Gainesville rocks

I originally wrote this piece last yer for FORUM magazine. But with Tom Petty Weekend in full swing I thought it worth rerunning to remind folks about one of Gainesville’s coolest claims to fame. This town rocks!

On a cooling autumn weekend, while the Gators had a bye, Gainesville threw a huge party for its favorite son.

A city park where the Tom Petty played as a boy was renamed in his honor. Friends, family, fellow musicians and fans – lots of fans – showed up for two days of live music at Depot Park. And more of the same at nearby Heartwood Soundstage, a state-of-the-art concert venue and longtime studio where Petty recorded some of his earlier works.

This for Gainesville’s second Petty tribute since the rock star’s death in October, 2017.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Bob McPeek, Heartwood co-owner who has been part of Gainesville’s music scene for 45 years. “We had music inside and music outside. We had people from as far away as Hong Kong, Scotland and Canada.”

Jessica Hurov, tourism director for Visit Gainesville, said the national coverage of the Tom Petty Festival amounted to $1.7 million worth of promotional advertising for the city.

“That’s not a bad return on investment” for the $20,000 her bureau spent as a Petty Festival sponsor.

Not bad indeed. Still, the activity generated by Gainesville’s tribute to its own rock legend was relatively constrained compared to the fuselage of screaming guitars that would jolt the town on the very next weekend.

For the 17th annual Fest.

Three hundred bands. Thousands of punk rock enthusiasts from around the world.

For three days Fest fanatics strolled through the streets of downtown Gainesville. Stopping at Looseys and Rockys Piano Bar, at Durty Nelly’s and the Hardback. Moving from Boca Fiesta to the Palamino to Depot Park to Bo Diddley Plaza (named for another famous, albeit adopted son).

To listen to Lagwagon, The Get Up Kids, Cursive, The Menzingers, Audio Karate and Sarchasm – to name a just a few of the scores of Fest punker bands.

Eating at local restaurants. Filling up hotel rooms.

As it turns out, Gainesville is not all about the football.

“We have a music story to tell,” Hurov said. “We have a huge market opportunity to grow band tourism with signature events that we can grow year after year.”

This, after all, is the college town whose music legacy has spawned at least two books: Marty Jourard’s “Music Everywhere: The Rock And Roll Roots Of A Southern Town,” and Matt Walker’s “Gainesville Punk.”

A town that nurtured no fewer than nine Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductees: Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Stephen Stills, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon…and of course Tom Petty and Bo Diddley.

Minnie Ripperton lived here. Petty’s Heartbreakers, the Dixie Desperados, Sister Hazel, Less Than Jake and countless other bands had their genesis here.

“We used to joke that there must be something in the water,” Mike Boulware, a longtime Gainesville musician and one of the organizers of a campaign to purchase the old Masonic Temple on Main Street and convert it into a Gainesville music museum.

“It will not be just a rock museum,” Jeff Goldstein, a former Gainesville-area concert promoter who launched the campaign. “It will include every type of music that has been part of Gainesville’s history…opera, country and western, rock.”

If that effort is successful, the museum would be within walking distance of the just-recently restored Cotton Club, the “Chit’lin Circuit” era night spot where B.B. King, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Brook Benton, James Brown and countless other black entertainers played back in the days when white venues were mostly off limits.

As a lively city of the arts, Gainesville has murals – its 352 Walls project is bringing in street artists in from all over the world. It has a world class art museum in UF’s Harn. The newly opened Cade showcases the art of science. Its reservoir of artistic talent is wide and deep.

But what distinguishes Gainesville’s arts scene from other Florida cities is a music legacy that promises to be increasingly vital to the local economy as signature events like the Petty Festival and Fest attract more and more visitors.

“For a long time this was kind of the Bermuda Triangle of band promotion,” Boulware said. “That’s changed. Now Gainesville is becoming a destination.”

And it’s not just attracting visitors. Gainesville’s music scene is also key to attracting and retaining the city’s youthful high-tech workforce.

“Music has become really important to the creative economy,” said Richard Florida, author of the “Rise Of The Creative Class.”

Florida ranks cities according to their ability to attract creative workers – artists, scientists, technicians, start-up entrepreneurs and so on. Gainesville ranks 13th in the nation by Florida’s reckoning.

