The Deep State at City Hall

Maybe you really can’t fight City Hall. Even if you are the city manager.

Lee Feldman has been Gainesville’s manager for about a year. During his first few months on the job, as he was planning a major reorganization, city employees began to complain that they were being demoted, discriminated against and talked down to by their new boss.

Now, commissioners have been handed a report recommending that Feldman be fired, as he may have retaliated against a city employee who filed a discrimination complaint against him.

A straightforward reading of the report doesn’t exactly prove retaliation. But the law firm hired to investigate contends that Feldman, as the head guy, should be held “to the highest standards” and sacked.

Feldman is a seasoned manager who has worked in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Bay, North Miami and North Miami Beach, apparently without blemish. Still, it may be that his management style is simply too – let’s say, South Florida acerbic – to play well with others in Gainesville’s bureaucratic mosh pit.

On the other hand, we have seen this movie before.

Feldman’s predecessor, Anthony Lyons, ran Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency quite successfully for more than a decade. It was only after he was kicked upstairs – and had also embarked on a staff shake-up – that Lyons began to incur the wrath of senior employees.

Two years ago, after the commission voted to subject his job performance to trial by public hearing, Lyons resigned.

Still, it’s possible that both Lyons and Feldman were bad hires. It happens.

After all, their predecessor, Russ Feldman, was city manager for more than ten years. And he never seemed to make anybody unhappy.

On the other hand, Blackburn never tried to shake the city’s organizational tree to see what might fall out.

Which raises an intriguing question: Is there a Gainesville deep state?

Are city managers who come in as change agents – who seek to disrupt the status quo – doomed to failure in the face of determined resistance from within?

“We can’t fire our way out of a culture problem,” Commissioner Harvey Ward commented during a special meeting Tuesday night. “We tried that two years ago and ended up in similar place.”

Speaking of intriguing questions: Five years have gone by now and we still haven’t answered The Gainesville Question.

Some of you may remember TGQ. How can Gainesville become more a economically competitive city in which to live, work and prosper?

In 2015 the city commission appointed a blue ribbon committee to answer it. And the finished report neatly framed the big challenge: “We will design a city government so that it serves the needs of the people, rather than those of the city government itself.”

Commissioners turned to Lyons to implement The Gainesville Question. And he gave it his best shot.

It’s clear that, for now, Feldman has the support of the commission majority. Whether he can do his job effectively going forward, in the face of what is likely to be an ongoing investigation into his conduct, remains to be seen.

Anyway, The Gainesville Question may be moot by now. Since it was written, commissioners have left office and others elected. New commissioners usually bring new priorities with them.

Which may be the one thing Gainesville’s deep state has going for it. With commissioners and priorities coming and going, it seems quite doable for entrenched employees to simply wait out the change agent of the moment.

So they can get back to city business as usual.

The wall

For most of this year I’ve been cycling around Gainesville and taking photos of murals. Downtown murals. Pleasant Street murals. Grove Street murals. Main Street murals. Murals, murals everywhere.

But up until now, I haven’t really taken on the Grandaddy of all GNV murals. The Wall. Where it all started. Where primitive scribblings met high art met political manifestos met frat boy symbolism met sheer nonsense met artistic anarchy.

And where the remembrance of the student murders is the only permanent presence. And that only because somebody comes and patiently restores it every time some thoughtless spray paint radical covers it up. Bless you for that.

So on Thanksgiving morning I stopped by The Wall. And the sheer artistic anarchy of it gave me pause. This is not your father’s wall.

And so naturally I thought about “The Wall.” How could I not?

Thus with apologies to Pink Floyd, here is the latest apparition of GNV’s ever changing, ever evolving Wall.

Right now it still has a decidedly Halloweenish flavor.

With just a smidgen of In-Your-Face insolence.

Or perhaps it’s just a manifestation of the sheer frustration of young people who are struggling to acquire (or to avoid) an education in this maddening Age Of Covid.

We are an education city after all. But you can tell the frustration is mounting. And the masks are coming off. At least on The Wall.

On the other hand, maybe it’s simply a youthful nostalgia for all of our favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters.

Or not.

I am reminded of the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti of World War II. With perhaps just a bit of, um, (blood)lust mixed in.

Which is not to say that our street artists are totally unaware of the supreme struggles that confront our nation post-Trump.

