River of no return

For our latest edition of Armchair Traveler we take a look at one of America’s most scenic, yet threatened, river.

Because rivers run through me.

The gentle Suwannee. The gutted Apalachicola. The algae-breeding St. Johns. The doomed Ocklawaha.

So many great Florida rivers sacrificed on the altar of hyper-growth.

In my nearly half-century journalism career I have been obsessed with our rivers, returning to them again and again. And each time finding them a little dirtier and more stressed.

So naturally, while on vacation in northern Arizona, I wanted to get up close and personal with America’s “hardest working” river, the Colorado.

The liquid artist that carved nature’s ultimate sculpture, the Grand Canyon, out of the living rock.

The 1,450-mile behemoth that funnels life-sustaining water from Rocky Mountain snow fields to 36 million people scattered from Wyoming down into Mexico.

And a downstream rowing trip did not disappoint. Threading our way amid towering red sandstone canyons, from Horseshoe Bend to Lee’s Ferry, we could see large game fish lazing in water nearly as transparent as the Ichetucknee. And almost 25 degrees colder at that.

If Paradise had a river it would be the Colorado.

That is, if the federal Bureau of Reclamation built Paradise.

The word Colorado means red. So named by the Spanish explorers who discovered a much darker, more turbid and warmer river. Indeed, the abrasive power of its silt-laden water helped make the Grand Canyon what it is today.

But improving on nature is an American tradition.

At the Glen Canyon Dam Visitors Center you are informed that the dam was constructed “to benefit ecosystems and communities downstream …” That they made the Colorado run “cold and clear … so all can benefit.”

But other federal employees — rangers at nearby Grand Canyon National Park — complain that since the Colorado turned “cold and clear,” native fish and other species have gone missing and the ecology of the canyon floor has changed dramatically.

A small price to pay for progress, perhaps.

Because Lake Powell is itself a marvel of nature … or rather of artifice.

Flooding 185 miles of canyons has spawned a multibillion-dollar tourism trade. Marinas now host luxury house boats every bit as grand as any yacht tied up in Fort Lauderdale.

And then there’s Page. Built in the 1950s to house dam construction workers, it now sprouts hotels, resorts and luxury villas.

And a manicured emerald green golf course. And lush grass lawns and mediums. All fed by sprinklers that run in the middle of the day.

In the middle of the desert.

Since the turn of the millennium the Southwest has endured a drought of near biblical proportions. America’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell to the east of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead to the west — are less than half full and falling fast.

As famous as the Colorado may be, it’s equally infamous for the stresses placed upon it due to over-allocation, overuse, and more than a century of manipulation,” says American Rivers, the monitoring group that has designated the Colorado America’s most endangered river. “Following decades of wasteful water management policies and practices, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply.”

Yes, more water is now taken out of the Colorado than goes in. It is the law of diminishing returns in action.

Four centuries ago, Coronado ventured into the great southwestern desert in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. He came up, well, dry, because cities could not exist in such arid conditions.

Today the Cities of Gold all have names: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and more. All are growing and all fight for more of the Colorado’s diminishing supply.

Throw in competing demands of the region’s multi-billion dollar agriculture and tourism industries, and America’s hardest working river is also its most litigated.

And what will happen when the Colorado is expected to feed, not 36 million people, but 40 million? Fifty million?

John Wesley Powell told us this would happen. In 1869 the great scientist and Colorado River explorer warned: “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights because there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

Powell was booed down. But long after he was safely dead, they did name a reservoir in his honor.

Talk about adding insult to injury. Powell would have been appalled.

Perhaps in the end we are destined to join other civilizations that briefly flourished in this dry, arid and ultimately unsustainable landscape.

And the Colorado will once again run wild and free and untamed.

Happy New Year GNV

Happy New Year, Gainesville.

I know, but it’s an old habit with me.

When I became higher education reporter for The Sun, in 1976, it felt like this town ran more on the academic calendar than the Gregorian. And so, as editorial page editor, beginning in the ‘80s, I got into the habit of issuing new year’s greetings at the end of August. Because who wants to wait until January to celebrate the obvious?

This is supposed to be our time of renewal. When we shrug off the old and embrace the new. Right now, while tens of thousands of students and educators descend on Gainesville from the world over.

It’s when you feel the quickening of social and cultural life. The football weekends. The Accent speakers. New performing seasons at the Hipp and the Phillips Center.

Gainesville comes alive and anticipation is in the air. Downtown rocks until the wee hours…every night. And we are confident that, this year, there will be no need to “wait ‘til next year” for that championship.

Ah, but this year…

If this indeed be Gainesville’s new year, we face it with more trepidation than anticipation.

Some students will do more learning on line than face-to-face. We know when live classes are supposed to commence, but we don’t really know whether the new semester at UF and Santa Fe will last into December or fold within days in the face of an uptick of Covid cases.

