The latest edition of Armchair Traveling In The Age of Covid takes us to a stretch of Florida that has well and truly been forgotten in an era of urban sprawl and autoAnarchy. And that’s a good thing, friends and neighbors.
Because the thing you have to remember about The Forgotten Coast is that, there, legends are fact and fact is legend. Which is another way of saying that if the Creature of the Black Lagoon and the Wakulla Volcano didn’t exist, we would have to make them up.
What we do not have to make up is The Forgotten Coast’s relationship with the sea. Land and water meet here in perfect harmony.
In point of fact, land and water and light and shadows and reality and illusions all come together in a perfect melding of shapes and colors and illusions.
Until it is barely possible to know what is up and what is down. Not that any of that makes any difference on The Forgotten Coast.
Consider that a St. Marks lighthouse keeper, perched on the edge of the world, worried that he would be slaughtered by marauding Seminoles…who never did find their way to the lighthouse. But just a few miles away, economics and the elements would ultimately make a ghost town out of a boom town.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I wanted to say is that I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with The Forgotten Coast by virtue of leading bicycle tours along a stretch of Florida that, somehow, had escaped the curse of concrete, condos, asphalt and expansion. God knows how.
It is only by getting out of a car that you really can experience the natural order of things on the Forgotten Coast and appreciate just how liberating being in a forgotten land can be.
It is not for nothing that pirates and vagabonds and adventurers and fugitives have come here to find refuge.
This is where Ed Ball, Florida’s most notorious robber barron, built his Xanadu.
They picked Ball’s estate, where the Wakulla River converges with the Gulf of Mexico, to stand in for the primeval Amazon…where creatures strange and menacing dwelled.
Because, after all, who could possibly tell the difference?
Another edition of the Armchair Traveler In The Age of Covid. Let’s take a trip along Florida’s Forgotten Coast. An amazing collection of inlets, bays, rivers and swamps and tiny settlements that extend from the St. Marks National Wildlife Preserve to the bones of old Mexico Beach and beyond.
We’re talking your Creature Of The Black Lagoon, your Wakulla Volcano, and much, much more. Legends and fantasies are born here.
Shrimpers, oystermen, smugglers, pirates and vagabonds all converge on this forgotten shore.
I took this photo on the Ochlockonee River, which winds its way out of Tate’s Hell Swamp and empties into the Gulf, on the first morning of the Biden presidency. It seemed as good an omen as any.
You simply cannot walk the banks of this enchanted river without coming away with a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything.
The story goes that a St. Marks lighthouse keeper was so terrified of marauding Seminoles that he begged the lighthouse service to build him an escape boat. He was refused, but it turned out the lighthouse was so remote that even the Indians wouldn’t bother with it. Nearby Port Leon also suffered from disinterest.
I fell in love with this exquisite stretch of coast while leading five day bicycle tours that started in Port St. Joe and ended at Tallahassee.
On the first day of our tour we always cycled to Mexico Beach. It was a classic beach town seemingly preserved in its 1950’s-era roots. Unspoiled by modern condos and such. Unfortunately, hurricane Michael came to visit and tore little Mexico Beach to shreds.
Port St. Joseph had ambitions to be Florida’s state capital. But yellow fever and bad weather spoiled everything. Port St. Joe had to settle for the Florida Constitutional Museum as a consolation prize. But this small, lovely port town sheltered from the sea by a long, narrow peninsula is a joy to visit.
The charm of Apalachicola isn’t just that it was once the oyster capital of the world. The oystermen are largely gone now but Apalachicola lives on as a fishing village, culture and arts center, amazing eateries and too much history to recount here. Oh, and somebody invented air conditioning here, which is very cool.
Seriously, if it’s not in Apalachicola you don’t really need it.
If you blink you could miss Eastpoint altogether. But it is a vital Forgotten Coast link. It connects to Apalachicola via a five mile bridge and to St. George Island via a six mile span.
