Just don’t blame us….

Thank goodness for the Florida Department of Transportation.

If it didn’t exist, Gainesville would have to invent it.

Because whatever other other function FDOT may perform it is the perfect foil for locals looking to avoid accountability.

So, yes, there has been another fatality on University Avenue. Yet another University of Florida student has been run down and killed.

It’s happened before. It will happen again.

And every time it does happen, we get the same song and dance.

What a tragedy. Thoughts and prayers to the victim and family. Somebody should do something…

But…FDOT.

Because University Avenue is a state highway. So there’s nothing we locals can do about it.

Same old song, just different victims. I heard it 30 years ago. I’m hearing it still.

It’s the state that has blood on its hands. Not us.

It was bunk then. It is bunk now.

Not to put too fine a point on it.

Here’s why people keep getting killed on University Avenue.

Cars move too fast through the heart of this university city. And they move too fast because University Avenue, with its four wide, straight traffic lanes, was expressly designed to empower cars to move quickly.

There is a solution: Make cars move more slowly. By design. It’s called traffic calming.

“If University had two traffic lanes with buffered bike lanes, cars would move a lot slower and it would be a lot safer. The only way it’s going to change is to reduce the speed of the cars.”

This from a City of Gainesville staffer.

Who asked not to be identified.

Because apparently the only way to tell the truth about University Avenue is under cover of anonymity.

So 19-year-old coed Sophia Lambert died Saturday night on University Avenue. And four other UF students were injured.

Because FDOT.

And 18-year-old junior Margaret Paxton was killed on University Avenue in December.

Because FDOT.

And 21-year-old senior Denise Griffiths was killed on University Avenue last January.

Because….

Either FDOT is the most callous bureaucracy in the history of human civilization.

Or it is a convenient excuse to do nothing.

So what to do? I’m glad you asked.

First the University of Florida – ground zero in all of Gainesville for attracting large volumes of both foot-car-traffic – needs to decide that it has lost too many students to fast-moving cars on University Avenue.

And the City of Gainesville needs to resolve that its “signature” street must be made more pedestrian-and-business friendly.

Then, building upon its strategic partnership, the University of Florida and the City of Gainesville need to go, hand and hand, to Tallahassee and say: Give us responsibility for University Avenue.

Then, pooling its collective expertise and resources, these two local partners can traffic calm University Avenue and make it safer.

It’s been done before. The city accepted responsibility for Main Street – also a state highway – and it is now a much safer, traffic calmed corridor…at least between 8th and 16th avenues.

I have been told (sorry but you can’t quote me) that FDOT likes to give up roads to cities. Because it relieves the state of responsibility. FDOT has tens of thousands of miles of roads to take care of. They won’t miss University Avenue.

And don’t tell me we can’t afford to accept responsibility for University Avenue.

Tell that to the families of its victims.

In any case, we can turn University Avenue into a “complete street” relatively cheaply. Mostly it would involve the application of paint and other tactical urbanism techniques…at least in the short run, with longer term investments to follow.

The inevitable result would be increased public safety and a more people-friendly street life that would give rise to countless new business opportunities up and down University.

Or we can continue to say “don’t blame us…FDOT.”

That’s certainly worked out well so far.

Another looking glass

It has been many Covid months since last I visited the Harn…one of GNV’s truly magical places.

I finally returned to see Dreaming Of Alice, a wonderful exhibit featuring otherworldly illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s classic “Through the Looking Glass.”

And as things often do, one exhibit led to another. Until I found myself strolling through a hallway of light and shadows…and mystery.

A hallway of infinite possibilities.

Which led me to a place where the mind tends to focus on past glories.

And ancient puzzles.

And sobering second thoughts about one’s rightful place in the world.

Alice has left the building now. But wandering through the Harn I came upon yet another looking glass into an enchanted world. And when viewed through a sufficiently colorful and imaginative mind’s eye, it is revealed to be wondrous indeed.

“Life, what is it but a dream?” Through The Looking Glass

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

“What does it matter where my body happens to be? My mind goes on working all the same.”

I only wish I had such eyes.”

It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know.”

If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”

She set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill.”

It seems very pretty but it’s rather hard to understand!”

“So I wasn’t dreaming, after all, unless – unless we’re all part of the same dream.”

We must never forget

Rioters, some dressed in military fatigues, scaled the historic walls of the Capitol, piercing the very heart of American democracy. Insurrectionists shouted, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” A gallows with a noose was erected on the Mall in front of the Capitol. USA Today

Never forget that the government of the United States, in service to Richard Nixon, tried to send Scott Camil and the rest of the Gainesville 8 to prison for conspiring to violently disrupt the Republican National Convention.

