Brunch on two wheels

Sunday brunch has gotten to be a big deal in Gainesville. 

And what’s not to like? Mimosas. Eggs Benedict. Meeting up with friends to see and be seen.

But, really, anybody can drive to brunch. Why not turn your Sunday brunch trip into an adventure on two wheels? A journey of exploration? 

Here’s a leisurely Sunday brunch bike ride that will show you the best Gainesville has to offer on your way to your favorite cafe or restaurant.

Mile zero: Begin at Depot Park of course. Take a pre-brunch lap around the ponds and past the Cade before heading south on the Depot Avenue rail-trail.

Mile .07: Take a brief loop through Porter’s Quarter to see the shipping container house.

Mile 1.8: Cross the DNA Bridge. Take a selfie under its orange strands.

Mile 2.5: Cross Archer Road and enter UF campus for a lap around Lake Alice.

Mile 4.1: Stop and stroll the boardwalk though UF’s Natural Area Teaching Laboratory. It’s a short walk through green serenity. 

Mile 4.2: Arrive Museum of Florida History and The Harn. Hey, would a little culture kill you? And butterflies!

Mile 4.9: Selfie at the Baughman and the bat houses. Maybe see if you can spot any real gators in Lake Alice.

Mile 5.8: Get your photo taken perched on the big gator outside the football stadium. If you’re really feeling ambitious, take a pre-brunch stadium hike all the way to the top tier of seats and back down.

Mile 6.6: Century Tower. You know what to do.

Mile 6.8: First brunch opportunities on University Avenue. The Swamp, The Social, etc.

Mile 8.2: You can leave the route just past GPD and take a left on the rail-trail. Just one block north will take you to Afternoon, another prime brunch spot. Then back to the route.

Mile 8.7: Take a stroll through the Thomas Center Gardens.

Mile 9.5: Enter downtown Gainesville, a brunch target-rich environment. Emilianos, Harry’s, 

Boca Fiesta, Paramount Grill, the Top, etc.

Mile 9.6: Hang a left at The Hipp. Grab a cuppa at Starbucks or Maude’s.

Mile 9.9: Take a ride through Sweetwater Park.  

Mile 10.3: Selfie at GRU’s giant water ball.

Mile 10.4: Daily Green on left. Last brunch opportunity of the route.

Mile 10.8: Back at Depot Park. Continue on route for a post-brunch beer at First Mag. BTW: If you like the ride so much you don’t want to stop yet, just head east on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Tail to rack up some bonus miles. 

12.2: Back at Depot Park again. Time for some Sunday Raggae at The Boxcar. The Cade should be open by now, and that’s always worth a visit. Plus, there’s usually a flea market at the park on Sunday. 

Is Sunday brunch in Gainesville great or what?

Density is our destiny

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

Density is destiny, Gainesville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City? Boston? Austin?

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

Seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because density is destiny, Gainesville.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Only kidding Gainesville

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

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

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

To turn Gainesville into Orlando. Another Miami.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GNV Rise will likely not rise again in 2019.

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

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

Gainesville’s strong compact

I love this town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because if not us, then who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah, and save tax dollars.

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

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

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

I love this town. 

Out out damned blot!

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

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

My resume of causes lost is long and impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

How depressing is that? A perfect record spoiled.

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody seems to agree on this now.

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

The city commissioners who put it on the ballot.

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

Sigh.

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

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

Not that it was my idea. 

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

What a concept. 

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

But that’s not the point, is it? 

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

This damnable blot on my otherwise perfect lost cause record.

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

About Trump?

Oh bother.

Everywhere a sign

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Maybe it’s just me but I have a tendency to look for not-so-subtle signs as I wander through AutoAmerica.

For instance, in St. Augustine Beach I noticed that at every pedestrian crossing on Beach Boulevard the city has thoughtfully provided stacks of bright orange flags. The idea being that if you are going to cross the street on foot, better grab a flag so people in automobiles will be able to see you, um, coming.

I’m sure traffic engineers patted themselves on the backs over that one. Keeping our pedestrians safe against all odds, they’d say. 

But that’s the real message here? Those orange flags are very much a sign that people who do not encase themselves in two tons of Detroit iron really don’t belong on the public streets. That they require extraordinary markings just to survive that hostile environment. 

Rather like the old plague ships that had to fly yellow flags.

Everywhere a sign.

