabrics I’d have said they’ve lost their minds,” says Hanrahan. “But it’s actually been a lot of fun. And as long as they are willing to keep making them I’m going to keep selling them.”
Listen, in the classic Greek theater tradition, there will almost certainly be lots of masks on display when the Hipp finally does get to open its doors.
One way to help turn a pandemic tragedy into a farcical comedy is to show up for curtain call sporting a Chert House Gainesville mask. Or maybe a Spanish Moss At San Felasco mask.
When you’ve been spending a lot of time home-bound in these COVID-19 times, you begin to think about the places you’ve been and wondering if you’ll ever go there again. In 2014 my wife and I visited Florence, and I’d hate to think that I’ll never go back. So here are some Firenze impressions for the armchair traveler.
It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade. Mark Twain
And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the Flowers.” – Marcel Proust
Through these old streets I wander dreamily. Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide of life. William Leighton
Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine. Henry James
In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise. Virgil Thomas
In America, Walt Disney opened an amusement park. And in Florence, someone was savaging the remnants of a Tuscan nobleman’s family. Chris Bohjalian
Tonight I watched the sun set at Ponte Vecchio. I think its safe to say I have finally found the place that feels right to me. I just can’t believe I had to come halfway across the world to find it. Jenna Evans Welch
Whether it was a street artist showing off his work or an old Italian man playing the accordion, something new caught my eye each day as I explored the city. Emily Kearns
Rejoice, Florence, seeing you are so great that over sea and land you flap your wings, and your name is widely known in Hell! Dante
The stones are infused with history and culture and knowledge: I feel it. I feel the presence of generations, I feel the weight of giants. Emily Kyle
Firenze is magnetic, romantic and busy. Its urban fabric has hardly changed since the Renaissance, its narrow streets evoke a thousand tales, and its food and wine are so wonderful the tag ‘Fiorentina’ has become an international label of quality assurance. Lonely Planet
Sure, Florence is touristy. But where else can you stroll the same pedestrian streets walked by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli while savoring the world’s best gelato? Rick Steve
We are fortunate: Florence isn’t just the cradle of art—it is a city that celebrates the art of living well. National Geographic
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…
I am an American patriot.
I have been to war in the service of my country.
I vote each and every time.
I pay my taxes.
I do not pledge my allegiance to colored cloth.
That is the flimsy cloak of sunshine patriots.
I do not believe “My country right or wrong.”
If I see something wrong with my country it is my duty to try to put it right.
I do not believe that God’s law is America’s law.
We make our own laws, thank you very much.
I have been alive for 72 Independence Days.
This one is decidedly different from any 4th of July in my lifetime.
And not just because of canceled fireworks and parades and closed beaches.
Or because masks threaten my freedom to infect my fellow Americans.
Covid-19 isn’t the only threat to America’s health and well being.
Nor even the greatest threat.
No, I fear in my heart that this may be America’s final Independence Day.
Not to put a fine point on it, but we have put a hate-mongering, bigoted man-child in the White House.
And we have stacked the Senate with his enablers.
And as much as we might like to think otherwise, his election was no fluke.
We knew what he was.
He told us.
And we still elected him.
Out of hate-spite-fear-defiance-anger.
Choose your preferred poison.
Moreover, we created the conditions that allowed this spewing goblin to ascend to the highest office in the land.
In my lifetime I have seen Americans divide themselves against Americans.
By city/state/suburb/rural zip codes.
We have for a generation elected politicians who campaigned on the premise that government is incompetent.
And then, having been elected, they proceeded to make government ever more incompetent.
Delivering on their self-fulfilling prophecy.
Too many or us didn’t bother to vote when we should have.
And while we weren’t voting, the government-is-bad elite quietly passed suppression laws to keep as many of us as possible from ever voting again.
We helped ourselves to government entitlements.
While we cut our taxes and paid for our entitlements by saddling our kids with the IOUs .
We segregated ourselves, one against another; in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods.