And we know that when UF sneezes Gainesville gets a cold.

Football? Maybe a 10-game conference schedule. Maybe just a game or two….or none at all.

Fest? Forget it, Downtown clubs may or may not open for business. We’ve already lost some familiar local landmarks, like Leonardos 706 and Civilization. And more will likely follow. And when January does get here, the forecast for fireworks at Depot Park is not looking good.

Talk about a sign of the times. Cycling through Midtown the other day I saw one that read “No Lease: Month to month.”

We desperately want a return to normalcy. But now we don’t even know what the new normal is going to look like in two weeks, let alone two months.

Oh brave new year that has such uncertainty in it.

But here’s the thing about our new year. About any new year.

It is always a good time to look ahead to better days than these. To resolve to do better. To work harder. To double down on our city’s depth of intellectual resources and spirit of innovation.

We are a university city. We are a city of educators and health care professionals and scientists and entrepreneurs. We, of all people, ought to be capable of shaping Gainesville’s new normal rather than having it thrust upon us.

And make no mistake, Gainesville already has a lot on its plate. Issues of equity, an affordable housing shortage, a looming eviction crisis, mounting unemployment and questions about how to build a more resilient local economy.

If there was ever a year for the much heralded Gainesville-University of Florida strategic partnership to prove its worth, this is it. We are limited only by the bounds of our collective imagination.

With so much at stake, it’s never too early to start the clock on 2021.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves

What’s the difference between Trump conservatism and Gainesville liberalism?

When he killed Obama-era fair housing rules Trump bragged that he did it so suburbanites won’t be “bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”

But we Gainesville liberals aren’t comfortable demonizing the poor. So when we want to torpedo affordable housing we call it a sneaky plot to benefit greedy developers.

That certainly took care of GNV Rise, a modest proposal to incentivize lower cost housing construction in Gainesville that died in the face of nearly hysterical opposition from neighborhood associations.

That was in 2018, and virtually nothing has happened on the affordable housing front since.

But, listen, things are going to come to a head pretty quickly.

Call it the looming clash of the moratoria.

There’s a good chance the city will impose a development moratorium in an attempt to head off the spread of student housing into historic black neighborhoods like Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street.

A time out period of, say, a year, would give the city time to engage in better neighborhood comprehensive planning, advocates say.

Maybe so. But another moratorium is going to be lifted a lot sooner than that – the stay on evictions of people who have lost their jobs to the coronavirus crisis and can no longer pay their rent.

When that happens, homelessness is going to explode, both locally and nationally.

And “people of color” will be “especially vulnerable,” to the coming eviction crisis, reports CNBC.

“We know evictions have always had a disproportionate impact on tenants of color due to discrimination and lack of wealth,” John Pollock, of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, told the network.

We’ve been talk, talk, talking about Gainesville’s affordable housing shortage for years.

And the fall of GNV rise is a textbook example of why Gainesville remains all talk and no action.

Essentially we expect our commissioners to achieve goals that, on their face, appear to be mutually exclusive.

1. Lower housing costs so that everybody can afford to live in Gainesville.

2. But protect existing residents from policies that, homeowners perceive, will hurt their property values.

You would think a progressive university city like ours would be up to solving that conundrum, right? But town-gowns can be just as obstinate when it comes to deciding who should be allowed to live where.

“My own city of Berkeley, renowned for its ‘progressive’ values and liberal politics…for 50 years…has suppressed new housing of all kinds and now has an almost unsolvable problem of affordability and homelessness.”

This from Dorothy Walker, founding president of the American Planning Association in an important Streetsblog essay.

“The fact is, local control over land-use decisions has obstructed efforts for racial justice and social equity in housing since the beginning of our profession,” she argues.

If you think a one-year time out will finally give Gainesville “equitable development,” you haven’t been paying attention. It’ll do no good unless we are willing to confront, and change, long entrenched zoning and land use restrictions that “perpetuate classism and racial segregation,” as Walker puts it.

Single family residential zoning, for instance, is the most rigidly enforced, and effective, instrument for segregation in American society.

Trump understands that, and he intends to use that ugly truth to his advantage.

We Gainesville liberals probably get it too. But…greedy developers.

Housing crisis defined

Here in Gainesville we will likely impose a moratorium on development so we can try to work out some longstanding issues involving gentrification, affordable housing and equitable development. Ours is a university city so I’m sure we are capable of coming up with creative solutions to (so far) intractable problems.

But while we’re waiting for the city to get on with it I thought I’d offer up a little reading list so we all better understand what the issues and the obstacles are.

By the way, catch my upcoming Sunday column in the Gainesville Sun for a bit more on this always volatile issue.

First, let’s try to define the problem, shall we.