Walking The wall, which has been covered and recovered and recovered over and over ad infinitum, I thought: If these paint layers could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

But in the final analysis, you have to settle for the stories of the moment. Because tomorrow they will certainly be gone.

Listen, all the world is a canvas. Even the trash cans and the sidewalk in a pinch.

I keep thinking that a lot of this stuff is in code. And if only I could find the Rosetta Stone of graffiti interpretation all would become clear.

On the other hand, do I really want to know what this is all about?

Maybe artistic ignorance really is bliss.

Hey, I knew that if I walked The Wall long enough I would finally catch sight of my old girlfriend.

And her mom.

Welcome to Gainesville, pal! Nothing is as it seems.

Yes, at the end of it all, I did stomp on Trump. After all, he was on the sidewalk and not The Wall.

Didja ever notice?

Random things I noticed on my Thanksgiving morning ride through Gainesville.

Hey! Remember that cute little Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoons? Well he grew up and lives on 34th St. Now.

Can I get an Amen?

Question: Doesn’t it sort of defeat the purpose of public art if you have to put an ugly chain link fence around it to keep the public away?

Good news! I appear to have found the Stairway to Heaven. Bad News. It appears to have been designed by M.C. Escher.

The election’s been over for days, but liberal old Gainesville is still rubbing it in.

Now here’s something you don’t see in Pleasant Street everyday.

There’s nothing sadder to see than the bones of a once-classic downtown restaurant.

And nothing more encouraging to see than the resurrection of an iconic Gainesville building. Thanks, Keith Perry.

Wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels within…..

And, listen, if you are going to dream of a better 2021, where better to do it than the Dreamer’s Garden.

Stream of (un)consciousness

Or what bored bloggers do on a football Saturday night when the home team played hours and hours ago.

I won. I won.

We won! We won!

You lost! You lost!

SEC! SEC!

We won! We won! Da!

We are one! We are one!

We wonder what the hell that was all about!

We won! You are toast!

No, I’m toast! And I won!

I second that emotion! He one! Er, won!

All is being and nothingness! One is won is…..zzzz!

Count your sheep, dog! Wool won!

We won ! It’s right there in black and white!

Remind us again what we won!

I’m tired of winning already!

I’ll drink to that! Hell, I’ll drink to anything at this point!

Wonder what ever happened to these guys? They’re a loser! And they’re not what they appear to be!

If I declare a winner, can I get the hell out of this blog?

There is no way out! And that’s the one-der of it all!

Won-der-ful!

The art of sounding off

Listen, Old Joe never was much of a conversation starter.

Yes, we jawed endlessly over the confederate memorial that sat on the west lawn of the Alachua County administration building. Keep it, some said. Get rid of it others insisted.

But mostly we were talking at one another. Not too each other.

Anyway, that’s history. The county commission has regifted Joe back to the Daughters of the Confederacy.

And soon it will be replaced by a better conversation piece.

Commissioners have given conceptual approval for a new sculpture on Joe’s old spot facing Main Street. Dubbed “The Gainesville Megaphone,” it is intended to give residents a novel platform in which to sound off about…whatever.

“It’s very important for the citizens voices to be heard and for the county to hear them,” says county Chief of Staff Gina Peebles. “This is something we’re hoping the whole county can rally around and embrace.”

Although the precise form of the sculpture has yet to be determined – the city is in the process of issuing a call to artists – the concept seems to come from large wooden megaphones erected in the forests of Estonia. Those sculptures, called Ruup, have been described thusly by the Huffington Post: “Large enough for an onlooker to climb inside, the idyllic carvings look like the remnants of a centuries-old fairy tale; the one bits of remaining evidence that something magical happened between the trees.”

Heidi Stein, who suggested the concept to the county, winning a $1,000 competition in the process, says “I wanted to help heal some of the hurt associated with the past, but also wanted something that everyone can relate to. I love how a megaphone amplifies voices.”

Not that the county is stealing the city’s thunder in the free speech department.

The timeless city-county rivalry being what it is, I think it only fair to point out that Gainesville has already erected half a dozen free speech stumps up and down Main Street between University and Depot avenues.

Just kidding.

Actually those concrete pads aren’t speaker stumps at all. They are remnants of an inspired idea that somehow fell by the wayside.

Gainesville’s Main Street Sculpture Project, launched in 2015, was going to create a sculpture walk that would lend an artistic flair to Gainesville’s main downtown drag.

