Remembering Florence

When you’ve been spending a lot of time home-bound in these COVID-19 times, you begin to think about the places you’ve been and wondering if you’ll ever go there again. In 2014 my wife and I visited Florence, and I’d hate to think that I’ll never go back. So here are some Firenze impressions for the armchair traveler.

It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade. Mark Twain

And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lilies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the Flowers.” – Marcel Proust

Through these old streets I wander dreamily. Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide of life. William Leighton

Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine. Henry James

In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise. Virgil Thomas

In America, Walt Disney opened an amusement park.
And in Florence, someone was savaging the remnants of a Tuscan nobleman’s family. Chris Bohjalian

Tonight I watched the sun set at Ponte Vecchio. I think its safe to say I have finally found the place that feels right to me. I just can’t believe I had to come halfway across the world to find it. Jenna Evans Welch

Whether it was a street artist showing off his work or an old Italian man playing the accordion, something new caught my eye each day as I explored the city. Emily Kearns

Rejoice, Florence, seeing you are so great that over sea and land you flap your wings, and your name is widely known in Hell! Dante

The stones are infused with history and culture and knowledge: I feel it. I feel the presence of generations, I feel the weight of giants. Emily Kyle

Firenze is magnetic, romantic and busy. Its urban fabric has hardly changed since the Renaissance, its narrow streets evoke a thousand tales, and its food and wine are so wonderful the tag ‘Fiorentina’ has become an international label of quality assurance. Lonely Planet

Sure, Florence is touristy. But where else can you stroll the same pedestrian streets walked by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli while savoring the world’s best gelato? Rick Steve

We are fortunate: Florence isn’t just the cradle of art—it is a city that celebrates the art of living well. National Geographic

Declaration of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

I am an American patriot.

I have been to war in the service of my country.

I vote each and every time.

I pay my taxes.

I do not pledge my allegiance to colored cloth.

That is the flimsy cloak of sunshine patriots.

I do not believe “My country right or wrong.”

If I see something wrong with my country it is my duty to try to put it right.

I do not believe that God’s law is America’s law.

We make our own laws, thank you very much.

I have been alive for 72 Independence Days.

This one is decidedly different from any 4th of July in my lifetime.

And not just because of canceled fireworks and parades and closed beaches.

Or because masks threaten my freedom to infect my fellow Americans.

Covid-19 isn’t the only threat to America’s health and well being.

Nor even the greatest threat.

No, I fear in my heart that this may be America’s final Independence Day.

Not to put a fine point on it, but we have put a hate-mongering, bigoted man-child in the White House.

And we have stacked the Senate with his enablers.

And as much as we might like to think otherwise, his election was no fluke.

We knew what he was.

He told us.

And we still elected him.

Out of hate-spite-fear-defiance-anger.

Choose your preferred poison.

Moreover, we created the conditions that allowed this spewing goblin to ascend to the highest office in the land.

In my lifetime I have seen Americans divide themselves against Americans.

By race.

By income.

By party.

By city/state/suburb/rural zip codes.

We have for a generation elected politicians who campaigned on the premise that government is incompetent.

And then, having been elected, they proceeded to make government ever more incompetent.

Delivering on their self-fulfilling prophecy.

Too many or us didn’t bother to vote when we should have.

And while we weren’t voting, the government-is-bad elite quietly passed suppression laws to keep as many of us as possible from ever voting again.

We helped ourselves to government entitlements.

While we cut our taxes and paid for our entitlements by saddling our kids with the IOUs .

We segregated ourselves, one against another; in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods.

We militarized our police, created a money-sucking prison-industrial complex, and threw ever larger sums at a bloated military to keep us from harm abroad.

Even as we cut funds for schools, colleges, social services and health care.

And now we wonder why we lead the world in coronavirus cases.

We became the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization.

Ostensibly to protect ourselves from the police/incarceration/military state we paid so much money to create.

And then we wonder why it is that self-proclaimed militias wielding military-grade hardware – and often waving confederate and Nazi banners – have suddenly appeared outside our state houses demanding the surrender of the very people we elected.

And we ask:

What went wrong?

How did this happen?

But the fault, my fellow Americans, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

But I am an American patriot.

And I do not yet despair.

I believe that we have it in our collective power to right this foundering ship of state that we call the United States of America.

We have one more chance.

This is my declaration.

On Nov. 4th we Americans will turn out the bloviating autocrat and his enablers.

And we will do it decisively.

And then we will begin again.

Or we will not.

In which case the American idea, the great American experiment, will be well and truly dead and buried.