I recommend this essay in Strong Towns that basically lays out the difficulty communities experience in trying to come to grips with affordable housing and equitable development. Joe Cartwright says that when it comes to housing, cities face two different public policy goals that would seem to be mutually exclusive.

“The same municipal governments that require that housing on scarce urban land be taken up only with resource-intensive, high-building-cost single family homes; that use zoning to separate out unwanted apartments, shops, transit lines, and other uses on the grounds that they might hurt home values; and promote neighborhood beautification and other projects on the grounds that they will raise housing values, also issue affordable housing reports trying to understand why home prices aren’t lower, and levy ‘impact fees’ on new development for the alleged crime of, you know, raising home values.

“We are, in conclusion, profoundly conflicted as a nation when it comes to housing,” he continues, “we want it to be affordable, but we also want its prices to rise fast enough to be valuable as a financial investment. That’s a contradiction we need to acknowledge if our housing policy debate—and, ultimately, our housing policy—is going to be coherent and constructive.”

For a deeper dive into the housing conundrum, I recommend this Streetsblog USA piece by Dorothy Walker, who is founding president of the American Planning Association. If we want to so something about racial justice in our communities, she says, we’ve got to take a hard look at locally based zoning codes and land use regulations that have been designed explicitly to foster racial and economic inequities.

“Local control is why so much land is reserved for single-family housing — raising property values while walling off much of the city to all but the wealthy.  Local control also has thwarted the development of denser communities that enable more affordable housing, ignoring the need to serve the housing needs of both new and existing residents,” she writes.

As an example she cites her own university city, Berkeley, Ca. “Berkeley can claim credit for being a sanctuary city, for its open-mindedness and for being a birthplace of student activism. Yet for 50 years it has suppressed new housing of all kinds and now has an almost unsolvable problem of affordability and homelessness.”

She continues: “The fact is, local control over land-use decisions has obstructed efforts for racial justice and social equity in housing since the beginning of our profession. As long as the people who own land and are already housed have total control over growth and change in their communities, we will never achieve true racial justice and social equity. And, as long as local control enforces prohibitions on urban growth, we will sprawl ever-outward into green fields and agricultural lands, exacerbating climate change and land degradation.”

OK, so the obvious answer it to get rid of single family residential zoning, like they’re doing in Minneapolis, right? Not so fast. It’s just not that simple, according to Emily Hamilton’s essay in City Lab.

“What’s needed is more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings,” she writes. “Although single-unit zoning limits these useful types of housing, so do myriad other restrictions on how and where housing can be built: minimum lot size requirements, parking requirements, height limits and more.”

No, if we want to do affordable housing right, we’re going to need to do a deeper dig into our code book. She writes “if dozens of rules limit where and how new housing can be built, getting rid of one constraint doesn’t accomplish much.”

Hamilton points to the city of Houston as a success story in that regard. “It doesn’t have use-zoning, which means that housing — including apartments and other multifamily housing — is permitted anywhere private covenants don’t restrict it. In 1998, Houston policy makers reduced the minimum-required lot size for a house from 5,000 square feet down to 1,400 square feet on all of the land within the city’s I-610 loop. This made it possible to replace a single-family house with three. In 2013, the 1,400-square-foot minimum lot size requirement was expanded to cover the entire city. Thousands of townhouses have since been built that wouldn’t have been permitted before.”

Ok, got it. But, really, what’s the urgency? After all, we’ve been coasting along for years on the same old codes. To answer that question check out another City Lab piece, one with the ominous headline “COVID-19 is killing affordable housing, just as it’s needed most.”

“While housing advocates have been calling attention to the imminent danger of evictions and homelessness amid a pandemic and economic downturn, the Covid-19 crisis also stands to exacerbate the nation’s sizable affordable housing shortage, thanks to a brutal convergence of factors,” writes Patrick Sisson. “It’s clear that, as out-of-work Americans get displaced, the need for affordable housing will only go up in the short term. The long-term question is, can government action find a way to address the growing gap?”

And then there’s this Route 50 analysis “The need to keep renters housed is getting more urgent, advocates say.”

“Americans owe more than $21.5 billion in overdue rent, according to one recent analysis that underlined the urgency of the housing crisis facing American renters as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. With eviction moratoriums ending in many cities and states, experts are warning of an impending wave of families being forced out of their homes with devastating collateral consequences if immediate action is not taken to keep people housed.”

And make no mistake, when the eviction hammer finally falls it’s not going to be pretty. And the people who are going to get hurt worst are the ones who are already suffering from a shortage of affordable housing.

“By one estimate, some 40 million Americans could be evicted during the public health crisis,” reports CNBC.  “It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,”  said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.”