We militarized our police, created a money-sucking prison-industrial complex, and threw ever larger sums at a bloated military to keep us from harm abroad.
Even as we cut funds for schools, colleges, social services and health care.
And now we wonder why we lead the world in coronavirus cases.
We became the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization.
Ostensibly to protect ourselves from the police/incarceration/military state we paid so much money to create.
And then we wonder why it is that self-proclaimed militias wielding military-grade hardware – and often waving confederate and Nazi banners – have suddenly appeared outside our state houses demanding the surrender of the very people we elected.
And we ask:
What went wrong?
How did this happen?
But the fault, my fellow Americans, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.
But I am an American patriot.
And I do not yet despair.
I believe that we have it in our collective power to right this foundering ship of state that we call the United States of America.
We have one more chance.
This is my declaration.
On Nov. 4th we Americans will turn out the bloviating autocrat and his enablers.
And we will do it decisively.
And then we will begin again.
Or we will not.
In which case the American idea, the great American experiment, will be well and truly dead and buried.
This will be the most important election in my lifetime.
In my 72 years.
But even if we do the right thing on Nov. 3, we cannot expect things to magically turn around.
America will not suddenly become great again.
We have so much work to do.
The healing of deeply ingrained racial, religious and economic schisms.
The reclaiming of government that has for too long been for the wealthy, by the wealthy and of the wealthy.
I do not expect all of this this to happen overnight.
I don’t even expect this renewal to be completed in my lifetime.
America remains, as it has ever been, a work in progress.
But I do expect it to happen.
Because I am an American patriot and I believe.
I believe in the vitality of the American dream.
And I sense, at long last, a sea change occurring in the American spirit.
This is our moment.
This is our destiny.
This is our new Declaration of Independence.
Our best days lie ahead.
But only if we have the courage and the wisdom and the fortitude to take our country back from the exploiters and the opportunists and the haters.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…
On Thursday I repeatedly called a telephone number for one of the city pools hoping to talk to a live human being. But I kept getting a recorded message that said – and I am not making this up: Do not leave a voice mail. Voice mail is not checked.
Listen, even if I were Dali’s Average Bureaucrat I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a better “Shut up and leave us alone” message than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my city and I often rise to the defense of our local government. But these are trying times, and in a crisis message matters more than ever if you want to maintain public confidence. Perhaps city officials have been too busy dealing with the coronavirus to worry overly much about message. But the longest running, and truest, complaint I’ve ever heard about city hall is that the people in charge there don’t know how to tell Gainesville’s story. And of late Gainesville’s optics have been terrible.
Case in point: The other day I saw a grinning photo of Commissioner Harvey Ward on Facebook. He was standing in front of Bo Diddley Plaza showing off its new social distancing markings. “Did not know it was possible to love this community plaza more,” he said.
So I rode my bike downtown and, sure enough, those new community distancing boxes, made out to resemble Bo’s celebrated square guitars, are very cool.
You can see them clearly, even standing behind the yellow-caution tape that is supposed to keep the public away from their cool new social distancing boxes.
You can even admire them from the other side of the blue Park/Facility Closure” signs.
So what is the message: Gainesville practices social distancing, but just not here? Then why bother to create the boxes?
Case in point: If there’s anything that people need after weeks of lockdown is open green space in which to walk, run, sun and stroll – all while observing safe social distancing protocol of course. One block away from the taped off BD Plaza is Sweetwater Branch Park. It is downtown’s park. It is the city’s B&B District park. It is three blocks of creek and cool green space in the middle of a concrete and asphalt city center.
It is also neglected, litter-strewn, weed-choked hobo jungle that few people care to set foot on. City Manger Lee Feldman once told me that workers were using the lockdown to take care of a lot of overdue maintenance downtown. Apparently Sweetwater Branch Park wasn’t on the list. Last week a group of civic minded volunteers went out and cleaned up the park because, apparently, the city can’t be bothered.
What is the message there?
