Brunch on two wheels

Sunday brunch has gotten to be a big deal in Gainesville. 

And what’s not to like? Mimosas. Eggs Benedict. Meeting up with friends to see and be seen.

But, really, anybody can drive to brunch. Why not turn your Sunday brunch trip into an adventure on two wheels? A journey of exploration? 

Here’s a leisurely Sunday brunch bike ride that will show you the best Gainesville has to offer on your way to your favorite cafe or restaurant.

Mile zero: Begin at Depot Park of course. Take a pre-brunch lap around the ponds and past the Cade before heading south on the Depot Avenue rail-trail.

Mile .07: Take a brief loop through Porter’s Quarter to see the shipping container house.

Mile 1.8: Cross the DNA Bridge. Take a selfie under its orange strands.

Mile 2.5: Cross Archer Road and enter UF campus for a lap around Lake Alice.

Mile 4.1: Stop and stroll the boardwalk though UF’s Natural Area Teaching Laboratory. It’s a short walk through green serenity. 

Mile 4.2: Arrive Museum of Florida History and The Harn. Hey, would a little culture kill you? And butterflies!

Mile 4.9: Selfie at the Baughman and the bat houses. Maybe see if you can spot any real gators in Lake Alice.

Mile 5.8: Get your photo taken perched on the big gator outside the football stadium. If you’re really feeling ambitious, take a pre-brunch stadium hike all the way to the top tier of seats and back down.

Mile 6.6: Century Tower. You know what to do.

Mile 6.8: First brunch opportunities on University Avenue. The Swamp, The Social, etc.

Mile 8.2: You can leave the route just past GPD and take a left on the rail-trail. Just one block north will take you to Afternoon, another prime brunch spot. Then back to the route.

Mile 8.7: Take a stroll through the Thomas Center Gardens.

Mile 9.5: Enter downtown Gainesville, a brunch target-rich environment. Emilianos, Harry’s, 

Boca Fiesta, Paramount Grill, the Top, etc.

Mile 9.6: Hang a left at The Hipp. Grab a cuppa at Starbucks or Maude’s.

Mile 9.9: Take a ride through Sweetwater Park.  

Mile 10.3: Selfie at GRU’s giant water ball.

Mile 10.4: Daily Green on left. Last brunch opportunity of the route.

Mile 10.8: Back at Depot Park. Continue on route for a post-brunch beer at First Mag. BTW: If you like the ride so much you don’t want to stop yet, just head east on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Tail to rack up some bonus miles. 

12.2: Back at Depot Park again. Time for some Sunday Raggae at The Boxcar. The Cade should be open by now, and that’s always worth a visit. Plus, there’s usually a flea market at the park on Sunday. 

Is Sunday brunch in Gainesville great or what?

High tides, dry grass

“Oh, of course I’ll keep it to myself. Until the water reaches my lower lip, and then I’m going to mention it to somebody!” Professor Fate in “The Great Race,” 1965.

Shortly after I went to work at The Sun, in 1976, fellow reporter Carl Crawford and I embarked on a two day canoe trip down the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers so we could write a feature piece for our Sunday magazine.

Yes, we had a Sunday magazine. Those were the days my friend.

Anyway, it was a great trip. We came upon a wild boar soaking himself in the Santa Fe’s cool water. We camped on a sand bank with an ex con who told us about the best juke joint in Dixie County. And we met a developer from Miami who was building his dream retirement house on the river because “I love trees.”

I was cool with the boar and the ex con. But Carl and I had to urge to toss the guy who got rich cutting down trees and planting subdivisions into the river.

Turns out he was just an advance scout.

I thought about that long-ago encounter the other day after reading an on-line Miami New Times column reporting that in the face of rising sea levels Miami stands to “lose 2.5 million residents to other cities in Florida” by 2100.

“Now that Cuban migration into Miami has slowed, the city’s Republican legislators have pretty much decided that they hate refugees,” New Times columnist Jerry Lannelli wrote. “But as long as those same GOP legislators continue to deny that climate change is real, they’re all but guaranteeing that the U.S. locks itself into a refugee crisis of its own.”

Lannelli cited a recent study by University of Georgia population analysis Matthew E. Hauer, to wit, “unmitigated SLR (sea-level rise) is expected to reshape the U.S. population distribution, potentially stressing landlocked areas unprepared to accommodate this wave of coastal migrants.”