That story, titled “How the eviction crisis will look across the U.S.” continues: “People of color are especially vulnerable. While almost half of White tenants say they’re highly confident they can continue to pay their rent, just 26% of African-American tenants could say the same.”

So yeah, if we’re ever going to do something about homelessness, equitable development and affordable housing in this city, now is a pretty good time to act. And for a helpful primer on the issues at hand I’d recommend this 2017 Strong Towns analysis by Spencer Gardner titled “The 5 immutable laws of affordable housing,” and “3 strategies for achieving affordable housing.”

“The high cost of housing increasingly impacts cities of all sizes, and it’s an incredibly challenging and controversial topic. Left-leaning folks might point to big developers or prejudiced, “NIMBY” residents as the causes that keep people from securing and maintaining affordable housing. Right-leaning people may blame the government for its overreaching regulations into private housing matters, or suggest that people who choose to live in expensive cities need to manage those consequences themselves.

“Spencer does not propose a one-size-fits-all solution nor does he point to one or two root causes of affordable housing challenges. Rather, he sets forth a framework of concepts to keep in mind as you think about how to improve housing affordability in your community. His ideas apply whether you live in rural Nevada, New York City, or anywhere in between.

I would pay special attention to point 3: If your zoning code mandates expensive housing, housing will be expensive.” And strategy 1: “Reduce minimum lot sizes and reduce density restrictions in single-family zones.”

And finally, from Wikipedia here is a primer on exclusionary zoning: What it is, why we have it and why it’s so hard to get rid of.

“Exclusionary zoning was introduced in the early 1900s, typically to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from moving into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Municipalities seek to use zoning to safeguard the health, property, and public welfare by controlling the design, location, use, or occupancy of all buildings and structures by the regulated and orderly development of land and land uses. That sometimes inadvertently limits the supply of available housing units, such as by prohibiting multi-family residential dwellings or setting minimum lot size requirements, which may deter racial and economic integration.”

More later.

Sweetwater forgotten

Gainesville landscape architecture professional Richard Berry shows off his never-implemented master plan for Sweetwater Branch Park.

Remember that time the downtown library took a slice of paradise and put up a parking lot?

Richard Berry does.

Berry is a longtime Gainesville landscape architect who did the exterior designs for the new library headquarters in the early 1990s. He sketched out a park environment connecting the east side of the library and the Matheson Museum.

“This is not what we envisioned,” he now says, ruefully, of the dirt parking patch between the county library and the city-owned Sweetwater Branch Park.

County vehicles parked on the dirt patch between the downtown library headquarters and the city’s Sweetwater Branch Park.

For that matter, it’s hard to believe the lot is even up to code. Would the city permit a private business to store cars on eroded land along the very banks of Gainesville’s most abused creek?

On the other hand, the city isn’t exactly known for its stewardship of Sweetwater Branch either.

That park itself ought to be an environmental showcase and a people-magnet for a downtown that has otherwise been given over to asphalt and concrete. Instead, it’s been allowed to degenerate into a litter-strewn hangout for street people…a park in name only that most folks prefer to avoid.

Certainly Sweetwater Branch today is a far cry from the “botanical wonderland” that earned it front page billing in the Gainesville Sun in December, 2005:

“Gainesville’s newest downtown destination is a garden of botanical delights,” the report began. “A dozen years in the planning and four months in the planting, the garden…is a community effort to preserve and beautify a piece of ground that almost miraculously escaped development as the city sprang up around it over the last century and a half.”

As it happened, Berry was also commissioned to design the master plan for Sweetwater Branch. He envisioned the park as a “walk through time,” where significant moments in Gainesville history would be commemorated – the civil war battle waged on the creek, perhaps a likeness of namesake Edmund Gaines, a memorial to yellow fever victims, or a remembrance of civil rights victories hard won.

Heck, maybe even a nod to the Gainesville Eight defendants who beat the Nixon Administration’s conspiracy charges. In his research, Berry came across photos of the alleged co-conspirators playing frisbee near the creek during court recess. “Why not give them a plaque?”

His master plan also showcased the creek itself by cleaning up Sweetwater Branch, restoring native plants, grasses and water flow and adding boardwalks and bridges.

Unfortunately, “less than 10 percent of (the master plan) was ever built” by the city, Berry said. “It could be a city jewel.”

Berry’s plan was titled “Sweetwater Botanical Garden and Greenway.” And with the city’s announced intention to dismantle the huge GRU maintenance facility, just south of the park, and redevelop it into the “Power District,” that greenway might have eventually run all the way to Depot Park and the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail.

Unfortunately if you walk through the park today it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about in 2005 when the Sun hailed Gainesville’s “garden of botanical delights.” The hundreds of plants donated and the physical improvements made haven’t been taken care of. And the creek itself is so choked with invasives and debris as to be nearly invisible.