“Without question Gainesville is Florida’s creative economy leader, far out in front of the major Florida metros,” Florida said. “It is playing in the same league as Boston, San Francisco and D.C. And music has been under-appreciated for its importance to the creative economy.”

But heck, Tom Petty could have told him that.

“Homegrown in the headphone,” Petty’s song “Gainesville” begins.

“Gainesville was a big town.”

It’s official (Florida)

If you know anything about Florida you know that we shamelessly borrow from elsewhere to sort of fill in our blanks.

Snowbirds, iguanas and Burmese pythons to name just a few of our, um, exotics.

So it should surprise no one that Florida’s official state pie isn’t a product of Florida produce at all.

But can the celebrated Key Lime Pie really be Florida if it comes with “ping-pong ball sized limes from Mexico?”

This conundrum posed by Mark Lane, who has forgotten more about all things Florida than most of us will ever know.

Turns out necessity is the mother of pies as well as invention. Our indigenous key limes having been long blown away by hurricanes.

But never mind that. What’s important is that the Key Lime Pie (aka “the pink flamingos of Florida food”) stomped both pecan and sweet potato to sit atop Florida’s confectionary food pyramid.

I didn’t know all this until I read Lane’s new book. “Roaring Reptiles, Bountiful Citrus And Neon Pies: An unofficial guide to Florida’s official symbols.” (University Press of Florida).

Mark is an old pal. A long time columnist for the Daytona Beach News Journal he looks – and rather writes – like a Mark Twain Florida clone. That’s a complement, people.

But seriously, does the world need a book about our state song (“Old Folks At Home”), bird (mocking), play (“The Cross And The Sword”), tree (Sabal Palm) soil (Myakka fine sand) and whatnot?

And, really, don’t our elected legislators have better things to do than designate Glenn Glitter our official litter control mascot?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But state-blessed symbolism isn’t just symbolic of idle political hands doing the marketers’ work. “These totems and mascots are our attempts to pin down who we are, to make visible previously vague feelings of common identity,” Lane posits.

Plus, there are some really quirky stories attached to the branding of all things officially Florida.

After all, who would even remember State Sen. Joseph Johnson, of Brooksville, if his death in 2009 hadn’t reminded us that he was “the father of the Sunshine State license plate”?

And remember when a disgruntled House Democrat tried to replace the alligator with party-switching turncoat Jim Smith as official state reptile?

Oh, and while Destin Republican Charlie Clary failed to make the Eocene Heart Urchin Florida’s official fossil, he did manage to get a state law named after his beloved dog Dixie Cup.

But wait, what was so objectionable about fossilized urchin carcasses anyway? Turns out that to some nervous pols, they evoked an uncomfortable association with climate change, sea level rise,”mass extinction, evolution and worse.”

And there’s this to say about Lane’s book. It’s not all key lime froth and trivia. A hard-bitten newsman, he isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions.

Like: “If the manatee is truly our state spirit-animal, why is everybody okay with letting boats run over them all the time?”

And does Florida need an official play “about a state-sponsored military expedition that brought European religious wars to the New World”?

And “How did this happen?” This in reference to a state song that contains the lyrics “Oh darkies how my heart grows weary.”

And why are Confederate Memorial Day and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis still official Florida holidays? (Think “white nationalists with bad haircuts.”)

Good questions all, Mark.

Listen, if Florida ever needs an official Mark Twain clone, I’ve got just the guy.

Opening doors

Jackson Sasser didn’t need to bone up on the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui to understand the importance of putting the best face on a new building.

By the time it’s finished, Santa Fe College’s Downtown Blount Center will cost as much as $38 million. And it will be a transformational project in the truest sense of the word.

Located midway between downtown and the University of Florida – at University and 6th Street – the Blount Center will fill in educational, vocational, and opportunity gaps that Gainesville sorely needs and that UF, for all of its resources, cannot address.

Feng Shui emphasizes the “invisible energy forces” in architecture necessary to build harmony. And at its ground breaking ceremony, Sasser pointed out that the Blount Center, for all its imposing grandeur, will not front on University Avenue as might be expected.

Instead “it will open onto our 5th Avenue and Pleasant Street neighborhoods,” he said. “Our partners.”