Case in point: Attempts to keep skateboarders out of the Possum Creek skate park were not working, so the city dumped loads of mulch on the ramps to stop skaters in their, um, tracks. Instead they created instant media celebrities out of the skaters, parents and others who went to work shoveling the mulch out of the way. This while bemused police looked on.
Case in point: The city announced it would block off three sections of downtown streets so restaurants could feature open air dining and thus avoid the limits placed on indoor seating. After several restaurants objected the city ended up closing just a narrow slice of SW 2nd Avenue. And then proceeded to block it off with concrete monstrosities that look like nothing so much as an urban tank trap.
Good intentions, bad optics.
I could go on. Certainly the loss of the long-running Union Street Farmer’s Market to Celebration Point won city government no accolades. That market used to take place on Bo Diddley Plaza. What if city officials had, instead of closing the plaza, established and enforced thoughtful social distancing protocols that might have allowed the open-air market to continue in place? Imagine people actually being able to use those social distancing boxes in the plaza.
Feldman is still new to Gainesville, having arrived just before things went to hell. He likes to call city residents neighbors and city employees community builders. But I would argue that the employees who recorded that “drop dead” parks and rec message, put social distancing boxes behind no trespassing tape, let downtown’s public park go to seed, thought mulch was the answer to enforcing a public health measure, turned a downtown street into Checkpoint Charlie and said so long to the farmer’s market were not engaging in community building in any sense of the phrase.
Message matters, Gainesville. If I were Feldman I’d borrow Mark Sexton from the county and let him give Messaging 101 lessons to Gainesville’s community builders. If you can’t tell the city’s story convincingly, people are going to draw their own conclusions.
This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.
Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.
Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.
All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.
For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.
Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?
“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”
Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.
Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.
In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”
“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.
Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.
‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”
In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.
And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”
Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.
Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.
“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”
Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible
odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago
slipped by someone’s god into our water…..
Peter Meinke, “M3”
Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.
“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.
Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.
“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”
Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.
Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”
He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”
“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.
“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”
The apple I see and the apple
I think I see and the apple
I say I see
are at least three
To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?
“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.
“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”
On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.
“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”
And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”
The trick is to live your days
as if each one may be your last…
…but at the same time, plan long range.
Meinke: Advice To My Son
“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.
That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”
And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.
One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.
“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”
Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.
“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”
Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.
“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”
I originally wrote this piece in the summer of 2017, when I was traveling in Russia. It seems a good idea to revisit now that confederate monuments are coming down all across the U.S. Give the Russians credit where credit’s due. RC
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.”
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.
Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.
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.
In the city’s defense it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
I mean “temporarily” closing off sections of downtown streets so that restaurants could move their tables outside and safely serve more customers in this time of coronavirus.
But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell.
Originally the plan was to block off three different street sections – on SE 1st Street and SE 2nd Ave. But apparently some restaurants objected to losing their front door parking spaces – not to mention forcing their auto-oriented customers to walk all the way from a nearby parking garage (horrors!).
And so in the end the city closed off just one half of one very short block of SW 2nd Ave., giving Looseys the opportunity to offer a European style al fresco dining experience.
Bold move, Innovation City.
But wait, there’s more.
To celebrate this venture in public realm repurposing officials decided to close that tiny stretch of SW 2nd off to traffic in the same way that, oh, I dunno, a war-torn city might block its streets against marauding tanks.
They plopped a dozen squat, heavy, ugly yellow concrete boxes right down on top of the ancient brick street. And just in case somebody still didn’t get the message, they threw in a couple of red and white striped barriers festooned with “Road Closed” signs.
Let’s see you jump that, Evel Knievel!
Talk about downtown dining ambiance. They might as well rename SW 2nd “Checkpoint Charlie” and have done with it.
Listen, best intentions aside, the optics are terrible.
Rather like dumping a truckload of mulch on a skatepark to keep the kids from using it. Whose idea was that?
Oh, and then the city let downtown’s long-running farmer’s market slip away to Celebration Point because Bo Diddley Plaza remains closed on account of COVID-19.