The idea may have come from DeLand, home of one of Florida’s most attractive and bustling downtowns. That city’s popular sculpture walk boasts an impressive collection of works – each displayed for one year before being replaced.

The lure of DeLand’s art walk is such that artists compete for the privilege of having their works selected.

“People have a craving for this kind of thing,” Nava Ottenberg, a downtown proponent of the project told me five years ago when the Gainesville project kicked off. “And now it’s really happening here.”

Only it didn’t happen here. With one exception the sculpture pods on Main Street remain unused oddities.

The only actual sculpture on display is called Guardian of the Swamp. It is a rusty, forlorn collection of scrap metal that signifies…whatever.

An accompanying plate says it is on temporary display.

It’s been there temporarily for five years.

The guardian stands sentinel outside the old Warehouse restaurant, which was recently revived as a Venezuelan cuisine eatery called Tinker. If I were Tinker I’d ask the city to remove that eyesore. It’s enough to ruin one’s appetite.

Not sure exactly why the Main Street Sculpture Project was abandoned. But just as art imitates life, that sad old swamp thing feels symbolic of city hall’s larger failure to exercise stewardship over Gainesville’s downtown. Anyone who has visited lately knows that downtown is looking quite seedy and unprosperous. And you can’t blame that entirely on the pandemic.

But, hey, the city-county rivalry being what it is maybe Alachua County’s new megaphone will shame Gainesville into reviving its moribund art walk project.

Talk about a conversation starter.

The parking garage gallery

On my post-election ride Wednesday I stopped downtown and took a walking tour of the city parking garage. No, I’m not a exactly a fan of cars, but there are literally dozens of murals scattered amid all of that rolling stock and concrete. It’s certainly worth a look-see.

Fun fact. Women are manatees and men are squids. Who knew?

Faces in the concrete.

And still more faces.

Having traded downtown parking spots for outdoor dining, the city is now offering free parking in the garage.

“The wallpaper is terrible…one of us will have to go.” Reputed to be Oscar Wilde’s last words.

When graffiti is a crime only criminals will have spray paint.

Animal house.

Who you callin’ animals, pal?

Get the message?

When you live with auto exhaust you tend to get a little, um, strange.

Where no man has gone before.

The medium is the message.

If this is Friends, where’s the couch?

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched?

On giving peace a chance.

Words to live by.

In which I get back on my bike and flee the Pod People.

GNV antidepressant

I woke up depressed and listless Wednesday morning. Hardly slept at all. It wasn’t so much the suspense that was killing me as a deepening suspicion that the only thing still uniting us as a nation is our mutual loathing for one another. We seem to have turned our backs on each other.

And so I did what I always do when I’m feeling down. I got on my bike and rode through the heart of Gainesville. Stopping to take photos along the way. Looking to connect with that old, familiar “I love this town” rush.

At first I felt like the Guardian of the Swamp. That old, rusting sculpture on South Main Street. A sad leftover from a city public art experiment gone wrong. It felt like I was looking at the town from behind a gray barrier.

But by the time I got to the Thomas Center I was reminded of the grace and beauty and endurance that seems to define life in this college town. And I began to view the world around me through a different lens. Several different lenses.

And the anxiety began to roll away like heavy drops of water.

By the time I got downtown one of our newest murals reminded me that, yes, there is nearly always something to celebrate…something to drink to…no matter the times.

That life goes on. And that sometimes you just have to hop on the bus and go with it.

By the time I got to Depot Park I was also reminded that all is not simply Republican Red or Democratic Blue. Rather we exist within an infinite universe of shades and colors.

On this crisp autumn morning the colors seem to explode all about me. How dreary everything looked the night before. How bright with anticipation this day brings.

And I remembered what we are all about in our university city. We are a community of ideas, of collaboration and of inquiry. At our best we are capable of envisioning and inventing our own brighter future.

I have no idea how the struggle for America’s soul will end. No one does right now. But we will get through this. And in the meantime, there’s nothing like a bike ride through GNV to help shake off a little electoral depression.

Our last chance

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

So opined William Butler Yeats as we slouched toward Bethlehem.

And as we’ve all been slouching through 2020, I’ve had this nagging feeling that we Americans have been asking the wrong question.

At long last it is gut check time in America.

We’ve been asking: Can America survive?