This will be the most important election in my lifetime.

In my 72 years.

But even if we do the right thing on Nov. 3, we cannot expect things to magically turn around.

America will not suddenly become great again.

We have so much work to do.

The healing of deeply ingrained racial, religious and economic schisms.

The reclaiming of government that has for too long been for the wealthy, by the wealthy and of the wealthy.

I do not expect all of this this to happen overnight.

I don’t even expect this renewal to be completed in my lifetime.

America remains, as it has ever been, a work in progress.

But I do expect it to happen.

Because I am an American patriot and I believe.

I believe in the vitality of the American dream.

And I sense, at long last, a sea change occurring in the American spirit.

This is our moment.

This is our destiny.

This is our new Declaration of Independence.

Our best days lie ahead.

But only if we have the courage and the wisdom and the fortitude to take our country back from the exploiters and the opportunists and the haters.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

Optic delusions

The Average Bureaucrat, by Salvador Dali.

On Thursday I repeatedly called a telephone number for one of the city pools hoping to talk to a live human being. But I kept getting a recorded message that said – and I am not making this up: Do not leave a voice mail. Voice mail is not checked.

Listen, even if I were Dali’s Average Bureaucrat I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a better “Shut up and leave us alone” message than that.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my city and I often rise to the defense of our local government. But these are trying times, and in a crisis message matters more than ever if you want to maintain public confidence. Perhaps city officials have been too busy dealing with the coronavirus to worry overly much about message. But the longest running, and truest, complaint I’ve ever heard about city hall is that the people in charge there don’t know how to tell Gainesville’s story. And of late Gainesville’s optics have been terrible.

The new social distancing boxes at Bo Diddley Plaza.

Case in point: The other day I saw a grinning photo of Commissioner Harvey Ward on Facebook. He was standing in front of Bo Diddley Plaza showing off its new social distancing markings. “Did not know it was possible to love this community plaza more,” he said.

So I rode my bike downtown and, sure enough, those new community distancing boxes, made out to resemble Bo’s celebrated square guitars, are very cool.

You can see them clearly, even standing behind the yellow-caution tape that is supposed to keep the public away from their cool new social distancing boxes.

You can even admire them from the other side of the blue Park/Facility Closure” signs.

So what is the message: Gainesville practices social distancing, but just not here? Then why bother to create the boxes?

Sweetwater Branch Park

Case in point: If there’s anything that people need after weeks of lockdown is open green space in which to walk, run, sun and stroll – all while observing safe social distancing protocol of course. One block away from the taped off BD Plaza is Sweetwater Branch Park. It is downtown’s park. It is the city’s B&B District park. It is three blocks of creek and cool green space in the middle of a concrete and asphalt city center.

It is also neglected, litter-strewn, weed-choked hobo jungle that few people care to set foot on. City Manger Lee Feldman once told me that workers were using the lockdown to take care of a lot of overdue maintenance downtown. Apparently Sweetwater Branch Park wasn’t on the list. Last week a group of civic minded volunteers went out and cleaned up the park because, apparently, the city can’t be bothered.

What is the message there?

Possum Creek skate park

Case in point: Attempts to keep skateboarders out of the Possum Creek skate park were not working, so the city dumped loads of mulch on the ramps to stop skaters in their, um, tracks. Instead they created instant media celebrities out of the skaters, parents and others who went to work shoveling the mulch out of the way. This while bemused police looked on.

Message? Anyone?

Case in point: The city announced it would block off three sections of downtown streets so restaurants could feature open air dining and thus avoid the limits placed on indoor seating. After several restaurants objected the city ended up closing just a narrow slice of SW 2nd Avenue. And then proceeded to block it off with concrete monstrosities that look like nothing so much as an urban tank trap.

Good intentions, bad optics.

The former Union Street Farmer’s Market.

I could go on. Certainly the loss of the long-running Union Street Farmer’s Market to Celebration Point won city government no accolades. That market used to take place on Bo Diddley Plaza. What if city officials had, instead of closing the plaza, established and enforced thoughtful social distancing protocols that might have allowed the open-air market to continue in place? Imagine people actually being able to use those social distancing boxes in the plaza.

Feldman is still new to Gainesville, having arrived just before things went to hell. He likes to call city residents neighbors and city employees community builders. But I would argue that the employees who recorded that “drop dead” parks and rec message, put social distancing boxes behind no trespassing tape, let downtown’s public park go to seed, thought mulch was the answer to enforcing a public health measure, turned a downtown street into Checkpoint Charlie and said so long to the farmer’s market were not engaging in community building in any sense of the phrase.