That would be the same plaza that recently hosted a couple thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrators packed in elbow-to-elbow fashion…all with the city’s blessing.
A more rational solution might have been to allow the farmer’s market to reopen at the Plaza with precautions like mandatory face masks (most of the demonstrators were masked) and imposed social distancing between booths. But Gainesville bureaucrats are not generally known as meet-you-halfway kind of people.
If I sound overly critical of city government here it’s because Gainesville seems to be dragging its feet while other cities around the country, and around the world, are racing to make their streets and other public spaces more accessible to people who do not want to wrap themselves inside the steel cocoons commonly called automobiles in order to enjoy public spaces.
“Public and outdoor space has been at a premium during the coronavirus pandemic: bike sales have leapt, park use is way up, and even pavement chalk drawing appears to be having a moment,” reports the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “Now as many cities start to reopen, some are looking at their sidewalks, squares, parking lots and even streets as a hidden asset in boosting their economies.”
“The recovery will happen in public space,” ventures the Project for Public Spaces. “The sidewalks, streets, plazas and parking lots in every neighborhood are an asset that is waiting to be put to work. Many cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Seattle are closing streets to traffic to increase the usable pedestrian space for residents.”
I’m sorry, but Gainesville’s tepid experiment with opening up public spaces – and then making the result look like a war zone – is not nearly enough.
And make no mistake. Downtown is in trouble and looking seedier by the day.
For that matter, all American downtowns are likely headed for tougher times, predicts the on-line Governing news service. Thanks to the virus “many cities find themselves with a downtown that is now in danger of an extended period of decline. Finding a way to bring their downtowns back quickly is part of the post-coronavirus challenge they face.”
Will Gainesville rise to the challenge to save its downtown? Early indications are not encouraging. I ride through downtown Gainesville nearly every day, and every day obvious signs of neglect and deterioration become more apparent.
Fine, we’ve managed to keep tanks away from Looseys, at least temporarily. But in the long run City Hall timidity and indifference may end up wiping out decades of progress in downtown development.
In the age of coronavirus, San Francisco environment commissioner Tiffany Chu writes in Forbes, cities “are repurposing streets—once used exclusively for automobiles—for pedestrians and cyclists. The creativity, adaptation, and unprecedented speed behind this will keep us safe and lay the foundation for a more sustainable recovery.”
“How bad might the post-pandemic carpocalypse be?” asks Streetsblog USA. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?
Should it surprise anybody that the internal combustion engine has become the counter-insurgency weapon of choice in autoAmerica? Cops, truck drivers and other grumpy Americans with lead feet have been using their vehicles to plow into Black Lives matter protestors. “It’s unclear how many vehicles were aimed at demonstrators,” reports USA Today, “but witnesses said that the incidents seemed intentional and that the drivers accelerated as they went through the crowds.” Collisions being as American as apple pie.
Seems the state of Georgia suspended on-road driving tests as a COVID19 expediency. Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, objects: “While we support the desire not to put instructors at risk, if we want to protect public safety, a better policy would be to stop issuing driver’s licenses until it’s safe to take the test again.” Not in autoAmerica Rebecca.
That’s probably why a West Virginia Fire Chief was surprised at being fired just because he posted on social media a “an image of a blood splattered truck with the caption ‘Just drove through Minneapolis, didn’t see any protesters,’” and a photo of himself “wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘All lives splatter. Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road.’” Clearly the good chief was a victim of political correctness run amok.
Which is not to say that the automobile cannot itself be victimized in these riotous times. Turns out that some riot cops have been deflating tires as a means of venting their, um, frustrations. Reporting on the slashed tires surge in Minneapolis, CBS News says cops “deflated tires to keep the vehicles from being used in attacks against law enforcement or protesters and for the vehicles to be towed if a collection of evidence was necessary.” Et tu Brute?