What’s not to like on St. George Island? Miles of pristine white sandy beaches and primeval wetlands on one end, and a classic beach town on the other. A great lighthouse and the Blue Parrot, one of the coolest cafes on the whole coast (great t-shirts too), smack dab in the middle.
Carrabell. A quirky little fishing village with a drinking problem. Also, the world’s smallest police station and a scowling pirate to make sure nobody gets out of hand.
Ochlockonee Bay is destination zero for seafood. Cycle across the long bridge for some amazing views.
You can hike for miles in the wilderness of Ochlockonee River State Park. And you really should. Also great camp sites.
Just up the road a bit is Sopchoppy. Home of the celebrated Worm Gruntin’ Festival. The Sopchoppy River winds right through town, and if that’s not something worth toasting I don’t know what is.
Ed Ball, the last of Florida’s robber barons, built his Xanadu on what is now Wakulla Springs State Park. You can stay in his lodge, swim in the springs (where they filmed the Creature Of The Black Lagoon, Seahunt and other classics)…
…and take a river cruise that’ll make you swear you are on the Amazon.
Every now and then the little town of St. Marks gets flooded out. But these are hardy folks and they don’t discourage easily. You can cycle from Tallahassee to St. Marks via rail-trail. Plus, the River Cafe.
The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge alone is worth the trip. Awesome birding, a lighthouse to die for and thousands of acres of water, swamps, and endless places to get lost in.
“Down the highway south I’ll go Wewahitchka to Port Saint Joe I’m gonna walk the beach with a pirate’s ghost We’ll haunt that old Forgotten Coast.
“No ones gonna find me there With my steel guitar and my rocking chair Among the seafood shacks and oyster boats Hide out on that Forgotten Coast.”
It must be a new year because we’re wringing our hands, again, over people getting run down in the streets of Gainesville.
“This is an ongoing and serious condition that has proven to be difficult to address,” Mayor Lauren Poe opined after three pedestrians were killed in the course of two weeks.
We heard pretty much the same kind of talk around this time last year, after four pedestrians and cyclists were killed within the space of just a few days in January.
At the onset of 2020 the Sun reported that seven pedestrians had been killed in each of the previous two years – a dramatic jump from 2015, when just three died.
And if the most recent street casualty rate seems odd – considering that we’re still coming out of a Covid year when, presumably, more people were working at home and fewer were driving – it shouldn’t.
What we saw across the country in 2020 is that when there are fewer drivers on the road, those who are still motoring tend to drive faster and with less care.
Fewer cars on urban streets engineered to highway specifications turn out to be a lethal combination.
“Traffic congestion has a calming effect on traffic,” observes Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns. “With the virus-induced drop in traffic volume, what is being revealed is the incredible level of over-engineering that occurs on nearly all of our streets.”
That is nowhere more evident than on University Avenue. UF students are regularly run down on Gainesville’s “signature” street precisely because it is “over-engineered” to facilitate rapid traffic movement rather than public safety.
And that is the “difficult to address” problem facing commissioners: People drive too fast through Gainesville’s urban environment, with predictable consequences.
And they are driving too fast by design.
So now commissioners are talking about maybe beefing up Gainesville’s jaywalking laws. That will have no practical impact on public safety, but would at least give the impression that the city is still working on a Vision Zero plan to eliminate road deaths…some day.
Contrast this to what another university city did in 2020 to advance its Vision Zero goals.
Among other things Austin, Texas:
• Lowered speed limits on 850 miles of city streets.
• Added more than 15 miles of new or improved bike lanes, including nearly 8 miles of protected bike lanes (Gainesville has no protected bike lanes).
• Made intersection improvements that resulted in a 30 percent reduction in crashes.
• Created a “Vision Zero Viewer” an online tool that constantly tracks traffic crash data.
“People will look back at the year 2020 decades from now and will note it as the year transportation in Austin fundamentally changed,” Austin Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca told reporters. “This pandemic showed us what can happen when we manage our transportation demand and get people out of peak commutes.”