Camil and his confederates did nothing of the sort. They were just convenient scapegoats for scheming politicians looking to divert public attention away from their own bloody failures.

Never forget that it took a Gainesville jury of their peers – true and faithful Americans – almost no time at all to decide that the United States Government was trying to railroad these guys for the real “crime” they had committed – that of opposing the Vietnam war.

Never forget that, after the United States government failed to convict, an agent of the United States Government shot Scott Camil in the back – a botched assassination attempt disguised as a drug bust.

If all of this sounds like so much ancient history it is not. It is as relevant as today’s headlines.

The Gainesville 8 did not storm and occupy the U.S. Capitol building. A mob of “patriots” egged on by the President of The United States did that bloody deed.

The Gainesville 8 did not bludgeon a police officer, smash windows, terrorize members of Congress, steal souvenirs and trash The People’s House. Again, it was the Army of Trump, allegedly attempting to “stop the steal,” that did those foul deeds.

So what has the Gainesville 8 to do with last week’s riotous assault on Congress? Simply this.

Before the dust had even settled, duplicitous politicians were already blaming the riot on…antifa. Because it even after all these years it still suits the Republican narrative that liberals, not true patriots, must be the real terrorists among us.

Never forget that the Gainesville 8 was the antifa of its time. Convenient scapegoats to divert public attention from the fact that Richard Nixon’s prosecution of an unjust war was going horribly off the rails.

Perhaps this time the United States Government will prosecute those who were actually responsible for the death and the destruction and the chaos that descended upon the United States Capitol.

Perhaps the United States Government will even bring itself to prosecute the Anarchist In Chief for doing what the Gainesville 8 never did – conspire to overthrow the United States Government.

Perhaps there will be justice this time. Because justice remains an American ideal if not always a reality.

Our deadly streets

University Avenue

It must be a new year because we’re wringing our hands, again, over people getting run down in the streets of Gainesville.

“This is an ongoing and serious condition that has proven to be difficult to address,” Mayor Lauren Poe opined after three pedestrians were killed in the course of two weeks.

We heard pretty much the same kind of talk around this time last year, after four pedestrians and cyclists were killed within the space of just a few days in January.

At the onset of 2020 the Sun reported that seven pedestrians had been killed in each of the previous two years – a dramatic jump from 2015, when just three died.

And if the most recent street casualty rate seems odd – considering that we’re still coming out of a Covid year when, presumably, more people were working at home and fewer were driving – it shouldn’t.

University Avenue

What we saw across the country in 2020 is that when there are fewer drivers on the road, those who are still motoring tend to drive faster and with less care.

Fewer cars on urban streets engineered to highway specifications turn out to be a lethal combination.

“Traffic congestion has a calming effect on traffic,” observes Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns. “With the virus-induced drop in traffic volume, what is being revealed is the incredible level of over-engineering that occurs on nearly all of our streets.”

That is nowhere more evident than on University Avenue. UF students are regularly run down on Gainesville’s “signature” street precisely because it is “over-engineered” to facilitate rapid traffic movement rather than public safety.

And that is the “difficult to address” problem facing commissioners: People drive too fast through Gainesville’s urban environment, with predictable consequences.

And they are driving too fast by design.

NW 8th Avenue by GPD

So now commissioners are talking about maybe beefing up Gainesville’s jaywalking laws. That will have no practical impact on public safety, but would at least give the impression that the city is still working on a Vision Zero plan to eliminate road deaths…some day.

Contrast this to what another university city did in 2020 to advance its Vision Zero goals.

Among other things Austin, Texas:

• Lowered speed limits on 850 miles of city streets.

• Added more than 15 miles of new or improved bike lanes, including nearly 8 miles of protected bike lanes (Gainesville has no protected bike lanes).

• Made intersection improvements that resulted in a 30 percent reduction in crashes.

• Created a “Vision Zero Viewer” an online tool that constantly tracks traffic crash data.

“People will look back at the year 2020 decades from now and will note it as the year transportation in Austin fundamentally changed,” Austin Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca told reporters. “This pandemic showed us what can happen when we manage our transportation demand and get people out of peak commutes.”

But, yeah, we should definitely crack down on jaywalking here in Gainesville.

13th Street

On the other hand, if we want to stop killing people in the streets, than we really need to get to work changing our street designs so they are less forgiving of heavy-footed drivers and more protective of people who just want to cross the street and get home alive.

“The time to act is now,” Strong Towns’ Mahron urges American cities. “It took us decades to build such expansive networks of dangerous and costly streets. It’s going to take us time to unwind this mess.”