Elsewhere on the law enforcement front comes evidence that nearly half of American drivers are not at all deterred from using their devices by the inconvenient fact that doing so is against the law. “While drivers acknowledge that certain activities behind the wheel – like texting — are dangerous, some do them anyway,” say David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (Come to think of it, I think I read that in a text.)
In the What Else Is New Dept., it turns out that federal auto safety standards were only designed to protect people inside vehicles, leaving outsiders, like pedestrians, to fend for themselves. The Government Accounting Office “is pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do what forward-thinking countries around the world did over a decade ago, and finally require automakers to start testing how likely their cars are to kill a pedestrian in a collision,” reports Streetsblog USA. Good luck on that.
One reason for the above may be that a lot of transportation planners continue to think that “distracted walking,” is a major factor in pedestrian deaths. So why inconvenience motorists when it’s the walker’s fault? According to Rutgers University researchers “Transportation professionals who worry about distracted walking were “more likely to support educating walkers about ‘safe’ walking behaviors, and less likely to support reducing driver speeds — even though driver speed is among the strongest predictors of pedestrian mortality.”
Turns out that while the pandemic has wrecked havoc on car sales, pickup trucks are still, um, trucking along. “While sales of passenger cars and SUVs have fallen sharply, pickup sales have held up surprisingly well as Americans take advantage of low-interest financing offers and refuse to let economic concerns stop them from getting the vehicle they’ve had their sights set on,” reports USA Today.
If you though the pandemic economy would steer more people to smaller, less expensive and more efficient cars, think again. This is still the land of Big Ass Trucks pal, and auto dealers know that. Which is why “The good small cars still aren’t coming to the US,” reports jalopnik.com.
And from our Kids Do The Darndest Things in autoAmerica Dept.: A cop in Utah pulled over an SUV that was doing 32 MPH on a 70 MPH road. Turns out the driver was a five-year-old boy who told the cop he was “heading to California for the purpose of buying a Lamborghini.” This after an argument with his mom, who probably told him they can’t afford a Lamborghini.
Next, Fast Company explains why pedestrian and cyclist deaths are still rising even as many American cities are actively promoting walking and cycling. No mystery here: “Modern U.S. cities are designed largely for motor vehicles,” FC reports. “From the 1950s forward, city streets lost their conviviality. Roads were engineered for fast-moving and unhindered vehicular traffic, with few pedestrian crossings or bike lanes. Even today, motorists in many cities are able to turn onto streets at intersections where pedestrians are also crossing. Most pedestrians and bicyclists are killed or injured while they are obeying the law.” Why did the pedestrian cross the road? (To at least try to get to the other side.)
And if you thought the lockdown was going to mean safer streets, think again. Reports Streetsblog USA, “Drivers aren’t just speeding up on our empty roads — they’re also braking harder, scrolling cell phones longer, and crashing more, new data show.
“In the five weeks after many states announced lockdown orders on March 16, the data company Zendrive said drivers’ use of cell phones behind the wheel is up 38 percent over pre-lockdown numbers. The number of drivers who exceeded speed limits was also up 27 percent, as was hard braking (25 percent) and collisions per million miles (20 percent.)”
So no big surprise that on emptier roads, auto fatality rates spiked by 14 percent in March compared to the previous March. “What really strikes me is the incredible speed of the changes we’re seeing on a roadways,” Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR. “Looking at other recessions what you usually see is a decrease in the number of deaths, or the injuries and fatality rate holding steady or decreasing slightly.” Nobody can say we autoAmericans don’t try harder to keep those stats up.
And it’s not just pedestrians that need to be careful out there. Endangered Florida panthers keep getting run over too. “The May Panther Pulse report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows that 13 cats have been killed this year, 12 by vehicle strikes and one after being hit by a train in Polk County,” reports Florida Today. Clearly we need to do something about trains if we want to save the critters.
Finally, a bit of poetic protester justice: After the death of George Floyd, thousands of Minneapolis residents protested by marching on I-95, tying up traffic. “It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region,” noted CityLab.com. “This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee, I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.” Well played, marchers.