But, yeah, we should definitely crack down on jaywalking here in Gainesville.
On the other hand, if we want to stop killing people in the streets, than we really need to get to work changing our street designs so they are less forgiving of heavy-footed drivers and more protective of people who just want to cross the street and get home alive.
“The time to act is now,” Strong Towns’ Mahron urges American cities. “It took us decades to build such expansive networks of dangerous and costly streets. It’s going to take us time to unwind this mess.”
Continuing our armchair traveling adventures during this time of Covid, we recall a few summers ago when Jill and I did a weeklong bicycle tour of Southern Scotland. Yes, there were cows, and also sheep galore. Not that many cars, though.
Many thanks to Esther and Warren, of Galloway Cycling Holidays for providing the bikes, routes, accommodations and luggage support. We couldn’t have done it without them. Highly recommended.
We began our trek at the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost point in Scotland. From the lighthouse you can see Ireland, England and the Isle of Man. I think I saw a man on Man wave.
Great routes. I had no idea where we were at any given time. Thank goodness for GPS.
And of course the signs were all encouraging.
Did I mention that Trump visited while we were there?
Low tides, green grass, charming villages, ancient thatch…and a biosphere.
The good news is that my ship finally came in. The bad news…..
Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!
Decisions, decisions, decisions…
Very nice folks these Scots. But they don’t say too much.
Let’s just call it a fixer-upper and leave it go at that.
Apparently people have been dying to get into Scotland for a very, very long time.
All roads lead to something or other.
As I understand it, Iron Man once lived in this castle and fought with a frog-like being called Mystique. And all was well. (Hey, it’s history.)
Oh, and we took a pilgrimage to the workshop and the burial ground of the father of the bicycle, Kirkpatrick Macmillan.
Sometimes we cycled for hours and never saw a car.
The egg and me. Don’t ask.
We were impressed to find palm trees this far north. Apparently that’s complements of the Gulf Stream.
I dunno. There were cows in the water. I’m sure they knew what they were doing.
Talk about your road less traveled.
It wasn’t easy, but we finally found an Italian restaurant in Scotland.
We had a great time. But, seriously, these Scots really need to cheer up.
This is the NW 8th Avenue Stroad, between NW 6th Street and Main. It is quite possibly the dumbest Stroad in Gainesville.
Why dumb? Because the sole ‘utility’ of a stroad is to move large numbers of cars as fast as possible through the urban landscape.
And this stroad certainly does that…for precisely six blocks. West of 6th Street 8th turns into a traffic-calmed two-land road. East of Main Street ditto.
So what do we as a community give up as the price of moving a lot of cars fast for just six blocks?
This stretch of 8th Avenue is known primarily for its empty buildings and desolate landscapes.
Separated by just a handful of businesses.
And half a dozen or so homes in various states of repair.
And the absence of street life in any meaningful sense of the phrase.
Which is hardly surprising. A sterile car corridor offers virtually no reason for people to want to congregate there. This ‘destination’ is no destination at all.
It is, simply, hostile territory to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Preferably in a car.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. This stroad can be redesigned into a “Complete Street” easily and relatively cheaply.
But, really, why bother? Why not just leave it alone.
Well, for one thing, this stroad cuts like an asphalt knife between two vital neighborhoods. To the north is Grove Street, which is shaping up as a hotbed of local entrepreneurship.
And to the south is Pleasant Street, one of Gainesville’s traditional African-American neighborhoods which is in the process of revitalizing itself.
Converting the 8th Ave. Stroad from a non-place to a place would bring these two neighborhoods together and help create a new epicenter for human-centered economic opportunity in Gainesville’s urban core.
Instead of this.
We could chose something like this.
Slowing down cars, or ‘calming traffic’ is key to unlocking the economic potential of this long overlooked corridor.
We know how to do it. And the benefits are undeniable.
We can change the 8th Avenue paradigm.
Whatever its original intent, the 8th Avenue Stroad is a failed experiment in both urban mobility and urban renewal.