What would it take to get Gainesville to dust off Berry’s master plan and finally do right by downtown’s park? For starters, citizen champions who are willing to advocate for Sweetwater Branch and insist that the city’s long reign of neglect end.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Contact him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

Sweetwater turns sour

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you appreciate a good park.

During the lockdown parks in Gainesville, and around the nation, were well used indeed.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” Bridget Marquis, of Civic Commons, tells City Lab regarding the surge in park use in this time of coronavirus.

Unfortunately, she adds, “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

She might well be talking about Sweetwater Branch Park.

Sweetwater Branch Park is a three block stretch of trees and creek that borders downtown on the west and the Bed and Breakfast District on the east. Its neighbors include the public library, the Matheson Museum and historic Matheson House and the Thelma Bolton Center.

One might consider this oasis of green amid so much asphalt and concrete an invaluable public asset. You might imagine Sweetwater Branch regularly playing host to, say, Shakespeare in the park, paint-outs to showcase local artists, ARTSPEAKS poetry readings, local history reenactments, used book sales to benefit the library…activities that would lure visitors to spend money downtown.

And there is this: Sweetwater Branch terminates at SE 4th Ave. The only thing between it and Depot Park is two blocks of GRU property that the city wants to redevelop into the Power District. Unearthing the long-buried stretch of creek on that property would make it possible to create a greenway extending from Depot Park to University Avenue and perhaps beyond.

But judging from its stewardship, here’s what the City of Gainesville seems to consider Sweetwater Branch Park’s “highest and best” use: Wasted space.

Much of Sweetwater Branch is hidden under a thick cloak of invasive vegetation. This makes convenient cover for enterprising, um, homesteaders who rig shelters along the creek.

Some nearby residents won’t use the park for fear of aggressive panhandling. The staff at the Matheson knows all about the squatters who sleep in nearby bushes and leave piles of garbage strewn in their wake.

It’s hard to believe that the same city that created Depot Park as an activity-intensive people magnet is content to allow Sweetwater Branch, downtown’s green heart, to languish in neglect and disuse.

This should be unacceptable to downtown business owners who are struggling to attract customers post-virus. To the B&B proprietors who want their guests to enjoy the grace and beauty of “old” Gainesville. To library patrons and museum visitors. To residents who wish to use their park for recreation and reflection without being harassed.

Let me be clear. It isn’t street people who are ruining the Sweetwater Branch experience. They have simply claimed a park that the city doesn’t seem to have much use for.

The responsibility must fall squarely on a bureaucracy that apparently can’t be bothered to properly maintain and program a park that lies just one block away from City Hall.

Cynthia A Bowen, president of the American Planning Association, writes that downtown parks “are the essential places for play in the live/work/play environment that cities across the country are striving to provide. As a result, people expect more from our parks. They must now be green and provide relaxation, as well as offer entertainment, social interaction, communication and unique experiences.”

A city that aspires to lure residents and businesses alike back to Gainesville’s historic center simply cannot allow its downtown park to fall so woefully short of expectations.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.

Sweetwater in distress

This is Sweetwater Branch Park. Other than the Duck Pond, it is the longest stretch of Sweetwater Branch Creek still accessible to the public. It is Gainesville’s downtown park.

2. It’s not a big park. Just a few blocks of graceful trees and gently flowing water.

Still, it is the largest area of green space remaining in downtown Gainesville. A tiny oasis of nature in an area that has more than its share of concrete and asphalt.

It is also strategically located. It is bordered on the west by the downtown entertainment district and on the east by Gainesville’s Bed & Breakfast District. Its neighbors include the Matheson Museum and the historic Matheson House, the public library headquarters and the Thelma A. Bolton Center.

Anyone who knows downtown redevelopment understands the strategic importance of a green park to the heart of a densely developed city. If you are trying to convince people to live, work and play downtown, they are going to want a park in which to stroll, run and contemplate nature’s beauty and serenity.

And yet Sweetwater Branch may be one of the most underused parks in Gainesville. The city’s Parks and Recreation Staff schedule virtually no events there. Strollers, runners or dog walkers are seldom seen in appreciable numbers.

Which is not to suggest that there are no signs of use, or abuse, of Sweetwater Branch. Indeed there are many such signs. If you talk to people in the neighborhood about why they don’t use Sweetwater Branch Park they are likely to cite public safety concerns and aggressive panhandling.

Sweetwater Branch once ran free and clear through the historic center of Gainesville.

But over the years, in the name of progress, the creek was ditched and diverted and much of it was buried as a inconvenience to development.

To the point that, today, Sweetwater Branch Park remains one of the longest relatively undisturbed portions of the creek still visible and still accessible to the public.

Unfortunately, much of the creek in the park is overgrown with invasive plants, silted up and strewn with broken bits of concrete and debris. It is a creek under stress. A creek that is less an attractive water feature than a partially hidden eyesore.