At Gainesville High School, where my kids graduated, I see that they have installed a push button system that sets off flashing lights at the pedestrian crosswalk. The better to allow students to get safety across four lanes of highway designed for speedy motor transit. 

Great idea. Oh, but wait.

As if to prove the point that no good deed goes unpunished, the traffic engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that the thick concrete post bearing the life-saving push button ought to be implanted right into the sidewalk, just off-center of the middle.

What’s the sign here? Fine, we’ll give you a break getting across the street. But you’ll pay the price with a partially blocked sidewalk. Tough luck if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

Everywhere a sign.

Speaking of which, I notice that the county just installed a couple of speed trackers along NW 16th Blvd, not far from my home. The speed limit is 40 MPH, and if you are going faster (or slower) than you are so informed in an orange LED digital readout. 

Good idea, because you have to assume that at least some of the drivers who are going faster than 40 will take the hint and show down….at least for a hundred feet or so.

So what’s this sign really saying?

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that four-laned, broad-laned NW 16th has been engineered to near interstate standards, so much so that the natural tendency is to drive faster than the posted limit allows. 

One might reasonably ask why anybody needs to drive 40 mph on an urban street that separates neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. But that’s an irrelevant question: For all practical purposes you could slap a 30 mph limit on that stroad (look it up) and people would still drive 40-50. Or faster, I’ve seen them do it.

Because fast-moving cars are exactly what NW 16th was designed to facilitate. And it does its job very well.

Orange flags, sidewalk obstructions, electronic slow down alerts. 

The signs are all there. And they all say the same thing.

Here there be autoAmerican dragons. Pilgrims afoot beware.

Oh Florida!

37BB82AC-7895-4F53-8A47-DA3B45A44E08(I wrote this review of Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, “Florida” for the Gainesville Sun.)

Lauren Groff disdains quotation marks in “Florida.”

I’m sorry, I mean in Florida.

At first I found this to be disconcerting. As a newspaper guy, quotation marks are my life.

But in reading Groff’s new collection of short stories it quickly becomes evident that punctuation anarchy can be wonderfully, decadently liberating.  

They are like annoying little double fence slats that seal a gated golf community off from Florida’s wild, prickly, sticky morass of swamps and scrubs and sandspurs and things that slither, gnaw and go bump in the night.

Groff, of course, is Gainesville’s most celebrated writer in residence. Her last book, ”Fates and Furies”  was praised by no less than former President Barack Obama. And it is fitting that this transplanted Yankee in Paradise would begin “Florida” with an account of her own anger-dispersing nighttime strolls (stalks?) through and around her Duckpond neighborhood.

And what a nocturnal journey. Hers is an exotic college town infested by grad students “who heated beans over Bunsen burners.” A refuge for black swans and a rapacious otter. Where elderly nuns dwell in ever-shrinking numbers.

There is a homeless couple who occasionally sleep under her house (“we tried to walk softly because it felt rude to step inches above the face of a dreaming person.”) And an obese young man on a treadmill, and a “fiercely pale” woman with a Great Dane “the color of dryer lint” and a “shy, muttering” woman who collects cans, and a man who “hisses nasties” outside a bodega with barred windows

Yeah, that’s so Gainesville. That’s so Florida. 

“I have somehow become a woman who yells,” Groff declares in the book’s very first sentence. And this single allowance sets the narrative for all that follows. Because her Florida is no pale plastic Disney concoction. It can be a fuming, fearful, glowering tempest-tossed geography. A land of both breathtaking beauty and “soul sucking heat.” Where summer is a “slow, hot drowning,” and air conditioners eat snakes, and a concussed woman may find her disembodied consciousness transported into the restless panther that endlessly circles her cracker cabin.

An “Eden of dangerous things.”

And Groff packs up this torrid Eden and takes it along wherever she and her characters go. What exactly is the point of fleeing to Paris, only to discover that “it has become somehow Floridian, all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts”?

Yeah, we are all Florida now. 

Groff’s “Florida” is a Tim Burtonesque fairy tale in which a feckless mother abandons two little girls on a deserted island with wild monkeys and a dog who doesn’t like children. It is a woman’s almost mystical transformation from cloistered teaching assistant to beach bum to homeless Tent City resident to, finally, housekeeper in a communal “squat” on the edge of the Prairie – where she becomes one with the snakes and the gators and whatever it was that crawled across her throat. 