Survive Trump, the pandemic, the militias, the polarization, the partisanship, the voter suppression, the dirty tricks, the Russian interference, the court packing whatever.

After Tuesday, we need to start asking an entirely different question.

Does America deserve to survive?

I only bring it up because it seems to me that we are long overdue for a period of national introspection. And if we don’t start now we likely never will.

Because things really do feel like they are starting to fall apart. And it’s not altogether certain that the center can hold.

And what happens then? Yeats tells us: “Mere anarchy is loosed…”

Not to be overly dramatic. But let’s be honest about where we are right now in our uniquely American experiment in self-governance.

Listen, just firing Trump – yes, I’m being an optimist here – won’t fix much. The damage to the national psyche that made Trump possible runs deep and wide. It’s been a long time in the festering.

How can it be, a century and a half after we outlawed slavery, that bigotry and racism still burns so hot in our country? It imbues our criminal justice system, our neighborhoods, our schools, our relationships and so many other American institutions.

How can we continue to turn a blind eye toward climate change, while the west burns and the southeast floods and the oceans around us rise?

What does it say about democracy when our political system can be so easily bought and sold by millionaires and billionaires for the benefit of millionaires and billionaires?

Are we so truly gun crazy that we all but cheer on armed militias intent on inciting civil war?

Covid showed us that our “best in the world” health care system is totally unprepared to deal with a crisis on this scale. It’s nice that the President can get world-class care, but what about the rest of us?

For centuries immigrants have strengthened and reinforced America’s greatness. When did they become rapists and thugs to be walled out? And how did we decide that putting kids in concentration camps protects us from “those people”?

And when did Americans begin to so hate and fear fellow Americans who don’t look like them, worship like them or vote like them?

If Trump wins, that unasked question may well and truly be answered in the negative. But even if we do send him packing, that will be the easy part.

Coming to terms with the root causes, conflicts and conundrums that made his election possible in the first place is going to require a lot more collective heavy lifting.

I have this horrible feeling that if we all just vote and then wash our hands of the whole sordid business, the Great American Experiment will be forfeit.

I believe in America.

But I also believe that unless we are willing to come to terms with those things that divide us, feed our prejudices and fire our animosities we must inevitably be forced to admit to ourselves…honestly…brutally…truthfully.

That the center did not hold. And that America did not deserve to survive.

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

The new jaywalking

I’m riding in my car.

I turn on the radio.

And then, before I can even lip-sync “Fire,” there is he is.

Right in my windshield.

Scruffy. Scraggly. Holding a cardboard “God Bless” sign like the world owes him a living.

Why doesn’t he get a job? Why is he standing on the median with his hand out?

Doesn’t he realize that I might accidentally run into him? Even kill him?

And it would be all his fault. Roads are for cars, not beggars.

Yeah, we’ve all felt like that. All of those freeloaders with their hands out at all those Gainesville intersections. Like we’re supposed to feel guilty and shell out our hard-earned shekels.

If only we could make them go away.

Say, here’s a idea…

What if the city commission passed an ordinance making it illegal for anybody outside a motor vehicle to “interact” with somebody inside a motor vehicle?

Forget all of that First Amendment nonsense about the right to beg. This is strictly about public safety.

You know, to protect Mr. Motorist from accidentally killing the beggar in his windshield.

An Oct. 18 Sun editorial says Alachua County has already passed it, and adds: “The city shouldn’t wait any longer to pass a similar ordinance.”

Noting that it has been more than a year since a panhandler was run over and killed on a medium at NW 43rd Street and 16th Blvd, the Sun said “The focus should be on traffic safety and preventing another death.”

Not so fast Gainesville.

Maybe Alachua County’s ordinance hasn’t been challenged…yet. But a similar one in Oklahoma City has. And in August a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional.

Turns out that people have been known to use medians for purposes other than begging – like hawking newspapers or waving protest signs.

“Objectively, medians share fundamental characteristics with public streets, sidewalks and parks, which are quintessential public fora,” the court ruled.

But never mind all that. When you come right down to it the move to criminalize “interactions” with automobiles is just another jaywalking law. And we know how those have worked out.

At the urging of the auto industry we passed a lot of jaywalking laws beginning early in the last century, mostly to protect people in automobiles from being guilt ridden for running down people outside automobiles.

As a recent article in Bloomberg’s CityLab notes, “as city streets became sites of increasing carnage in the early days of America’s auto era — about 200,000 Americans (many of them children) were killed by cars in the 1920s — automakers sought regulations that would shift blame away from drivers.”

