Taking it to the streets

Streets are for people too

To mask or not to mask that is the question.

Except at Looseys.

“We are not going to debate you at the door about our policies,” reads a sign at the downtown restaurant. “We will just ask you to leave.”

Which is not to say that the masks don’t come off at Looseys.

Yes, you must cover your face while ordering at the door. But not at the dozen tables that appeared to be fully occupied on a recent balmy Friday evening.

Each carefully spaced to achieve optimum Covid-era distancing.

Looseys couldn’t manage that sort of distancing inside. But these tables are strategically placed outdoors, on the brick surface of NW 1st Avenue.

And just across the street, in city parking lot #10, large tents have been erected to handle the, um, overflow. Half a block away, Crane Raman’s tables occupy still more street space. The Paramount Grill has put tables on the sidewalk…not a problem, since pedestrians now have an entire blocked-off street in which to avoid close contact with one another.

Just across University Avenue, Flaco’s Cuban Bakery has erected a canopied patio on what we used to call NW 2nd Street. There, customers can admire the smiling death heads wall mural while waiting for their food.

But wait a minute. Who turns car corridors into a dining rooms anyway?

Well, since Covid19 they’ve been doing it in New York, Paris, Portland and in cities large and small pretty much all over the map. So why not here in Gainesville?

“I would put it that we’re not closing the streets to cars,” says City Manager Lee Feldman. “Rather, we’re opening up public space to pedestrians. All the health professionals tell us that it’s better to put as much business activity as possible outdoors. There is less exposure in the open air.”

Under the city’s temporary experiment in open air gastronomic expediency, one lane of University Avenue, across from UF, has also been closed. And a southbound bike lane was commandeered to give diners more eating room on Main Street – with signage notifying motorists that, yes, cyclists really do have as much right to be in the traffic lane as they do.

“This idea that (on-street) parking has to be an absolute is ludicrous,” Feldman says.

What’s been lost in the process are lots of on-street parking. But by way of trade-off, you can park in the city’s downtown garage for free.

How long these temporary closings will last is anybody’s guess. But while the immediate objective is to offer some financial relief to participating restaurants, the city also has an opportunity to observe and learn from this experiment in “tactical urbanism.”

“So its temporary now, but we are going to learn from this that maybe we don’t need as much road space as we think we need, and maybe its more about people than cars.”

Gainesville and UF are getting ready to jointly sponsor a new master plan for downtown. So perhaps what will ultimately emerge from all of this is a vision for a more people-friendly, less auto-centric city center.

“The current COVID street closure phenomenon can be the leading edge of a new conversation on what streets can be, prompted by citizen interest and proactive government,” urbanists Bruce Chamberlain and Dan Hemme write in the on-line Planet Citizen.

Sadly, it took a pandemic for many of us to finally get that message.

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

One more trail old friend

Louis always insisted on walking faster than the rest of us.

Rain or snow.

He was our fire master extraordinaire.

And our Sliding Rock slider.

Which is not to say he was above taking a well deserved break.

Sometimes too well deserved.

And he always hiked in tattered shorts no matter the weather.

In the Rockies

And the Smokies.

He loved his hot chocolate.

And his feet were not always firmly planted on the ground.

Lost in contemplation.

And we’re pretty sure he’s out there still.

Get out of our bedrooms

As a student of irony I can’t help but admire the city commission’s passion for renter’s rights. In that cause commissioners have been pondering an ordinance that has landlords pulling out their hair and predicting that it will send rents sky high.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of the ordinance.

But the irony is that city government is itself Gainesville’s biggest violator of renter’s rights. And has been for decades.

Listen, this is a liberal town. Everybody says so.

We celebrate diversity. We hang banners on Pride Week. We welcome all regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

But since the 1970s city government has occupied our bedrooms, our living rooms and our kitchens in the most intrusive manner imaginable.

Simply put, the city says that no more than three people can share a house unless they are legally related.

How is that not a violation of our civil liberties? Of our right to free association?

I was a student at UF in the 1970s when the city imposed that restriction. And nobody pretended that it was being done for any other purpose than to keep students from infesting the city like…oh, I dunno…head lice.

It’s not like we are Black Jack, Missouri, which used a similar ordinance in 2006 to tell Fondray Loving, Olivia Shelltrack and their three kids that they couldn’t live in the five-bedroom house they had purchased.

Not so long as they lived together out of wedlock.

University of Missouri law professor Rigel C. Oliveri cited that case in a 2016 Florida Law Review article, in which she argued that a decades-old Supreme Court case upholding the right of cities to do what Gainesville and Black Jack do is “wholly incompatible” with “modern jurisprudence.”

We have “seen profound changes in how Americans live: increased numbers of people are living together outside of wedlock; nonmarital births and child-rearing are on the rise; and the Supreme Court has recently recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Direct governmental regulation of private intimate conduct, such as fornication and adultery, has diminished almost entirely.”

Nonetheless, she wrote, some local governments continue to “interfere with people’s ability to live together outside of a traditional marital relationship.”

Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about affordable housing. Amid all the sound and fury generated by the discussion, GNV Rise fell but ADUs rose.

But still nary a word about the impact of Gainesville’s last-century restriction on access to affordable housing.

“We haven’t talked about it as a rule, I think, because of political pressure” from neighborhoods close to the university, says Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, who wants to abolish the ordinance. “It is one of the impediments to affordable housing.”

That’s certainly the contention of the Bedrooms Are For People initiative, which aims to relax similar restrictions in another university city, Boulder, Col.

“Given the pandemic, we are now seeing more people losing their jobs, not able to find work, they are facing eviction,” campaign organizer Eric Budd told Reason magazine, “this would allow people more housing options, it would allow people to share resources, allow people to help each other if they come into financial trouble.”

Boulder commissioners resorted to legally questionable tactics to keep that initiative from going to a vote. In this town we seem to take the position that it’s simply not a suitable conversation for polite company.

Hey Gainesville, get out of my bedroom!

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

Emerging BLM leaders

I wrote this piece for the current issue of Gainesville magazine.

Ariel Lane caught herself crying in her refrigerator. Wallace Mazon got tear gassed in Iowa.

Then Lane pulled herself together, and Mazon came home to Alachua County. And they both went to work helping to organize two of the largest and most diverse demonstrations Gainesville has seen in years.

Each united by a common theme: Black Lives Matter.

And both Lane and Mazon say those demonstrations were just the beginning, not the end point, of their work.

Lane moved to Gainesville 7 years ago from a D.C. suburb. She works for a local high-tech company that builds drones for the Defense Department.

“On May 27th the George Floyd story was everywhere,” she recalls. And her 8-year-old son, Liam, saw a news story about Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“He asked me if this was going to happen to me…and my heart just rolled,” she said. “I was doing some things in the refrigerator and I broke down in tears. Nobody wants to have their child see them crying.

“I told him that it was all fine, but that was a half-truth because I didn’t actually know.”

Soon after that incident, Lane decided to organize a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and she began calling up friends. “I figured if every friend called up 10 of their friends we’d end up having 50 people show and then call it a day.

But it didn’t work out that way. She started a Facebook page to publicize the event. “By Wednesday evening we had 855 people in the group. By Thursday we had almost 3,000 people.”

All this for an event that she had done so far very little preparation for.

But things came together quickly.

City Commissioner Gail Johnson “reached out to me and said ‘Listen, we have to talk. This is going to be much bigger than you thought.’ We needed to have GPD set up barricades, close the road and provide an escort.”

Then the local chapter of Dream Defenders volunteered to hand out water and face masks. “Out of nowhere,” medics on bicycles came forward to provide first aid assistance, “which was great because it was going to be hot.” Someone volunteered a flatbed truck as a speaker’s stand. One friend hand-made and distributed more than 100 signs.

“Nine of us got together the night before and had a meeting with GPD,” she recalled. “And I’m like ‘is this really happening?’ I was shaking like a leaf.”

That same night there had been unrest in Atlanta,” she recalled. “My mom called me and said ‘Do you see what’s happening? Don’t get arrested!’”

On that sunny Saturday morning, May 31, people began to gather in Depot Park – arriving at first in twos and threes, and then by the dozens and then by the scores. White and black, young and old. Moms pushing their kids in strollers. Dog owners decking out their best friends with BLM signs.

Before long it became apparent that marchers would be numbered, not in the hundreds, but at least a thousand, and perhaps two thousand strong.

“I still get choked up when I think about it,” Lane said. “There was a man in a wheelchair. A woman showed up with her horse. If I really think about it long enough it feels like a dream. I think I floated outside my body for a while.”

Reaching out through a friend, Lane had contacted Reuben Faloughi. Now a University of South Florida psychologist, Faloughi helped organize a series of demonstrations at the University of Missouri after Michael Brown was killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson.

Brandishing a megaphone and a strong voice, Faloughi kept the crowd chanting and on message as the not-so-small army departed Depot Park and proceeded down Main Street to assemble for a rally at the Bo Diddley Plaza.

“I think it was a beautiful event,” Faloughi later said of that first large Gainesville BLM march. “It was well executed and we handled a lot of unknowns. There has been a lot of contention with police, and I was really happy for the support from (Gainesville) police. But they also gave us enough space to avoid confrontations. It was a good balance.”

Mazon, an Alachua County native and recent University of Florida graduate, was a little late to the Gainesville BLM scene, having recently been tear gassed and arrested during a George Floyd’s protest in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I was working for a group there called Sunrise Movement,” he said. “I was going to come home a bit earlier but I had to go to court.”

Mazon is a member of the Gainesville chapter of Dream Defenders, or GoDDsville. Shortly after his return, the group had organized a campus demonstration at the law school and president’s mansion, and then began to lay plans for a much larger march that would start at UF and proceed downtown.

“It was a team effort,” he said. “Honestly, most of the people there were very passionate about organizing and were hungry for change.”

Like Lane, organizers posted this second march on Facebook. Unlike the downtown march, Dream Defenders wanted no official Gainesville police escort. “We are an organization of young people who want to redefine what policing means,” he said. GPD “asked if they could help and we said ‘no, we’re good.’”