The building’s positioning is not happenstance. It comes by way of reinforcement, and reassurance.

Santa Fe Community College opened its downtown center, in the old Atlantic Coast Railroad Station on 6th Street, in 1990. The college soon began to acquire property and expand with a rapidity that unsettled some long time businesses and residents.

“When we got here we were often at odds with our neighbors,” Sasser acknowledged. Over the years, however, “they have become our best” supporters.

He wouldn’t come right out and say it, but Sasser himself deserves much of the credit for the college’s Feng Shui-like transformation on 6th Street.

He was not president when the train station was converted into classrooms. But Sasser is the chief architect of Santa Fe’s East Gainesville Project – a concerted effort to reach into Gainesville’s historic African-American neighborhoods and provide whatever support, reinforcement and services the college could render to residents who have been too long neglected.

Now on the edge of retirement, Sasser argues that maintaining and reinforcing the college’s east Gainesville outreach is more important than ever.

“The inequities in our area are immoral,” he told me last fall, at the beginning of the new academic year. He cited the “Understanding Racial Equality in Alachua County” study finding that 45 percent of African American children in this county still live in poverty, and that black unemployment is double that of whites.

“We need to keep our North Star very clear in front of us, this idea that everyone can learn. We need to do everything Santa Fe College, with its resources, can do to address what I think is an immoral position…”

When it is completed the Blount Center – with its emphasis on business programs and expanded incubator operations” – will clearly boost downtown’s economic and redevelopment prospects. “We are part of the downtown renaissance,” Sasser says.

But Sasser insists that the center’s core mission – its reason for being – will be to expand the college’s East Gainesville outreach. It will be a “full service” campus, offering education, vocational training, counseling, financial aid, career placement and more, to those who most need it.

It is all about “opening doors,” he said.

Sasser will shortly be stepping down, making way for Paul Broadie, Santa Fe’s fifth president – and it’s first African-American leader.

Broadie has promised to focus on “workforce development and to address the needs of the underserved.” To close “equity gaps” and provide “opportunities so everyone is successful.”

In that regard he will find that Sasser has laid down a proper foundation upon which to build.

In true Feng Shui fashion.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.)

To the streets

And now we have rainbows at our feet in downtown Gainesville.

But, really, who says art is just for walls? I found this great Andy Warhol quote in Chicago. It was actually stenciled on the street.

My little college town is a city that revels in public art. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Listen, if we can have dragons on our walls and wild roosters on our sidewalks, why not rainbows under our feet? Maybe they’ll help put a spring in our step.

The three rainbow crosswalks on 1st Street were authorized by the City to celebrate National Coming Out day. Because we’re that kind of town.

And by happy coincidence, our rainbows serve double duty. Art is an attention grabber. And the colorful crosswalks will hopefully remind drivers to slow down, take in the view and maybe enjoy Gainesville’s carefree, colorful ambiance.

And here’s the thing. Gainesville has blossomed into a city of murals thanks to the city’s 352Walls Urban Art Project.

And having come this far, why waste a perfectly good street when you aspire to be a complete City Of The Arts?

So now comes phase 2. Art In The Crosswalks.

And it’s not like we’re inventing the wheel or anything. Cities across the country, and around the world, are discovering the awesome potential of street art.

It helps keep urban life interesting. Engaging. Vital.

And it reminds motorists to pay attention.

To slow down and think about what lies ahead.

And maybe give the pedestrian a break.

And so we are taking it to the streets here in Gainesville.

Because, like the fella said, art is what you can get away with. And we’re just getting started.

When he’s right…

This time I’m with Trump.

No, seriously.

This time I think he’s on to something.

I also want our troops out of Syria

And out of Saudi Arabia and out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Oman and (list simply too long to continue)…..

Let the oil companies hire their own army for a change.

Hey, remember that time Iraq and Iran attacked America on our own soil?

Me either.

But now we’ve got Iran surrounded.

And we broke Iraq. So now we own it.

And we’ve certainly, um, taken care of Saudi Arabia.

I’m just tired of keeping the world’s peace. It’s exhausting. And expensive.

Who asked us anyway?

Oh yeah, I forgot.

What we’re fighting for.

Still, maybe we ought to sell the world fewer guns and more butter for a while.