It is a tempest tossed house in which a woman visits with the ghosts of the men in her life while patiently waiting for the hurricane to carry her away. Where an algorithm-ruled recluse speaks in nano-bites to the wife who almost killed him. 

Speaking of ghosts, Groff herself admits to being haunted, even possessed, by two dead men. In “The Flower Hunters” a newfound obsession with colonial-era naturalist William Bartram makes her forget her motherly Halloween duties, discovering “she is most definitely in love with that dead Quaker.”

And then there is Groff’s much darker affair with Guy de Maupassant, which can only end badly on a cold French beach after she finally admits to herself that her one-time muse was “morally repugnant.”

Two more things about “Florida.”

One is that Groff is obsessed with the storm of life. It is the common thread that runs through each tale. Rain doesn’t fall in her “Florida”. It crashes to the ground, it envelops you in a wall, it arrives on the breath of a hurricane. “Worse then being in the storm was knowing what the storm was doing.”

And the other thing is that Groff is an absolute miser when it comes to parsing out words. “Florida” is a quick clean read because her prose is stark, precise and to the point. Like a distaff Hemingway (a comparison Groff would likely find as odious as to de Maupassant) she never says anything in 15 words if she can say it in 10.

“One perfect orange.” This for the woman who sought respite in Salvador from “The long dry years spent in the wilderness of her mother’s illness.”

“Florida” is Groff’s rumination on writing and marriage and motherhood and friendships and “the dread” and an Eden that stings and awes in equal measure. And if you are looking for a moral to this story, perhaps it is simply this:

“Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”

Yeah, that’s so Florida.

A tale of two cities

Whenever I drive through Ocala I am reminded of urbanist Andres Duany’s declaration that “the Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

The first thing you see upon approaching the city proper headed south on U.S. 441/301 is a sign stating that you are entering Ocala’s business district and that, henceforth, the speed limit will be 35 mph.

Which is very sensible because most of the length of 441/301 between Gainesville and Ocala is 65 mph, and nobody needs to drive that fast through an urban business district.

The second thing you notice upon entering Ocala’s business district (aka Pine Avenue) is that almost nobody actually drives 35 mph. Most traffic moves in the 45-50 mph range right through the heart of the city.

And, really you can’t blame drivers. Never mind what the tiny speed limit signs say, all of the visual signals motorists get tell them that this is a corridor designed for speedy transit. 

We’re talking six broad traffic lanes, seven counting the middle turn lanes. We’re talking few roadside obstructions – trees for instance – that might caution motorists to ease up a bit. Yes, there are sidewalks but the pedestrian environment through the middle of Ocala is so sterile, so hostile that walking anywhere is clearly a last resort. 

Ocala loses an average of 10 pedestrians a year to traffic. It would probably be more but, really, who would want to walk on these mean streets?

Getting back to the DOT’s culpability, driving through the heart of Ocala is an unpleasant experience precisely because the character, width and configuration of U.S. 441/301 changes not at all as it makes its transition from rural to suburban to urban. 

It is simply a broad, multi-laned expedient specifically designed to funnel as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible. 

I bring this up not to especially pick on Ocala – which is a perfectly lovely city in some respects – but rather because the traffic funnel that slices through the middle of the city is the very definition of a “stroad.”

A sort of transportation mutation that works well as neither a road nor a street.

“Roads and streets are two separate things,” Charles Morhan writes in his recent Strong Town blog  which argues that road-obsessed traffic engineers should not be allowed to design urban streets.

“The function of a road is to connect productive places.” Say, to connect a university city like Gainesville to a retirement community like Ocala. He compares functional roads to railroads “where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two

“In contrast, the function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth…In these environments, people are the indicator species of success…with a street we’re trying to create environments where humans, and human interaction, flourish.”

In Ocala most of the human interaction occurs in traffic, and with predictable results: Ocala’s traffic-facilitating business district is the usual auto-American-bland collection of fast-food outlets, strip shopping centers, car dealerships, drive-through banks and what not. 

And Ocala’s certainly not alone in this regard. Many auto-American cities have seen their once vital economic centers reduced to drive-by convenience strips as a result of some traffic engineer’s vision of mobility paradise. It is the same vision that enables thousands of drivers a day to pass through, say, nearby Palatka’s commercial strip hell on their way two and from the beach without ever seeing the charming neighborhoods and quirky riverside downtown hidden on either side of traffic-facilitating U.S. 17.