Message matters, Gainesville. If I were Feldman I’d borrow Mark Sexton from the county and let him give Messaging 101 lessons to Gainesville’s community builders. If you can’t tell the city’s story convincingly, people are going to draw their own conclusions.

More autoAmerican anarchy

“How bad might the post-pandemic carpocalypse be?” asks Streetsblog USA. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

Should it surprise anybody that the internal combustion engine has become the counter-insurgency weapon of choice in autoAmerica? Cops, truck drivers and other grumpy Americans with lead feet have been using their vehicles to plow into Black Lives matter protestors. “It’s unclear how many vehicles were aimed at demonstrators,” reports USA Today, “but witnesses said that the incidents seemed intentional and that the drivers accelerated as they went through the crowds.” Collisions being as American as apple pie.

Seems the state of Georgia suspended on-road driving tests as a COVID19 expediency. Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, objects: “While we support the desire not to put instructors at risk, if we want to protect public safety, a better policy would be to stop issuing driver’s licenses until it’s safe to take the test again.” Not in autoAmerica Rebecca.

That’s probably why a West Virginia Fire Chief was surprised at being fired just because he posted on social media a “an image of a blood splattered truck with the caption ‘Just drove through Minneapolis, didn’t see any protesters,’” and a photo of himself “wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘All lives splatter. Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road.’” Clearly the good chief was a victim of political correctness run amok.

Which is not to say that the automobile cannot itself be victimized in these riotous times. Turns out that some riot cops have been deflating tires as a means of venting their, um, frustrations. Reporting on the slashed tires surge in Minneapolis, CBS News says cops “deflated tires to keep the vehicles from being used in attacks against law enforcement or protesters and for the vehicles to be towed if a collection of evidence was necessary.” Et tu Brute?

Elsewhere on the law enforcement front comes evidence that nearly half of American drivers are not at all deterred from using their devices by the inconvenient fact that doing so is against the law. “While drivers acknowledge that certain activities behind the wheel – like texting — are dangerous, some do them anyway,” say David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (Come to think of it, I think I read that in a text.)

In the What Else Is New Dept., it turns out that federal auto safety standards were only designed to protect people inside vehicles, leaving outsiders, like pedestrians, to fend for themselves. The Government Accounting Office “is pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do what forward-thinking countries around the world did over a decade ago, and finally require automakers to start testing how likely their cars are to kill a pedestrian in a collision,” reports Streetsblog USA. Good luck on that.

One reason for the above may be that a lot of transportation planners continue to think that “distracted walking,” is a major factor in pedestrian deaths. So why inconvenience motorists when it’s the walker’s fault? According to Rutgers University researchers “Transportation professionals who worry about distracted walking were “more likely to support educating walkers about ‘safe’ walking behaviors, and less likely to support reducing driver speeds — even though driver speed is among the strongest predictors of pedestrian mortality.”

Turns out that while the pandemic has wrecked havoc on car sales, pickup trucks are still, um, trucking along. “While sales of passenger cars and SUVs have fallen sharply, pickup sales have held up surprisingly well as Americans take advantage of low-interest financing offers and refuse to let economic concerns stop them from getting the vehicle they’ve had their sights set on,” reports USA Today.

If you though the pandemic economy would steer more people to smaller, less expensive and more efficient cars, think again. This is still the land of Big Ass Trucks pal, and auto dealers know that. Which is why “The good small cars still aren’t coming to the US,” reports jalopnik.com.

And from our Kids Do The Darndest Things in autoAmerica Dept.: A cop in Utah pulled over an SUV that was doing 32 MPH on a 70 MPH road. Turns out the driver was a five-year-old boy who told the cop he was “heading to California for the purpose of buying a Lamborghini.” This after an argument with his mom, who probably told him they can’t afford a Lamborghini.

Next, Fast Company explains why pedestrian and cyclist deaths are still rising even as many American cities are actively promoting walking and cycling. No mystery here: “Modern U.S. cities are designed largely for motor vehicles,” FC reports. “From the 1950s forward, city streets lost their conviviality. Roads were engineered for fast-moving and unhindered vehicular traffic, with few pedestrian crossings or bike lanes. Even today, motorists in many cities are able to turn onto streets at intersections where pedestrians are also crossing. Most pedestrians and bicyclists are killed or injured while they are obeying the law.” Why did the pedestrian cross the road? (To at least try to get to the other side.)