The killing of “George Floyd doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he continued. “It happens because of both government action and government inaction.”

By early Saturday evening, June 14, an estimated 1,500 demonstrators had assembled in front of the O’Connell Center and then marched off campus to University Avenue. Unlike the earlier demonstration, Mazon said this event was intended to closely focus on some issues of racial contention that are specific to Gainesville itself.

“What you got was more of a history lesson about Gainesville and what was going on in the community,” he said. “We went to Seminary Lane to talk about gentrification” and the displacement of residents in that traditionally black neighborhood. “We walked through Pleasant Street, and we went to the courthouse to talk about the origin of the police. And then we went on to Porters Quarters.

“We wanted people to see what was going on in our community.”

Paul Ortiz, UF history professor and author of “An African American And Latinx History Of The United States,” remembers Mazon as one of his brightest and most articulate students.

“He was an excellent student, he always connected his love for history with his passion for organizing,” Ortiz said. “And he’s a uniter, he brings people together. He’s the type of person who says ‘let’s not just have a rally, let’s think about the real systemic changes that have to happen.’”

And on that score, neither Lane nor Mazon consider the demonstrations they helped organized as end points in their participation.

Lane has formed a non-profit group, March For Freedom, to work for change within the community. “Our message is providing equality through empowerment in our own neighborhoods,” she said. “We’re working on voter rights issues, and on neighborhood improvements.” For instance, much of east Gainesville is “a food desert,” she said. “There is no urgent care service. There are long stretches of roads with no lighting.”

Neither has Lane forgotten the event that originally drew her into activism. “We want to have an open discourse between the police department and the constituents of Gainesville,” she said. “A lot of people feel there is not an open conversation.”

Likewise Mazon say the Dream Defenders intends to continue to shine a light on inequities in Gainesville.

“We’re gonna defund the police, that’s what going to happen,” he said. “We will lobby our city commissioners get involved in the process. We want to reallocate these funds to the community. We’re going to get our people registered to vote and continue to do actions like these until we get what the community needs.”

E. Stanley Richardson, a longtime community activist and Alachua County’s poet laureate, took hundreds of photos to help document the march Lane initiated. And he remembers Mazon from the young man’s days at Santa Fe High School.

Our organic city

Three snapshots in time:

Snapshot 1. It’s 1974 and I’m writing for the Alligator. During a staff lunch in a nicely appointed courtyard across from campus, one of our reporters looks around and opines that the space is a good example of urban renewal.

Snapshot 2. It’s 2010 and I’m sitting in that same courtyard. My favorite restaurant, Cafe Gardens, is closing after a three decade run. As a last meal it’s a sad occasion.

Snapshot 3. Now it’s 2020 and another favorite haunt, The Swamp, is gone. So is the courtyard and the building that once housed Cafe Gardens.

Things change. By definition urban renewal is never a one-and-done.

We’re all upset over the loss of The Swamp as it used to be. It was a Gainesville institution. But I don’t buy some of the bitter comments I got on Facebook when I posted a photo of the demolition: “This is what infill and gentrification look like. Congrats to all of you who voted for this. You won!”

Not sure when exactly we voted for infill and gentrification. I do remember that Cafe Gardens closed because the family that ran it got out of the business. And that the old Swamp is no more because the people who owned it made a new business plan.

And I’m not sure what we as a city could have done to keep those buildings, that courtyard, or those institutions just the way we liked them.

I do know this. A city, any city, is like a living organism. It can simultaneously grow (Midtown), stagnate (downtown), and even germinate in unexpected and wonderful ways (check out the 4th Avenue Food Park).

But it is always changing.

A lot of us miss the old county hospital…my kids were born there. But its replacement, Innovation Square, is slowly transforming and strengthening the town-gown fabric that is Gainesville’s urban core.

Would we be a better community if thousands of UF students were driving in from apartments near I-10 instead of walking to campus? Maybe. But it seems to me that the clustering of apartments around UF – yes even the high rises that we love to hate – is urban renewal as it’s supposed to work.

I know we’ve all got a hate-on for The Standard because it ruined the town forever. But personally I blame that notorious South (of here) Florida developer W. McKee Kelley for destroying Gainesville’s village-like ambiance.

He’s the one who started constructing the Segal Building. In the 1920s.

No, seriously. Gainesville used to be a railroad town, but the railroads left. Then it was a college town. Now we’re a university city. And I believe we are a more mature, interesting and diverse community for our growing pains.

Does that mean our land use and development codes are where they should be? No, we clearly need a better vision for how we grow and what that growth will look like. I assume that’s why we’re getting ready to have a moratorium on development.

Gentrification is an issue for another day. But if they ever do put infill on the ballot I’d vote for it. Because we know what the alternative is: Celebration Point, and Butler’s “town” center. Big boxes. And traffic jams on Archer and Newberry roads as people funnel themselves to and from sprawling subdivisions that keep spreading west toward the county line.

We have already met the enemy, and it isn’t The Standard.

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