The clock’s running, Gainesville.

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

Reimagining GNV

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to question priorities.

So if we want to reimagine Gainesville as a more resilient, self-sufficient and – yes – independent city, then how better than to start the conversation in broad terms by framing some relevant questions?

For instance, and in no particular order:

Can GNV become a 15-minute city?

How can GNV achieve food security?

How can we make GNV a more equitable city?

Can we save lives, and enhance our economic vitality at the same time, by making traffic calming by design a GNV norm?

How can we make affordable housing a GNV reality?

How can GNV become a more resilient city?

How can GNV build community?

What is Gainesville’s GNV sense of place? And how can we enhance, protect and nurture what defines our city?

How can GNV become a more self-sufficient city?

What might a GNV Green New Deal look like?

If that sounds like an ambitious list of what-ifs, then so be it. A city’s reach should exceed its grasp or what is incorporation for?

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

Just in case we were all thinking.

That the earth’s going to bounce back in 2021.

That everything’s going to be coming up moonlight and lollipops.

That the worst is well and truly behind us.

That this will be, finally, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

That you know who has been consigned to you know where.

That all that remains is to face the music and dance.

That one day we will all look back on this year as the Dark Ages before the Enlightenment.

I feel it only fair to caution you.

That life is full of surprises.

So hang in there people. Take a deep breath.

And remember.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Dorothy Parker was a prophet.

Hutch then and now

The many faces of Hutch

Hutch runs an Airbnb for indigenous fish.

The water in the tank is a bit murky, it comes from his well and is supplemented with liberal doses from nearby streams and wetlands “for the microorganisms.” And it is thick with vegetation, also harvested locally.

And his guests?

He’s got some crawdads. And tiny glass shrimp. A hog choker, a Madtom and who knows what else in there.

“I dip them out of local water bodies and then take them home for a while,” says Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, late of the Alachua County Commission and these days still hiding out from Covid in his house tucked away deep in Flamingo Hammock. “The fish stay for a month and then I take them back to where they came from. It’s the ethical way to keep fish.”

And, before you ask, yes, he’s also got lots of plastic flamingos – on shelves and window sills and everywhere – because nobody ever accused Hutch of having a dry sense of humor.

Virtual county commission meeting

If your last glimpse of Hutchinson was back in the day when the commission was still hosting face-to-face meetings, you probably wouldn’t recognize him now. Back then he was clean shaven, closed cropped and likely sporting a tie. Now he looks like nothing so much as some sort of cracker Santa – white bearded, mustached, hair near to touching his shoulders.

“I call it my Covid mullet,” he grins. “I’m not getting it cut until I get a vaccine.”

And, listen, don’t worry about Hutch running out of things to do with his 12-years of public office finally behind him. He’s adding another room to his house for a billiard parlor. “My intent is to hustle all my friends and have half dozen jars on wall for my favorite charities. Nobody plays for free.”

“On November 17th, when I leave office at noon, my new business card will read: ‘Pool hustler for charities; deep woods gravedigger; on-call raconteur.’”

Naturally, he will continue his role as “Senior Executive Gravedigger” at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. The “green” graveyard was his brain child after all, and somebody’s got to man the shovel. But he says he will resign from most of the numerous boards and committees that have taken up so much of his “free time” these many years.

One foot out the commission door

Because, among other things, that pontoon boat sitting in the shed out back is begging to be launched on Newnans Lake again.

“I grew up on the lake,” says the 68-year old Gainesville native. “I learned about critters and even more about ecosystems on Newnans.”

Meanwhile, his rock group of some 30 years, Weeds of Eden, continues to practice in the “Flamingo Band Cave,” in anticipating of at last being able to do live gigs again. “We practice in separate corners, stay masked, and use different entrances.”

Hutchinson first got himself elected to the commission in 1998, after which he and fellow first termer Dave Newport proceeded to drag Alachua County – practically kicking and screaming – into a new era of growth management and land use planning. “Over the decades, the county commission had been laissez faire about growth, do whatever you want to do, while the city’s reputation was ‘shut it all down.’

“The grand bargain we made was that it was going to be easier to build in the city but the county had to put in some sort of rational scheme for developing in the suburbs.”

Hutch changes his identity and then turns over the job to Anna Prizzia

Randy Reid, former county manager recalls “I think he joined the commission at unique time when growth was a paramount issue. Hutch to me has a huge legacy. He took seriously the comprehensive planning process, and he was pretty pragmatic about getting things implemented right.”