And if you thought the lockdown was going to mean safer streets, think again. Reports Streetsblog USA, “Drivers aren’t just speeding up on our empty roads — they’re also braking harder, scrolling cell phones longer, and crashing more, new data show.

“In the five weeks after many states announced lockdown orders on March 16, the data company Zendrive said drivers’ use of cell phones behind the wheel is up 38 percent over pre-lockdown numbers. The number of drivers who exceeded speed limits was also up 27 percent, as was hard braking (25 percent) and collisions per million miles (20 percent.)”

So no big surprise that on emptier roads, auto fatality rates spiked by 14 percent in March compared to the previous March. “What really strikes me is the incredible speed of the changes we’re seeing on a roadways,” Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR. “Looking at other recessions what you usually see is a decrease in the number of deaths, or the injuries and fatality rate holding steady or decreasing slightly.” Nobody can say we autoAmericans don’t try harder to keep those stats up.

And it’s not just pedestrians that need to be careful out there. Endangered Florida panthers keep getting run over too. “The May Panther Pulse report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows that 13 cats have been killed this year, 12 by vehicle strikes and one after being hit by a train in Polk County,” reports Florida Today. Clearly we need to do something about trains if we want to save the critters.

Finally, a bit of poetic protester justice: After the death of George Floyd, thousands of Minneapolis residents protested by marching on I-95, tying up traffic. “It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region,” noted CityLab.com. “This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee, I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.” Well played, marchers.

The four hundred steps

It is a climb of 400 steps to the top of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.

Through vertical neighborhoods of quirky Art Deco buildings and cozy bungalows tucked away amidst lush vegetation.

The trek is stimulating and the views fantastic. But the real reward for making the assent is to be found hidden inside the tall, spiraling Coit Tower.

Built in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the tower’s expanse of stark, blank inner walls seemed a too dismal reflection of the hopelessness that gripped the country.

And so under the auspices of the Roosevelt-era Public Works of Art Project, 26 local muralists were hired with the charge of covering those stark inner walls with scenes of everyday life in San Francisco.

How people worked.

When there was work to be had.

Together, to feed a city.

Most of the artists were left-leaning socialists, many of them disciples of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

And their work reflected a city that was as diverse as it was teeming with life and activity…and chaos.

And like Rivera they preferred to apply their paint onto still-wet, fresh plaster, so that the very walls would absorb the colors.

Unveiled to the world, some of the works were deemed objectionable because they reflected crime, unflattering depictions of city life, or, worse, liberal views.

And because this was a public works project, it had to be periodically reported to the federal government that the artists involved were all “very moral and conscientious, not drunken, promiscuous” or “orgiastic.”

San Francisco today remains a city of startling sights, sounds and experiences.

But tucked away in that tower, 400 steps up from the bay, are the images of a bygone city of industry, despair and hope. It is a feast for the eyes and not to be missed.

Just give us 800 ft.

San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to citylab.com, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”

It is worth nothing that some college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.

I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

I’ve walked those streets and observed a downtown street life that is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here. And while Gainesville’s is primarily a nighttime downtown, those streets generate considerable daytime activity.

Boulder and Charlottesville are pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol – allows buses, taxis and select other vehicles.

Here in Gainesville we close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.

But, what if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks for people? Maybe even ease into it and begin with weekends only.

Gainesville and the University of Florida will soon collaborate on a new downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail and relaxation, I’d consider turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into a “pedestrian zone,” following the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.

That stretch of 2nd is about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long,” according to Build A Better Burb.

Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t impede downtown traffic flow. It would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots. But with two parking garages and on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small price to pay for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.

And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.

Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 2nd sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, artists, flower sellers and street bands. Imagine an inviting place for folks to converge and collaborate, to see and be seen.

No question there would be resistance from business owners who fear the loss of nearby free parking. But the case can be made that restricting vehicles reaps greater rewards.

In a recent piece in CityLab.com, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, cites Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in its city center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”

All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance to claim a space for their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. It might be the key to the downtown revival that has eluded us so far.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.

Art and the Anthropocene

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”   

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

It’s just so complex(ion)

What gives?

Why are the cops so tough on some people?
And so solicitous toward others?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe the police are afraid of these guys because they are armed to the teeth.
While these people are armed with nothing more than righteous indignation.
Maybe it’s because these people are rude.
And these people are courteous.
Perhaps it’s because these people are rabble.
While these people have friends in high places.
It could be because these people are complaining about police misconduct.
While these people just want death for politicians.
Or that these people wave the flag.
And these people don’t.
I dunno. It’s such a conundrum.
Really, it’s such a complex(ion) question.