“They would fail. We would always fail. We weren’t built to do anything but fail. We had the wrong kind of motives and we couldn’t change them. We had a built-in short-sightedness and an inherent selfishness and a self-concern that made it impossible to step out of the little human rut we traveled.”
Two stories in the Gainesville sun. One of them prominent front page news. One an inside brief and quite easy missed.
Front page first:
We’ve all been wondering whether, or rather when, Alachua County will record its first coronavirus related death. “COVID-19, no deaths in county,” announced the April 15 headline.
That seems a minor miracle because we are a university city and many of our students and faculty had traveled the world before it became apparent that the world had a little virus problem.
Now the inside brief:
Just five paragraphs. “Pedestrian killed in crash on Waldo Road.”
Really, it’s hardly news at all. In fact, it happens so often around here that each “incident’ rarely rates much more than 100 words of reportage.
This time it was the early morning death of an unidentified (they almost always are at first) pedestrian run down by a logging truck. The brief report noted that the truck driver didn’t stop and, when detained, he “told police he was unaware the truck had been involved in the crash.”
Arguably the truck hadn’t been involved. Strictly speaking the “involved’ parties were the live driver and the dead walker.
Still no COVID-19 deaths in Alachua County. One of those would have been real news.
But as I noted in a column I wrote in March, at least six people have been run down in the roads and streets of Alachua County in the space of just a few months. Possibly more as such “incidents” barely rate as news.
But wait a minute: Hardly anyone’s driving in this time of coronavirus. Shouldn’t a pedestrian’s death now be unusual enough to merit attention, if only as a sort of dog-bites-man story?
Not really. It turns out that while fewer people drive now, some of those who are tend to do so faster and more recklessly. This due to the sheer novelty of experiencing congestion-free highways.
Everybody hates congestion, but it turns out to be a quite effective traffic-calming device.
Ironically, in some places, most notably New York City, motorists seem to be killing more of each other than pedestrians. “If there is any good news to the speed epidemic it’s that the carnage is mostly limited to operators of motorized vehicles such as cars and motorcycles,” notes Streetsblog NYC. “Between March 2 and April 8, two pedestrians have been killed by motorists, likely a result of so few pedestrians being outside during the virus lockdown.”
Turns out fewer people are walking just as fewer are driving. In that bizarre respect the coronavirus is actually something of a life-saver.
If past is prologue, we may not read anything else in The Sun about the unidentified pedestrian killed on Waldo Road. Eventually the police will release the victim’s name, but whether that makes the “news” is anybody’s guess.
Really, in this country, in our autoAmerica, we ought to have something like the Tomb Of The Unknown Pedestrian to commemorate the thousands of little known and little noted victims who are sacrificed in our streets year after year after year.
By now they must surely outnumber the sum total unknown soldiers who are honored by the much viewed tomb in Arlington Va.
Now something like that would surely merit front-page attention, even in the United States of autoAmerica.
“And you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any (projected COVID-19 deaths) numbers we’re talking about,” The Donald bloviated at a briefing, “that doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars.”
And Trump’s not the only one chanting the “we run over people don’t we?” chorus. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, piped in. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about.”
Um, no, that’s not quite right.
We don’t “accept” upwards of 40,000 traffic deaths a year as a necessary price to pay so Americans “can move about.”
It is, rather, the blood that we spill so we can drive as fast, as carelessly and as distractedly as we please in our increasingly oversized, overpowered and over-engineered vehicles of choice.
Because that is the autoAmerican way.
Listen, if we’re going to be honest about it, ‘We The People” built that staggering death toll atop nearly a century of bad public policy. Everything from the way we design roads to the way we do land use planning to the way we calculate speed limits – and then mostly turn a blind eye when drivers routinely ignore them – all of that and more conspire to keep those death numbers up.
No surprise there. The feds have zero vision for Vision Zero.
Not that most state or local officials are much better.
StreetsblogUSA reports that, when states sent their fatality reduction goals to the Federal Highway Administration “18 states explicitly told the federal agency that their roadway fatality target was actually an increase in total pedestrian and cyclist deaths over the previous year.”
And, yes, Florida was among them.
Here’s more. A recent Boston University survey of American mayors found that 76 percent believe their cities are “too oriented toward cars,” and about 37 percent think pedestrians and bicyclists are unsafe in their cities.
Nevertheless, 80 percent believe their speed limits are just right or too low – and never mind that speed is the number one determining factor in pedestrian deaths.
Again, no surprise. Cities that ticket too many speeders are roundly shamed as greedy “speed trap” operators (ask Waldo). Many states prohibit or restrict the use of cameras to ticket red light runners and speeders.
Just as we know the steps necessary to keep Covid19 from spiraling out of control, we also know how to drastically reduce highway deaths. Design urban roads with safety, not speed, in mind for a start.