Turns out that back then, “jay” was street jargon for “someone stupid or unsophisticated.”

So have jaywalking laws made us all safer?

Not if you consider that just about every year in autoAmerica the number of people who are killed while inside automobiles steadily decreases.

While the number of people killed in accidents while outside autos, primarily pedestrians and cyclists, has gone up and up.

“Despite heavy handed and selective jaywalking enforcement, pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have increased rapidly in the last decade. As two of the top experts on pedestrian safety in the country, we think it is time for cities to consider decriminalizing jaywalking or eliminating the infraction altogether.”

This from Angie Schmitt and Charles K. Brown, authors of the above mentioned CityLab article.

It turns out that jaywalking laws tend to be used selectively by police officers against people of color.

For instance, a newspaper investigation in nearby Jacksonville revealed that people of color were “three times as likely to be stopped and cited for jaywalking as white people. Those living in the poorest neighborhoods were six times as likely. Black men and boys were the most frequent targets.”

Other than keeping black men, um, in line, arguably the most useful thing about jaywalking laws are that they make the rest of us feel less guilty when somebody is run over by a car.

Too bad. If they weren’t so lazy, so distracted, so stupid (chose one) they might have lived.

And then there is this: Blaming the victims for getting themselves killed in our public streets glosses over the fundamental reason that people keep getting killed in our public streets.

To wit: So many of our roads are over-engineered for the express intent of allowing motorists to get where they want to go as fast as possible that they tend to be death traps for anyone who has not cocooned themselves inside a couple tons of steel.

So, yeah, Gainesville, let’s go ahead and pile on still one more jaywalking crime, this one to get panhandlers out of our sight and out of our minds – assuming of course that some judge doesn’t toss it out. But no one should make the mistake of believing that it will make our streets any safer.

While the death of a single panhandler in Gainesville last year garnered a lot of attention, we tend to lose 7 to 10 pedestrians and cyclists a year in this town. Indeed, in just one day last January, three pedestrians were run over and killed in and around Gainesville.

On the same day. Talk about improperly “interacting” with automobiles.

You want to stop killing people in the streets? Then change our street designs so they are less permissive toward heavy-footed drivers and more forgiving to people who just want to cross the street and get home alive.

As for the panhandlers. If you can’t stand the sight of them don’t give them any money.

But don’t run them down either.

Our dumbest stroad

This is the NW 8th Avenue Stroad, between NW 6th Street and Main. It is quite possibly the dumbest Stroad in Gainesville.

Why dumb? Because the sole ‘utility’ of a stroad is to move large numbers of cars as fast as possible through the urban landscape.

And this stroad certainly does that…for precisely six blocks. West of 6th Street 8th turns into a traffic-calmed two-land road. East of Main Street ditto.

So what do we as a community give up as the price of moving a lot of cars fast for just six blocks?

This stretch of 8th Avenue is known primarily for its empty buildings and desolate landscapes.

Separated by just a handful of businesses.

And half a dozen or so homes in various states of repair.

And the absence of street life in any meaningful sense of the phrase.

Which is hardly surprising. A sterile car corridor offers virtually no reason for people to want to congregate there. This ‘destination’ is no destination at all.

It is, simply, hostile territory to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Preferably in a car.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This stroad can be redesigned into a “Complete Street” easily and relatively cheaply.

But, really, why bother? Why not just leave it alone.

Well, for one thing, this stroad cuts like an asphalt knife between two vital neighborhoods. To the north is Grove Street, which is shaping up as a hotbed of local entrepreneurship.

And to the south is Pleasant Street, one of Gainesville’s traditional African-American neighborhoods which is in the process of revitalizing itself.

Converting the 8th Ave. Stroad from a non-place to a place would bring these two neighborhoods together and help create a new epicenter for human-centered economic opportunity in Gainesville’s urban core.

Instead of this.

We could chose something like this.

Or this.

Slowing down cars, or ‘calming traffic’ is key to unlocking the economic potential of this long overlooked corridor.

We know how to do it. And the benefits are undeniable.

We can change the 8th Avenue paradigm.

Whatever its original intent, the 8th Avenue Stroad is a failed experiment in both urban mobility and urban renewal.

Dare to imagine a better future in place of the 8th Avenue Stroad.