Dare to imagine a better future in place of the 8th Avenue Stroad.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You officially have no life, Cunningham.
But, really, if what we’ve been through with Covid – what we’re still going through for that matter – doesn’t get us to thinking about how things work in our community and how we might improve things don’t work so well, then what’s the point?
So let’s talk about stroads. And to kick this discussion off I’m reposting a column I wrote for The Sun in 2014. Six years later it still feels surprisingly relevant. Perhaps more so because of some of the things the city has been doing lately to try to keep downtown and midtown restaurants afloat during these times of pandemic.
Let’s talk about stroads.
The Urban Dictionary defines stroads thusly: “Noun. Portmanteau of ‘street’ and ‘road’: it describes a street, er, road, built for high speed, but with multiple access points. Excessive width is a common feature … Unsafe at any speed, their extreme width and straightness paradoxically induces speeding. Somewhat more neutral than synonymous traffic sewer.“
So basically a stroad (a.k.a. traffic sewer) is a street that doesn’t work very well as a street and a road that doesn’t function very well as a road.
My favorite local example of a stroad is University Avenue, especially between 13th Street and downtown. With its four lanes of traffic, multiple lights, skinny sidewalks and 30 mph speed limit (seriously, does anybody drive 30 mph on University?) it is neither an efficient mover of traffic nor conducive to walking or doing business.
University Avenue is basically a suburban road impersonating an urban street. Which is a shame, because it really ought to be this university city’s signature street. That’s what Victor Dover told the Gainesville City Commission in 1999.
“Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.“
Dover is an urban planner of national repute and co-author with John Massengale of a new book “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.“
His firm was hired by Gainesville some 15 years ago to help make University Avenue a great street. And the techniques for doing are being used by cities around the world to bring back struggling downtowns and urban commercial districts: fewer and narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, on-street parking or bike lanes and other enhancements designed to slow traffic, promote streetside commerce and make strolling and shopping a more pleasant experience.
“It’s only going to get more difficult if you wait.” Dover warned.
Truer words were never spoken. In fact, the commission actually voted to turn University from a stroad to a street. Its redesign was placed on the long-range Transportation Improvement List, on track to top of the list by 2010.
But then the inevitable “don’t you dare try to slow us down” backlash materialized, commissioners got skittish and the project was quietly dropped.
Since then we’ve all turned our attention to fighting the cars vs. people battle elsewhere — first on Main Street and then on Northwest 16th and Eighth avenues. And nobody talks much about our “signature street” anymore.
But I have a feeling that this question of redoing University Avenue will surface again one day, if only because the trendlines are all running in its favor.
One thing that’s changed over the last 15 years is the astounding success of RTS; a lot of people who used to drive to campus are now taking the bus.
Couple that with the fact that UF’s Innovation Square initiative and the “Innovation Gainesville” economic blueprint are both designed to attract and retain more young start-up entrepreneurs.
Gainesville has always been a “young” city demographically, and IG economic strategy aims to build on that. And one thing we know about millennials is that they are less inclined to drive and more supportive of transportation alternatives than their elders.
And although much-derided — primarily by motorists who have been forced to slow down — I believe that before too many years go by, the narrowing of Main Street will revitalize the entire corridor between Eighth and Depot avenues. Empty storefronts will be filled, new businesses will open, a vibrant street life will emerge.
And, inevitably, people are going to ask “Why aren’t we doing this on University Avenue?” It was a good question 15 years ago, and it’s still a good question.
“This is a street that has no sense of itself, it could be any suburban roadway in the country,” Dan Burden, of Walkable Communities Inc., told me in 2002 during a stroll down University Avenue. ”… it’s not the highest and best use of University Avenue.“
Not much has changed on University Stroad since then. But my guess is that the next generation of Gainesville political, civic and business leaders will sooner or later put the creation of Gainesville’s signature street back on the list of things to do.
Because, seriously, do we need a traffic sewer running through the heart of Gainesville?