A downtown park should be a beehive of activity.

Sweetwater Branch Park could be a center for cultural events that would create an economic benefit for all of downtown: Shakespeare in the park, a showcase for Gainesville’s history, used book sales to benefit the library, Paint-outs to showcase local artists.

The possibilities are endless.

But first the city must exercise responsible stewardship over the park.

And neighbors, surrounding businesses and other stakeholders must take ownership of “their” park and demand that neglect of this most abused natural asset stop.

Art and the Anthropocene

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 frets.”   

“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, Rick 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.

Schools and sprawl

Listen, I’m not going to quibble over whether the school board paid too much for the site of a future school in Jonesville.

I won’t argue that the board broke faith earmarking money for a “someday” school that voters clearly intended to be spent rehabbing the schools we already have.

I’m not even going to take issue with the logic of laying out $3.68 million for land that won’t be used for a decade while we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is likely to cripple school district budgets for years to come.

I do question, however, school board member Rob Hyatt’s defense of the purchase on the grounds that “there will be a need for a new school on the Jonesville property within 10 years.”

I’ve got to ask, Rob:

Is it the policy of the Alachua County School District to blindly chase suburban and exurban sprawl no matter the costs?

Or is it possible that the school district is itself promoting sprawl by announcing its intention to accommodate new development wherever it goes?

We know that the availability of good schools is a major consideration when it comes to buying a home.

And we can be fairly certain that for the next 10 years, realtors looking to sell homes in Jonesville and beyond will be telling young families and parents-to-be that “new schools are on the way, so better buy now before prices go up.”

Which is a much better sales pitch than “of course, you will have to put your kids on a school bus.”

A policy paper titled “Education and Smart Growth,” makes the case that chasing growth with new schools is a recipe for fiscal and educational calamity. Among other impacts, “a new school on a distant site can act as a growth magnet, helping draw people out of older urban neighborhoods and into new subdivisions on the metropolitan fringe.

“It is well understood that school quality determines where many families will choose to locate within a region. If new schools are being built on the edge of town and they are perceived to be superior, as new schools often are, then families who can afford the move will often relocate…

“Even families without school age children are impacted as school quality has a significant influence on residential property values.”

In an article titled “School Sprawl,” planner Edward T. McMahon argues that “Construction of large schools on the outskirts of communities not only gobbles up land, it is rarely cost effective. The cost of new school construction is frequently higher than rehabilitation or building additions onto existing schools.”

One consequence of school sprawl, McMahon writes, is that “all over the country smaller, old schools are being closed in favor of bigger, new schools in far flung locations.”

Say, whatever happened to Prairie View Elementary anyway?

This community already has a well documented achievement gap that runs largely along east-west and urban-suburban lines. Continuing to build new schools to serve ever more distant wealthier and whiter suburbs will only exacerbate that gap.

And it’s not necessary. If the state of Florida has done anything over the past decade or more it has been to promote “school choice” in the form of private schools, religious-backed schools, charter schools, home schooling and more.

Parents do have a choice, and the notion that our school district is by itself capable of providing “neighborhood” schools for all regardless of location, distance or sprawl development is ultimately an exercise in fiscal and educational bankruptcy.

Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, calls suburban development a “Ponzi scheme,” wherein “the local unit of government benefits immediately from all the permit fees, utility charges, and increased tax collection…” but ultimately acquires “long-term liability for servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.”

“A near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation is one element of a Ponzi scheme,” he writes.

Whether the school district deliberately promotes sprawl or simply chases it the end result is the same. Board members are buying into a Ponzi scheme.

Searching for Florida

In April I was all set to give this presentation at a Bike Florida conference on bicycle tourism. But of course it got canceled due to COVID-19.

Still, I’m not one to waste a good speech so……

Could we just take a moment to talk about the real Florida please?

Because Florida is very much a state of mind.

Case in point: In 1980 I was covering the U.S. Senate race in Florida for the New York Times Florida Newspapers.

That year the campaign trail took me from Pensacola to Key West, and in the course of things I got a call from the Great Gray Lady Mother Ship in New York: AKA The New York Times.

They were sending down one of their national political reporters to do a story about the Florida race and asked me to show her around.

So I picked her up in Orlando. I don’t remember her name but right off she assured me that she knew all there was to know about Florida….having spent many a winter in Miami.

We were following Democratic hopeful Bill Gunter and our first stop was in Plant City, strawberry capital of the South.

We stopped at a diner where the produce haulers ate so Bill could press some flesh, and my guest from NY looked around in astonishment.

She said….and I am not making this up.

They’re eating grits!”

Apparently you didn’t get grits with your bagels on South Beach at that time.