The same technology that enables Florida to bill drivers who use the Turnpike without a SunPass could also be deployed to dun motorists who drive recklessly through city streets. But that would make motor voters mad.
If you want to get away with murder in autoAmerica kill a pedestrian or cyclist with your car. The dead can’t tell their side, and if your story is convincing enough “He came out of nowhere, officer!) you may not even get points on your license.
But, sure, let’s pretend all those dead people are the legitimate price we must pay “so we can move about.”
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.
Gregory Branch, William Moore, Denise Griffiths, Dwight Jenkins, D.J. Washington.
And Rose M. McDonald, aka “Granny.”
If those names ring no bells, I’m not surprised. Had they been the victims of, say, Coronavirus, their deaths would be front page news.
But they are just people who have been killed while trying to bike, cross or walk a public street in our county since November.
For the most part their untimely deaths rated only a few paragraphs in print or scant mention on the air. They were a 16-year old boy walking in the bike lane on SW 20th Ave., a UF student killed while crossing University Avenue, a 45-year old man run over by a truck on U.S. 441 near Turkey Creek, a 60-year old Melrose man run down on SR 222, a 45-year old man killed while crossing NW 39th Ave.
And then there was “Granny,” left to die on Waldo Road, on Jan. 30, by a hit-and-run driver.
That their deaths attracted little note is no rap on local news. The sad truth is that we kill so many pedestrians and bicyclists in autoAmerica that any single death by vehicle typically rates brief notice.
“Pedestrian deaths rise more than 50 percent in the U.S.,” a recent story in The Sun was headlined. Just a reminder that, even as traffic related deaths in general have gone down, the number of walkers or cyclists being killed is at a 30-year high.
If you happened to read that story, you may have thought: I’m glad I don’t live in Miami, or Orlando, or Tampa…or any big city where cyclists and pedestrians are at risk.
To which I would respond: Gregory Branch, William Moore, Denise Griffiths, Dwight Jenkins, D.J. Washington.
And Rose M. McDonald.
Rose was the only one of those victims I knew by sight, if not by name.
She was a prominent figure among Gainesville’s downtown homeless community. Small and frail, suffering from multiple emotional and physical maladies, she was nonetheless a relentlessly cheerful woman.
“She was one of the first people I met in Gainesville, as she bummed smokes and change from folks downtown,” says Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman. “Her story is sad and her fate too common these days. Dangerous roads. A life lived on the margins. She was dealt a really bad hand in life.”
Local playwright Michael Presley Bobbitt also appreciated his exchanges with Granny. She “was as Gainesville as it gets…a relentless source of positivity and encouragement. A bright light in this community has been extinguished by a careless, murderous hit-and-run motorist, and we are all poorer for it.”
Sadly, justice for Granny is unlikely.
Gainesville Police Department just issued a press release asking “witnesses or persons with information about the traffic homicide to please come forward.” That’s a cold trail indeed, the release coming more than a month after she was left for dead.
As a community, we don’t have to accept such deaths with an “Oh well, accidents happen” shrug. We know how to change the autoAmerican status quo. We know how to repurpose our public streets and roads, especially in urban areas, to reduce fatalities.
Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets. Call it what you will.
The only thing you can honestly call the status quo is unacceptable. That or obscene.
It’s not the spirit that’s lacking, but the communal will.
You can’t be in journalism for 50 years without having life’s ironies reach out of nowhere and slap you across the face on a regular basis. It just happened again.
My last blog was about six people – five pedestrians and one cyclist – who had been run down on the streets of my city and county in just the last few months.
For the record they are Gregory Branch, William Moore, Denise Griffiths, Dwight Jenkins, D.J. Washington and Rose M. McDonald.
The whole point of the blog wasn’t just that we kill too many people in our streets, but that because we do, their deaths almost invariably come and go with scant notice – a few paragraphs or brief mention on the air – in the news media.
As though they never really existed at all.
The lone cyclist especially seem to make my point, because she was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Jan. 30 on Waldo Road. And talk about anonymous – days passed, and then weeks, without police releasing her name to the media.
On March 2, more than a month later, I finally contacted GPD and requested her name and an update on her murder. I was told that her name hadn’t been released because they were having trouble locating next of kin.
I got that reply in the morning. That same afternoon, GPD issued a press release identifying the woman as Rose M. McDonald.
Oh, and it asked anyone who might have witnessed her death to please come forward.
That belated bid for cooperation isn’t likely to bear much fruit.
As for “next of kin,” police really didn’t have to search very far. While GPD remained mute, people right here in Gainesville were already getting worried because they hadn’t seen or heard from Rose in a while.
Most of them likely didn’t even know her as Rose M. McDonald, but rather “Granny.”