And all of that might have worked out pretty well – if the county hadn’t already approved thousands of exurban lots for development, if the Legislature hadn’t ended up gutting the state’s growth management laws and…well, if Hutch and Newport hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped four years later in favor of more pro-growth candidates.

Which is not to say that growth management was a total wash for his involvement. “A big part of the plan was establishing a urban defining greenbelt…an emerald necklace” around Gainesville, he recalls. “I tried to get the county to establish a small fund for land conservation, maybe half a million or so, and got nowhere.

“So I decided that the only way we were going to accomplish anything was with a public initiative.”

It is not for nothing that Pegeen Hanrahan, former Gainesville mayor and a director of the Trust For Public Land, calls Hutchinson the father of land conservation in Alachua County.

Having previously founded and directed Alachua Conservation Trust – which has since brought tens of thousands of acres into protected status – Hutchinson proceeded to launch Alachua County Forever. Approved by voters in 2000, that general bond obligation would ultimately generate more than $43 million and bring more than 20,000 acres of land worth more than $84 million into public ownership.

“He is certainly the person in Alachua County most responsible for protecting natural land,” said Hanrahan, who would later team up with Hutch and other conservationists to win voter approval, and then reauthorization, for the Wild Places and Public Spaces sales tax initiative.

“He’s just a person who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no’,” she says. “He’s extremely energetic he sets his mind to getting something done, and he certainly throws his whole energy behind it.”

Hutchinson would not return to the commission for a decade. Elected again in 2012, he would continue his environmental and conservation activism, but two other issues would engage his attention as well.

“When I came back we were killing more than 4,000 animals a year, 25 animals a day, just for population control,” he recalls. “We had to ask a county employee to figure out how to dispose of all those bodies – incineration, rendering whatever – it was incredibly depressing.”

At the time, Maddie’s Fund, an organization dedicated to establishing “no kill” shelters, was putting up millions of dollars for pilot programs around the nation. “They picked half a dozen counties to experiment with and we were one of them. They gave us 10 years of funding and we are essentially the first no-kill community in the southeast.”

Maddie’s Fund required a previously unheard of degree of cooperation between the county, animal welfare groups, veterinarians and other stakeholders. “Getting a low cost spay and neuter facility was key and that was tough because at first a lot of veterinarians resisted,” he said. “We created a huge foster pet care network, and Operation Catnip,” which traps, neuters and returns feral cats to the wild.

Who is that masked man?

“You have to be incredibly cleaver to catch them,” he said. “And we have almost 100 people working this assembly line to neuter up to 200 cats a day.”

But Hutch’s greatest legacy in his final years on the commission was arguably the work he has done to improve metal health services in the county and the criminal justice system.

He says Alachua County became the first local government in the nation to provide “mental health first aid” to all its employees. “It’s an eight-hour course that teaches what to say and do when you are with a person experiencing a mental health crisis – it keeps both them and you safe. The curriculum was originally developed in Australia, where it was widely taught. Locally, we were early adopters.

“It also saves lives by reducing stigma and by featuring local mental health resources, both of which increase the likelihood that a person will seek help.”

He also co-founded Gainesville Peer Respite, a mental health support group run entirely by people who have themselves experienced mental illness. The peers “provide support for those in mental health crisis, including a comfortable house where up to five guests can stay for up to a week.” And he has worked with the courts and law enforcement to divert more offenders with substance abuse or mental health problems away from incarceration and into treatment programs.

“He was the first commissioner to really give voice to the mental health in our community,” says Maggie Labarta, former director of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. “The system is pretty fragmented in this community and Hutch was very interested in mapping it out so he could see how it all worked. He understood how difficult it was for someone in distress to navigate the system.”

Speaking of living under distress, Hutchinson spent the last several months of his term as commission chair, and found himself dealing on a daily basis with the just emerging Covid crisis.

“I was very happy to be the chair during this period,” he says, “I knew i was a lame duck and that helped me make tough decisions. The first emergency orders were made by me and the county manager. We looked at what other communities were trying and we grabbed the best ideas. We were doing research day and night and some of the emergency orders were being rewritten on an almost daily basis.

“We were getting little or no help from the feds or state government,” he added.

Looking back on his 12-years in office and some of the issues he championed, Hutchinson muses: “I was much more of a socialist than the system allows me to be. I didn’t pull any punches, I was willing to say what’s on my mind. So I guess I have at least that in common with Trump.

Weeds of Eden still abide

“But I’m 68 and this is a young person’s job. To do it right takes 60 or 80 hours a week. At one point I was on 12 different boards and committees. Commissioners are paid well and I think we need to work full-time on the job.”