Later we were on our way to Tallahassee by way of Perry, and while approaching the Osceola National Forest she was moved to remark

“Look at all those trees!”

I could have told her that developers had cut down all the trees in Miami years ago, but what was the point?

I bring that story up to relate to you Florida’s dilemma, especially but not exclusively when it comes to generating interest in bicycle tourism.

“Everybody” you meet knows all about Florida.

We are the home of Florida man, after all.

The problem is that “Everybody’s” idea of Florida starts with South Beach and ends with Disney.

What we need to do is figure out how to introduce these people to the other Florida.

You know, the real Florida.

Listen, some years ago my wife and I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown in D.C.

Arriving in Pittsburgh we proceeded to get lost looking for the GAP trailhead. So I stopped a guy on a bicycle and asked directions.

We had a lovely chat and in the course of it I asked him if he had ever done any riding in Florida.

“I’d never ride in Florida,” he scowled. “It’s too damned hot.”

A few months later we had our spring tour in Lake and Polk Counties. And to this day the thing I most remember about our Orange Blossom Express tour is that temperatures were dipping down into the 30s most nights.

And this in March.

One night we ran movies in a middle school auditorium in Clermont all night long because nobody wanted to go back to their tents.

Welcome to too-hot-to-ride Florida pal!

Oh and then there was the time I put up a Bike Florida display tent during the annual Bike Virginia tour, this one in the Shenandoah Mountains.

The most common remark I got was “I won’t ride in Florida….it’s too flat.”

“Listen,” I’d tell them. “We have mountains in Florida….it’s called the wind.”

And here’s the difference between cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading south on A1A battling a ferocious Atlantic headwind.

Every now and then you get to go downhill on the Parkway,, which is a nice little break. A cruel Atlantic headwind cuts you no such slack.

So here’s the thing I found most frustrating, and most challenging, during my tenure as executive director of Bike Florida.

If you want to convince people that Florida is really a great biking state you better bring your lunch.

I have ridden the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the southern highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s Cliffs of More and Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands.

I’ve cycled the Rockies and ridden the south rim of the Grand Canyon, toured New York’s Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal Trail.

And I’ve found all of those experiences to be remarkable in their own way.

But I’ve done some of my best and most memorable riright here in the Sunshine State.

We may not have mountains. But as Clyde Butcher will tell you, Florida’s beauty is every bit as exquisite if infinitely more subtle.

We used to have a small group tour we called the Horse Country to the Springs Tour. Through the heart of Florida’s Eden.

We took riders down lovely no-traffic country roads that wound past cracker shacks interspersed with multi-million dollar horse farms – where you’d see a for-sale sign and know that yet another tort lawyer lost his case on appeal.

We passed zebras on our way to Micanopy.

We visited Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s cracker citrus grove in Cross Creek, where enthusiastic docents filled us in on the nitty gritty of her Bohemian life style.

We stopped outside Gainesville to walk out onto Alachua Sink to get up close and personal with Gators who were well and truly on steroids.

Listen, nothing gets that big on its own.

Arriving in High Springs we pressed on to Oleno State Park – named after a once popular gambling game because this is Florida, after all – got off our bikes, and proceeded to throw ourselves into the gently-flowing, tea-colored water of the Santa Fe River.

And as we floated there a woman from Baltimore asked me, rather nervously,

“Are there any gators in this river?”

Since I cannot tell a lie, I told her, truthfully.

“Why yes there are.”

Then I pointed to the roped line of floatation devices that sectioned off the park’s swimming area and I said.

“But they aren’t allowed to go past that line.”

I dunno, she didn’t seem all that reassured.

I have been telling this remarkable state’s unique stories – some of them near to unbelievable for those of you who may have heard of the Wakulla volcano – for my entire journalistic career.

And when I got the opportunity to be executive director of Bike Florida I thought “This is great. Now I can show cyclists from all over the world my Florida.

That secret Florida.

The Florida that isn’t defined by South Beach and Disney.

I wanted to take my cyclists to Two Egg.

And tell them about that time our Confederate governor fled there to his plantation -lto fatally shoot himself upon hearing that the South had surrendered.

I couldn’t wait to lead tours to Wewahitchka – Tupalo Honey capital of the south – by way of the primeval Dead Lakes.

I wanted to show them Ormond Beach’s Loop, past wetlands that seemed almost primeval in their graceful beauty, and then on through a massive oak-canopied road that abruptly gave way to urban river life Florida style.

I’ve taken them the Old Sugar Mill ruins in New Smyrna Beach, where folks still argue over whether the sugar plantation’s owner was murdered by his slaves or by Indians.

And you know what impressed them most about these historic ruins?

That’s right….the cement dinosaurs that are still there from back when it was called Bongoland.

Yes, another Florida roadside attraction.