Holy refugee crisis! Is Gainesville destined to become a sanctuary city for tree-razing developers, fast-buck time share tycoons, condo cowboys and mega-mall magnets? 

Look, I’ve always been skeptical about the “we don’t want to turn into another Miami” rhetoric that has dominated anti-growth debates around here for decades. I used to argue that we could gut all our zoning codes and comp plan restrictions and still not turn into Miami because, heck, we don’t even have a beach. 

Who knew that beaches would one day become a liability?

 Of course, most coastal refugees in coming decades are more likely to gravitate to places like Orlando and Atlanta than Gainesville. Still the attraction of a trendy college town and football Mecca located smack dab in the middle of high and dry north Florida might well prove irresistible to many SLR refugees.

But the joke will be on them. By the time they get here, Gainesville will likely be unbearably hot and smoky as well as high and dry. 

Climate change plays no favorites. 

But of course, this is all about the politics of denial and the inevitable consequences of willful ignorance on the part of our elected officials and policy makers. Politicos like Donald Trump and Rick Scott are the Professor Fates of our time. Their stubborn insistence that everything is fine and there’s no cause for alarm flies in the face of both the best available evidence and reality itself.

Lower lip still dry? No crisis yet.

Listen, the current national hostility toward refugees is largely being directed towards people who are coming her to escape persecution or poverty back home. But if scientists like Hauer are right, if America is even now planting the seeds of its own domestic refugee crises, it is taking root in the fertile ground of studied indifference and partisan ideology. 

And who are we going to hate then? When “those people” are fleeing, not from Syria and Mexico, but Miami and New Orleans?

I dunno, maybe Trump is right about that wall. I’m thinking just south of Paynes Prairie is a good place for it. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was originally published in The Sun in May, 2017.)

Guns, students and 1968

When it came out that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President of the United States, in 1963, with an Italian bolt-action rifle that he bought under a false name via mail order for $19.95 (plus postage and handling) Congress fairly leapt into action.

“If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we must have licensing,” newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson said as he signed a bill restricting the sale of mail-order firearms.

Just kidding. 

Actually it wasn’t until 1968 that LBJ finally got to sign a rather tepid gun control bill – one without his licensing requirement.  

Politicians won’t even cross the NRA to protect their own.

Still, let’s not gloss over the possible significance of that five-year – well, call it a “waiting period” – between the time Oswald’s bullets struck home and Congress finally did something about mail-order guns.

Remember 1968? 

The year of the barricades?

“1968 was a year of revolution,” says historyguide.org. “In a period of unprecedented material prosperity and cultural activity, the sons and daughters of the most privileged sections of the United States and of Europe decided to make their own revolution.

“The year of the barricades served as a symbol of everything an entire generation of young people detested about the generation of their parents: the ‘It,’ the System, the Establishment.” 

Yes, it was very much a youth-driven revolution. Certainly Gainesville experienced its own days of rage as young anti-war and civil rights protests spilled out into University Avenue and 13th St. 

Speaking of kids, did anybody notice how polite and well behaved were the survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting who went to Tallahassee after the bloodshed to ask their elected representatives to please redress their grievances?

Said grievances being their dread and horror over the prospect of being among the next wave of innocent children caught in the crosshairs of an angry young man with an AR15. 

They stood in the House visitors box in respectful, if appalled, silence as their elected representatives deemed it more important to debate pornography than so much as talk about a ban on military-grade guns designed to kill a lot of people in a very short period of time.

Even the teenagers who staged a three minute lay-down in front of the White House carried out their act of symbolic death without fuss, muss or bother. 

Three minutes being the time it took Nikolas Jacob Cruz to extinguish 17 lives at Stoneman Douglas.

Of course, 2018 isn’t 1968. Back then a terrible war without end, racial strife, civil discord, economic inequality and a growing contempt for governmental authority were among the factors that finally sent America’s young into the streets and onto the barricades. 

Nothing like today.

Still, there is little doubt that a new generation of, well, let’s just call them concerned citizens, is waking up and wondering what’s going on. They have grave doubts about the efficacy and fairness of the system they are inheriting. And they are appalled that so many politicians can be so easily bought by a gun lobby that doesn’t care how many children must die to protect their profits. 

Prudent politicians might want to consider, at this critical juncture, that it is better to show this upcoming generation of voters that the system really can work for them. That problems can be solved by policy rather than polemics.