In Gainesville we are trying to work our way out of our stroad dilemma. Main Street, which runs north and south the length of the city, continues to be redesigned with human interaction and local economic vitality in mind. Traffic lanes are being reduced and narrowed, bike lanes added, sidewalks improved attractive streetscaping added. And the result is a more people-friendly downtown and an amazing urban renaissance on a strip of South Main Street that was once given over to warehouses and empty storefronts. Now we’re seeing parks, artist studios, breweries, entertainment venues and small business incubators popping up all along that still-being redesigned stretch of South Main.

Which is not to say that Gainesville doesn’t still have work to do. University Avenue continues to be more a mass traffic facilitator than the university city signature street it ought to be. And 13th Street, which connects to Ocala via U.S. 441, is still a malfunctioning stroad that surrenders urban quality of life to the fast and efficient movement of cars. 

I think that will change, eventually, because 13th Street and University are, for all practical purposes the University of Florida’s front doors. And with 50,000-plus students concentrated in one small area and in need of more personal mobility choices, traffic calming changes are inevitable. 

It is people, not cars, that make or break a city. Gainesville’s is moving ahead, while Ocala stalls in traffic.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun and former executive director of Bike Florida.)

When art escapes anything happens

Lately I’ve been entertaining some of the Big Questions about Life, The Universe And Everything.

Is it art, or just a rotting whale?

Is war still hell if Felix The Cat, Wiley E. Coyote and Homer Simpson are committing the atrocities?

And if “The Starry Night” jumps off canvas and onto a house is that a mortal sin against conformity and the property tax valuation we all hold sacred?

That first question is a tough one. These days Gainesville is busting out all over in Urban Art, i.e. formerly known as graffiti. 

Spurred by the city’s 352Walls project, artists from around the world have been coming to town to paint their visions on formerly blank walls, mostly in the downtown area, but as far afield as Santa Fe College. 

Now we’ve got a mystical woman holding a ball of galaxy, surrealistic city scapes, a Bengal tiger, Tom Petty tributes and other images that nearly defy description popping up all over town. 

It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s edgy. It’s so Gville.

And then there’s the rotting whale on NW 4th Street, around the corner from Cypress & Grove Brewery.

Ribs poking out, flesh hanging in shreds, vultures perched and daisies sprouting through the gaps. 

Personally I love it as a sort of circle-of-life message that they didn’t quite capture in “The Lion King.” But when I show it to visitors I get mixed reviews. Some can’t stand to look at it.

Which I suppose is the very definition of art. Something I read in a gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District recently comes to mind: “It’s not what you see, it’s what you make others see.”

Speaking of arts districts I was wandering the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) in Melbourne, and stopped to ponder Matt Gondek’s contribution to the district’s 2017 Anti-Gravity mural wall painting project. 

It’s kind of a traffic stopper. An “exploding” cartoon in which icons like Homer, Felix and Wiley cheerily wage bloody mayhem on each other in gaudy primary colors.

To say that the Gondek’s take on “Guernica,” Picasso’s epic interpretation of Nazi atrocities in the Spanish Civil War, has raised a few eyebrows would be an understatement.

“The city commission rewrote the mural ordinance over it,” Lisa Packard, director of EGAD, told me. “The town went nuts.”

True, seeing Sponge Bob with one eye gouged out is a bit jarring. But Pepe LePew’s got a rose clenched in his teeth, so it’s not all gore and guts. 

And here’s the other thing. This deconstructed vision of critters’ inhumanity to critters graces the wall of a small strip shopping plaza that would otherwise be all but invisible in its bland sameness. 

They’re all over Florida, but you never really see them at all.

You’ve gotta be blind to miss this one though.

Which brings us to Mt. Dora’s “Starry Night” house.

You’ve probably read about it. A Mt. Dora couple noticed their autistic son’s fascination with Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece. So they had it reproduced all over the outside of their house.

Prompting the City to threaten $100 a day fines until they returned their home to its former, municipally-approved blandness.

But the couple went to court instead, and a federal judge ruled Mt. Dora out of order.

So now can we expect to see house-sized replicas of great masterpieces popping up in neighborhoods all over Florida? Will art anarchy swamp homeowners associations in a sea of surrealism?