We’ve taken cyclists to Bok Tower. And ridden the Canaveral National Seashore.

We’ve cycled the Talbot Islands past great undisturbed stretches of Atlantic coast that still look something like they must have looked when Jean Ribault made landfall there in 1560.

And we’ve taken cyclists to St. Marks, and told them about that time Spanish conquistadors got trapped there by Apalachee Indians

Who were not at all impressed with their muskets and horses.

BTW: That’s one of my all-time favorite Florida stories.

Those conquistadors originally landed in Tampa Bay looking for gold. So they cornered the local indigenous people and demanded “Where’s the gold?”

Whereupon said indigenous people said “We haven’t got the gold. The Apalachee do.”

Which sent the conquistadors scurrying north in the direction of Tallahassee looking for fame and fortune.

Of course the Apalachee didn’t have the gold.

What they had was a reputation for being the nastiest, meanest and most warlike tribe in the entire region.

Thereby proving my longtime contention that Florida has always been a land of confidence men. But that’s another Florida story.

Heck, the Spanish ended up having to eat their horses and cut their hides into leather strips to make rafts and then launch themselves into the Gulf of Mexico…ultimately to end up washed ashore on Galveston Island, where most were either killed or enslaved by other Indians.

Listen, we have ridden through the rabbit warren of million dollar seaside mansions on Casey Key – just to see how the other half live – and then on to Boca Grande….where they told us that we couldn’t use their “private” bike/golf cart trail because they didn’t want “our kind of bikers” in their town.

Like we were the Hell’s Angles or something.

And speaking of which we once took several hundred cyclists to Soloman’s Castle, a big house apparently made of tin foil out in the middle of nowhere Hardee County…and had the great good fortune to arrive at the same time as the Tampa Bay chapter of Dykes On Bikes.

Is this a great state or what?

Listen, I could go on and on about the Florida stories we could tell….and show…to our cyclists.

Watching the sun rise on the St. John’s River in Welaka before heading out to Mud Springs…which isn’t really all that muddy. Some say it’s called that to discourage people from going there.

Like visiting Fernandina Beach so we could sit on a bench with David Yulee the railroad barron and talk to him about that time he had to get out of town real fast in one of his trains just before union troops could nab him.

Or riding to Mexico Beach…at least before it was reduced to rubble…so we could show them what a Florida beach town looked like before the condo kings got ahold of it.

I was brimming over with stories….and places..and I was absolutely certain that cyclists would beat a path to our door for the privilege of seeing My Florida.

And I am sorry to say that, by and large, I was wrong.

I will tell you that to this day I consider my biggest failure as a professional communicator was my inability to figure out how to market the Real Florid to cyclists from up north or from out west or oversees.

I hope that the people in this room will put their heads together and figure out how to do that.

Because Florida isn’t too hot.

And Florida isn’t too flat.

And our best places to ride aren’t South Beach or Disney.

BTW: Have you noticed that Disney packages cruise ship tours with resort visits…all the better to capture a target audience and keep them spending money on Disney enterprises.

Nobody from Disney has asked me, but if they did I’d suggest that they do another kind of packaging to attract people from Germany, Italy, France and other places where cycling is a thing.

Say, five or six days in the resorts followed by a five day guided bicycle tour.

And the beauty of that is – thanks to the commitment Florida is making to connecting greenways – Disney or anybody else will soon be able to offer exclusively on-trail tours of several days length for people who would love to ride a bicycle here but are scared off by Florida’s deplorable record for killing more cyclists and pedestrians than almost any other state.

Which brings me to the other really important message I have to deliver to you who came here today to figure out how to grow bicycle tourism in Florida.

Sorry, but I need to say this because I have been writing about these basic pubic safety issues for far longer than I’ve been interested in bicycle tourism.

Florida has for too many years led the nation in the number of pedestrians and cyclists it kills.

We are killing far too many people who prefer not to drive in order to get from here to there.

On one of my very first Bike Florida tours we lost a very nice man from Arizona after a teenager near Newberry dropped his cell phone, reached down to get it, and veered into the bike lane.

So let me be clear.

Florida desperately needs to take aggressive, corrective action to save the lives of people who don’t care to encase themselves inside multi-ton steel cocoons for the singular privilege of getting from one place to another.

Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets.

Whatever you want to call the strategy, the only thing we can call the status quo is unacceptable.

If we do not do something about that then we can kiss our bicycle tourism ambitions goodbye.

My bottom line message to all of you is simply this.

We need a strategy, a vision, a plan to get out the message that Florida is open for safe and enjoyable cycling.

We should refuse to take a back seat to corn field-rich Iowa, or lumpy North Carolina or woody Oregon or any other state when it comes to being cycle friendly.

Seriously, folks, it’s time for Florida to grow up and cycle right.

It’s time for all of us to ride our age.