I even knew her, but didn’t know it. She was that emaciated woman who often approached me as I walked into the downtown Starbucks. She didn’t always ask for money, in fact, I can’t recall now if she ever did. But she almost always smiled at me and wished me well.
When word of her death got around – weeks after the fact – there was widespread sorrow and shock among the city’s homeless advocates. Not to mention among the artists, musicians, government officials, downtown workers and others who had regularly interacted with Granny. It seems that everybody knew Granny and admired her unrelenting cheerfulness in the face of a life of utter deprivation.
Granny’s “next of kin,” held not one but two memorial services for her on the downtown plaza.
Turns out Rose had friends in both high and low places.
I should let this go, because, as I mentioned, we use our vehicles to slaughter so many of our fellow Americans that we can hardly pause to linger over the memory of any one of them – especially, some might argue, a street person.
Some of my fellow Americas no doubt shrugged off Granny’s death with a “it was probably her fault,” or “she shouldn’t have been in the road anyway.”
Or even, as one Facebook contributor commented last year when a panhandler was run down in the streets of Gainesville, “one less beggar.”
These are literally throwaway humans in our coarsened society. We see them huddled in doorways and sprawled on the sidewalks, and we try to look through them, past them, around them….anything to avoid the uncomfortable notion that the only difference between them and us may be a one or two lost paychecks or an emotional breakdown.
Certainly to the driver who left her to bleed out on Waldo Road Granny was little more than human garbage. I’d like to assume that whoever killed her has lost more than a little sleep, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Neither is it hard to imagine that the police investigating her death put less than 100 percent effort into the pursuit of justice for Granny. A homeless woman dead on the street isn’t exactly considered a crime wave.
Forgive my cynicism, but the lonely death of Granny Rose McDonald occurred at the intersection of two of the cruelest paths in American culture: Our hostility to the invisible people who sleep in our streets and make us uncomfortable, and our indifference to the toxic autoAmerican culture that sacrifices 40,000 lives a year in pursuit of our need for speed.
I’m not sure when the south end of downtown’s First Street began to turn into skid row. But the signs were there.
Like when the outside seating disappeared from Starbucks.
And when they tore down Jon Wershow’s old law firm building, and the adjacent pocket sculpture garden, to be replaced by a dirt parking lot with a shabby wooden slat fence.
Each morning street people congregate along the fence – joking, smoking, panhandling. Still more gather in the Sun Center courtyard.
Some even bring their own chairs because, well, you can’t sit outside Starbucks anymore.
The parking lot is supposed to be temporary. Presumably when it’s a hotel the “pop up” skid row will pop up somewhere else.
Still, these days you can practically follow the trail of shopping carts, sleeping bags, blankets, cans and bottles down South Main.
Listen, our homeless issues pale in comparison to those of many other American cities. And we are an intelligent, and compassionate, enough people to manage those issues without panicking.
But here’s the thing about our downtown street scene.
When students descend en masse, from sunset into the wee hours, the street people tend to be lost in the crowd. It is in the cold light of day that the area’s growing air of seediness is revealed in stark relief.
Downtown doesn’t have a homeless problem so much as a people problem.
Ours is basically a two dimensional downtown: Party central at night, a parking lot for government workers during the day.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And thanks to a still-blossoming town/gown strategic partnership we may soon have the opportunity to decide what downtown Gainesville ought to be when it grows up.
City Manager Lee Feldman is negotiating with the University of Florida to create a master plan for downtown Gainesville. “We’re just in beginning stage of talking about how we will approach a new planning process,” he says. “Downtown is critical, not only to city but also to the university. And we both recognize the need for it to be successful.”
Of late we haven’t had many downtown champions. GDOT (Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants) has gone dormant and is about to reorganize under another name. The Chamber of Commerce is located downtown, but its heart has long been in the suburbs. And while the city has invested millions of dollars to reengineer Main Street, redesign the Bo Diddley Plaza and build Depot Park, its day-to-day downtown stewardship might best be described as one of benign neglect.
“We’re looking at this to see how we can engage all the stakeholders in a process to come up with a common idea of what to do about downtown,” says Andrew Telles, UF’s collaborative initiatives director. “We have interesting resources at the university, cultural (institutes), arts in medicine, programs that are of the university but can’t exist without the people of the community.
“What can we bring downtown that will draw more people to the area during the day, late afternoon and evening? What can other stakeholders look to own? People will avoid that area unless there is something to draw them in.”
Downtown has been through cycles of prosperity and neglect, often driven by economic and social forces beyond our control. But if we are half as smart as we think we are in this university community, we ought to be capable of creating the downtown we want and deserve: A thriving, three-dimensional, 24/7, live work and play Heart of Gainesville.