In which we continue our armchair travels during these times of Covid lockdowns and what with Americans being banned from just about every other country in the civilized world. Thanks a lot, Donald.
In the summer of 2013 Jill and I took a cycling trip through southern Quebec and wrapped it up with a weekend in Montreal. Turned out that this major city was as fun to cycle in as the countryside and small towns around it.
Which leads me to the first point I want to make about Montreal. For a major metropolitan area, it is surprisingly bike friendly. Everybody seems to bike. And you can get around the city quite easily, and enjoyably, on two wheels. (BTW: I have no idea what that sign means but it looks, um, bikish.)
Of course, having made the above comments, I must concede that this was August so nobody was exactly up to their sprockets in Canadian snow.
But moving right along, the next best thing I loved about Montreal was its murals. A section of the city at the foot of Mt. Royal seemed to be mural central for Quebec.
Make something of yourself why don’t you.
Any face in a crowd.
That’s right, we eat cars.
Serve you right.
I got nothing.
Ever get that feeling you’re being watched?
My favorite. It keeps me awake at night.
But forget the murals. This city has it’s own dragon.
Not to mention globular objects of all sizes.
But never mind all that. Let’s do some city scapes.
It’s enough to make you dizzy just walking around.
I think I saw this in a Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
Pop quiz: Which one of these buildings is leaning?
Which one of these images makes you want to drink?
This is a very famous Montreal edifice. I just don’t remember which one.
Oh, and before I forget, they have some very, um, interesting pursuits in Montreal. Like surfing the St. Lawrence rapids.
Plus lots of other cool things to do.
Oops. Left this mural out from the batch earlier. This one seems rather, I dunno, dystopian.
Cool things all over the map.
I’d love to, um, re-cycle Montreal. Assuming of course that Canada ever lets us Americans back into their country again.
Just a 10 mile jaunt through the heart of Street Art Central, beginning at Tom Petty Park and ending at Porter’s Community Center.
Most of this tour takes place in the most bike friendly section of town. Just be careful when crossing major streets like 13th, University and Main. When viewing the murals on University, best ride on the sidewalk.
You will begin your cycle mural tour at Tom Petty Park, although I couldn’t find an actual mural of Tom Petty. This might be his dog, though.
But not to worry, Tom shows up at least three times on the mural tour. The first time at the 1.1 mile mark when you get to see his wildflower mural at Sidney Lanier School.
Shortly after that, at about 1.7 miles, you will be in the heart of the Grove Street neighborhood and its treasure trove of murals. Some of them take a little searching out but pay attention to the cue sheet and you should find them all.
At 2.8 miles you will have reached the Fifth Avenue Community Garden mural and maybe it’ll make hungry.
And that’s ok, because El Indio, at 3.1 miles, has food and murals.
By 4.1 miles you will have reached the old Leonardo’s 706, which is now out of business. Sad, but there are some pretty good murals remaining in the alley and on the side wall.
At 5.5 miles and you are in the jungle….or rather what passes for the jungle on the old Walker Furniture building.
If this full-building mural behind Flaco’s, at 6.1 miles, doesn’t make you blink, you probably need to stop downtown for a brew.
At 6.5 miles you have reached the heart of downtown’s mural scene. Do yourself a favor and walk through the city’s parking garage. It’s the best indoor mural gallery in town.
The GRU 5th Avenue wall, in the heart of the Springhill neighborhood is a feast for the eyes at 7.3 miles. Take your time and enjoy.
But not too much time. Because just a few blocks away, at 8.2 miles, is the Rosa Parks Bus Station, jam packed with art and history.
At 9 miles you’ll find the First Mag murals. One of them is inside the beer garden. You know what to do.
Another Petty mural at 9.4 miles.
And a message is of – what else? – community at the Porter’s Community Center at 10.4 miles and end of tour. Of course, if you left your car at Tom Petty Park you’ll still have to ride back and get it.
Seriously, there’s a ton of great art on this route. Good hunting.