I dunno. When art escapes the studio to spread out across the landscape, anything can happen. A lot of cities like Gainesville are busting out in murals precisely because it makes the urban landscape so visually arresting that people want to come from all over to see it – and argue about it. 

But the lines of artistic expression can get blurred. In Asheville’s art district a colorful orange and blue house flouts a large mural of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette. Very cool, but I can’t imagine they would welcome that abode in a tonier section of town. 

On the other hand perhaps we are entering into an age where conformity and uniformity is becoming overrated. 

I’m ok with the rotting whale and one-eyed Sponge Bob and smokin’ Dylan and the Starry Night house (which is now a Mt. Dora tourist draw). 

What a Brave New World has such images in it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun on Sept. 11, 2018.stars2.001.jpeg

Just find a trail and ride

We get it. You want to ride. 

You long to get out there on your bicycle, to explore the best that natural Florida has to offer. To exercise your body and your mind. To leave your sedentary existence behind, if only for the day, or perhaps just a few hours. 

But you are not comfortable riding on the roads. Traffic worries you. You don’t feel safe occupying the same space with cars and trucks and distracted drivers with cell phones.

Not to worry.

The really cool thing about Gainesville is that it is pretty much the epicenter of Trail Country. If you have a bike rack, or enough on-board cargo space to stow your bicycle, you are within easy driving distance – an hour or so – of at least four quality rail-trails. 

No need to share the road. Just get on a trail and sing along with Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle…..”

Here they are in order of proximity.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail: This one literally starts at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville and runs for more than 15 miles, all the way to downtown Hawthorne. Along the way you can stop at the Boulware Springs Trailhead for water and restrooms. You might want to take a bit of time off the bike to stroll the walkway into Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. There are rolling hills and scenic prairie overlooks. You can stop at Prairie Creek and watch the fishing, or maybe even cross under the Hawthorne Road bridge and take a peek at Newnans Lake. You can explore tiny Rochelle, cross Lochloosa creeks and, when you get to Hawthorne, maybe have lunch at Diane’s Old Time Barbecue, or visit the Historical Museum before heading back to Gainesville – where you just might consider a cold beer reward at First Magnitude, conveniently situated at trail’s end. This is one of Florida’s oldest rail-trails and it never loses its charm. 

The Lake Butler-Palatka Trail: Just a 35-minute drive east will take you to the trailhead at Grandin, in Putnam County. From there you can ride either west toward Keystone Heights or continue east toward Palatka – or better yet, go first one way and then the other. Either way the ride will take you through the heart of this area’s sand hills and lakes country. The important thing to remember is that this 47-mile corridor is very much a work in progress. As this is being written, construction continues on a trail extension that will go all the way into Palatka. Once that is completed, it will be possible to connect with the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail that will take you over the St. John’s River to the farm town of Hastings, the charming trail-communities of Armstrong and Elkton and then on to the very outskirts of the Ancient City itself. 

Nature Coast Trail: It’s a 40 minute drive west from Gainesville to Old Town. From there the Nature Coast Trail runs for 32 miles – west to Cross City, south to Chiefland and east to Trenton and extending in the direction of Newberry. This trail runs through the heart of a slice of old Florida that was once connected to the rest of the world by steamboats and railroads, and the highlight of the trail is a Suwannee River crossing via an one-time iron railroad bridge. The trail is in close proximity to Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, so a quick dip in cold water, or a time out for a bit of kayaking is not out of the question.

Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Trail: A 56 minute drive south on U.S. 441/301 will take you through Ocala to the Santos Trailhead and the recently opened 23-mile Cross Florida Greenway Trail. What makes this trail different from most others is that it was not constructed on a former railroad right-of-way, meaning that it doesn’t run straight and true in typical railroad fashion. Rather this trail takes delightful twists and turns though the deep forest and over the low hills of the Cross Florida Greenway Corridor. Instead of crossing busy roadways, the trail dips under them via a series of tunnels. And when you get to I-75 can keep riding west unimpeded thanks to the trail’s attractively landscape “land bridge.” Oh yeah, along the way you will pass the Florida Horse Park, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the trail with a number of earnest looking individuals who are in the process of training their mounts for upcoming races. On the drive back, consider stopping in Ocala’s restored downtown for lunch in one of its many restaurants. 

(I wrote this piece for the latest edition of Gainesville Magazine.)