But that was then, and this is now. Now billiards, boating, burials and the band await his full attention.

I love this town

I will remember 2020 as the year I rekindled my love affair with Gainesville. And oddly, because of Covid.

No question, the pandemic knocked us all off our game. Often in jarring fashion. Sometimes leading us down paths of tedium, boredom and even borderline depression.

It was clear as early as March that this wasn’t going to be a “normal” year. It would be a year of lockdowns, closures, social distancing, face masks, resentments and rebellions…all conspiring to isolate us one against another.

Daniel Herriges, an editor with Strong Towns, recently wrote: “One of the best ways to deeply understand the place you live is..to slow down. Way down. Take a walk around your city, without a concrete plan or destination.”

Way ahead of you, Dan. That was my Covid year in a nutshell.

Only I cycled rather than walked Gainesville. Day after day after day. Hundreds of miles all told. Snapping photos as I went. All the time minding my social distancing Ps and Qs.

And noticing things I hadn’t really paid attention to before.

This from a guy who has been writing about Gainesville for nearly half a century.

Like the growing seediness of our downtown. And the boarded-up abandonment of the Boulware Springs waterworks…literally where Gainesville was born. And the empty storefronts and weedy lots on University Avenue.

But my observations weren’t all negative. Over the course of the year I made a concerted effort to track down as many murals as I could. Taking hundreds of photos and posting them on my blog. I followed Gainesville’s meandering creeks, weaved up and down the streets of charming neighborhoods (by the way, this was a great year for yard signs: “Here right matters.”)

And I noticed that, Covid notwithstanding, home grown entrepreneurs were still gamely trying to make it in GNV: The 4th Avenue Food Park. The mom-and-pops springing up on a Main Street we redesigned to be more people friendly. The vitality of Grove Street. The renewal of Pleasant Street, one house at a time.

One day I followed the path of the much-ditched, diverted and buried Sweetwater Branch Creek. That sobering experience led to a series of Sun columns and blogs about how we might simultaneously reclaim Sweetwater, revitalize a long-ignored downtown park and create a urban greenway that would connect cultural treasures like the Harn, the Cotton Club, the Matheson and the Thomas Center. And now we’ve got some civic-minded folks working to make that concept a reality.

And in the process of all that aimless wandering and wondering, I fell back in love with this town. And I’ve been giving a lot more thought to who we are, what we are, where we’ve been and where we are going.

Listen, if we can’t learn from our Covid year and figure out how to make Gainesville a more resilient city, then shame on us. We are creative people and these times demand creativity.

It’s still going to be a while before we get back to “normal.” In the meantime we really need to go into 2021 thinking about how we can make Gainesville a post-Covid success story.

I love this town. I have since I first got here in 1974. And I am here to tell you that no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done…you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Happy New Year Gainesville. You won’t believe what’s coming in 2021.

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

Serious about independence

Happy New Year Gainesville.

Listen, I’ve been having a lot of fun with FREE GNV on Facebook for the last few weeks. But we’re got a whole new year ahead of us. We’re literally entering into uncharted territory.

And so it’s time to get serious.

When I launched FREE GNV – my mock initiative to make Gainesville an Independent City – I admitted up front that mine was a Quixotic endeavor.

Mostly I was making fun of the Springs County people…the rural and small town Trumpsters who have given up trying to own Gainesville’s libtards and now want their very own county to sulk in.

My point was that we have at least as good a chance of making Gainesville an Independent City – in the legal sense – as they do of making Springs County a reality.

Which is to say no chance at all. The barriers are too high, the politics too polarized.

So why bother with FREE GNV?

Because if we choose to employ them, we have the resources, the intellectual reservoir and the deep pool of talent and creativity necessary to make Gainesville an Independent City in function if not in law.

We are Florida’s most educated city after all.

And what is independence but the ability to exist, prosper and thrive with as little outside influence as possible? We can do that.

How can we make Gainesville an Independent City in function if not in fact?

It’s an excellent question. One of many we need to be asking ourselves in 2021 as we go about the necessary business of reinventing a post-Covid Gainesville.

So starting today FREE GNV becomes an open forum for ideas. An ongoing discussion about how we, all of us together, can make Gainesville more resilient, equitable, greener, self-sufficient, economically vital and…well, liveable.

Let’s talk, GNV.

Listen, making fun of Springs County has been a lark, but we don’t need the blessing of Keith, Chuck or any other suburban politician to make Gainesville an Independent City.

We can do it ourselves. And in the process we can make GNV a better city in which to live, work, play and face the future.

I’m here to tell you that 2021 is going to be a trip. Enjoy the journey