Hey, remember that time Turkey sent troops to destabilize Venezuela.

Me either.

How about we let, oh I dunno, Norway defend the world for a while.

While we take care of some other pressing matters at home.

Before things start to implode on us.

Personally, I don’t want to study war no more

Because frankly, we’re already too damned good at it.

Complete 13th Street

Gainesville-UF strategic partnership priority: Complete 13th Street.

Yes, I know, 13th Street already looks finished. It cuts straight through town, north-to-south, along U.S. 441.

But that doesn’t make it a “complete street.”

Complete streets “are for everyone,” argues the urban planning group Smart Growth America. They are “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

If you think that’s already mission accomplished on 13th, just try navigating a wheel chair on the miserable excuse for a sidewalk between NW 3rd place and NW 4th lane…not to mention that stretch where the sidewalk simply vanishes just north of Museum Road.

Mostly 13th Street is a traffic funnel. Engineered to near interstate highway standards its wide multiple lanes facilitate the fast movement of cars and trucks at the expense of public safety. It is no coincidence that some of Gainesville’s most dangerous intersections – at Williston and Archer roads and University Avenue, to name three – are on 13th.

It is especially egregious that Gainesville’s arguably most bike-ped hostile corridor is the stretch of 13th that defines UF’s eastern border – UF harboring the city’s single largest concentration of walkers, cyclists, bus riders and scooterists.

And UF strategic plan envisions a campus that is even less car dependent than it is now. That includes making its northeast quadrant car free and running shuttles so commuters can leave their cars on the city’s outskirts.

“I’m dismayed that we have to spend the money we do on parking garages,” UF CEO Charlie Lane mused recently. “In 20 years we may be asking ‘what in the world were we thinking?'”

It’s time to ask that question right now in regard to 13th street. And if there is a single quality of life improvement project that should unite city and campus in mutual interest it is turning the length of 13th into a complete street and all that the term implies.

We know how to do it. Narrower traffic lanes, on-street bicycle lanes, better sidewalks and other “traffic calming” design standards will slow cars, save lives and, not coincidently, foster a more business friendly environment along the length of Gainesville’s transportation spine.

Reinventing 13th Street by design is a perfect project on which to expand and capitalize upon the nascent partnership between the city, UF’s Transportation Institute and the state. There’s more to the urban mobility revolution than autonomous shuttles.

And reimagining 13th starts now. On October 15th the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization will sponsor is a public workshop to solicit suggestions about how to make 13th “a safe and efficient corridor for all modes of travel.” Transforming 13th is second on the MTPO’s list of priority projects. The workshop will be held at UF’s Innovation Hub, at 747 SW 2nd Ave., from 6 to 8 p.m.

Ultimately, any MTPO recommendations need state Department of Transportation approval. But in recent years even the historically car-centric FDOT has been warming to the notion of complete streets for the sake of public safety.

“Creating Complete Streets means transportation agencies must change their approach to community roads,” says Smart Growth America, “This means that every transportation project will make the street network better and safer for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists—making your town a better place to live.”

It’s long past time to make completing 13th Street a priority on the town-gown list of things to do.

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

The best of times

I love game day Saturdays in my little college town.

When we let the Big Gator growl.

A win is always best. But The Swamp rocks either way.

Hey, where else can you get food and a lawyer at the same tent?

And don’t get me started on the, um, libations.

And you want to talk people watching. Watch this…

Need to drum up a little enthusiasm? The drum will come to you.

Not to mention the drummers.

And the flag tossers.

Get your photo taken with the big reptile.

Or the Bronze Age heroes.

Or the cardboard cutout ball coach.

Maybe catch up with icons of football glory past.

Fed up? There’s a video for that.

Prophets and pundits? We got ’em.

Here tailgating is an art form.

And spend a little money why don’t you. Capitalism isn’t that weird.

Climb the spiral stairway to gridiron heaven.

Make it a party.

See and be seen.

University Avenue is closed to cars and open to carbon-based life forms for a change.

And parking is a cut throat competition.

Walk the Walk of champions.

See the cops ride in sync.

And who knows. On a clear evening you might even spy the Great Gator In The Sky.

We won’t back down.

I love this town.

And the next Saturday is gonna be epic.