Before the barricades go up and it’s 1968 all over again.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.  This blog post was originally published in The Sun in Feb. 2018. 

 

Density is our destiny

(This was originally published in The Sun in the spring of 2015, but it seems especially relevant today given the furor over GNV Rise.)

Density is destiny, Gainesville.

If we want to nurture an innovative economy, a place where creative young people desire to come to live, work and play, then density is the key.

If we want to have a truly walkable, bikeable, “complete streets” community, density is essential.

If we desire world class transit, demand will follow density.

The most exciting thing that’s happened to Gainesville this past decade has been the redevelopment of long neglected neighborhoods and commercial districts in and around the downtown-University of Florida quadrant. Aided by UF’s decision to build Innovation Square, we have been slowly but surely reclaiming our urban core. 

This following decades of outward expansion into the western suburbs that threatened to render UF and Gainesville as car-dependent and traffic congested as any number of identity-challenged, cookie-cutter suburban American cities.

Cities that have been simultaneously exploding on the edges while rotting from within.

The social, fiscal and environmental costs of sprawl have been well documented. A joint report by the London School of Economics and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute pegs the costs of sprawl in North America alone at more than $1 trillion a year. 

In addition to the loss of agricultural lands, sprawl forces horrendously expensive infrastructure improvements – new roads, utility lines, sewers and so on – to serve new developments.

And then there are the intangible costs of sprawl, including “consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health.”

A rational society would write land use plans to make it easier and less expensive to develop in the urban core than out on the edges. But instead, American planning dictates have had exactly the opposite objective since at least the end of World War II. The results have been predictable – the slow death of inner cities, a deep urban-suburban political divide that has rendered our democracy ever more polarized, a car culture that has nearly destroyed the fabric of American life. 

There may be is no community in Florida that has more hotly debated and railed against sprawl development than Gainesville. Since I arrived here, in the mid-1970s, I’ve heard it again and again: We don’t want to turn into another Miami. Our fear and loathing of South Florida-style sprawl has dominated the public debate over everything from road funding to land conservation to the location of new schools.

But now, with City staff proposing Land Development Code revisions that would have the effect of encouraging and facilitating urban infill – specifically in the UF-downtown core – we’re all of a sudden worried about Gainesville turning into…what?

New York City? Boston? Austin?

“It’s an open invitation for hyper-development,” former Mayor Mark Goldstein told The Sun. “It is the worst thing I have ever seen in 44 years of participating in local government and living here.”

Seriously?

Worse than the steady march of western suburbanization we’ve experienced over the past, oh,  44 years? Worse than Plum Creek’s proposal to leap-frog sprawl into the eastern reaches of the county as well? Worse than the looming “hyper-development” of Butler Plaza and all that it implies for still more traffic congestion and loss of green space and community?

The truth is that Gainesville is never going to turn into Miami, nor Austin for that matter. All of our hand-wringing over runaway development notwithstanding, Alachua County has continued to grow at a slow, steady, predictable pace year after year, decade after decade. The market forces simply don’t exist to support the “hyper-development” of inner Gainesville.

That said, the planning objectives of our university city ought to be to facilitate urban redevelopment and discourage sprawl to the greatest degree possible. 

Yes we can build an innovation economy by making it possible to locate high-tech and spin-off companies within easy walking, biking and busing distance of Innovation Square and UF proper.

And yes we can expand our downtown commercial and entertainment district north to 8th avenue and south to Depot – and even beyond.

And yes, we can remake 13th Street into something better and more functional than a typical Florida gas station, fast food and convenience store corridor. 

And yes, we can make it possible for students, faculty and staff – not to mention young entrepreneurs – to live an auto-free life in quality mixed-use neighborhoods close to where they work, play and study.

But density is key to all of those objectives. And land development regs that encourage density by design are crucial to making it all happen.

Because density is destiny, Gainesville.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Only kidding Gainesville

A lot of folks like to think of Gainesville as being a progressive university community. But, really, we’re a typical suburban American city.

The signs are everywhere – the way we’ve designed University Avenue, 13th St. 16th Ave. etc. for the express (pun intended) purpose of getting motorists in and out of town as quickly as possible, for instance. And never mind the occasional dead cyclist and pedestrian, or the sacrifice of walkability and economic vitality in our urban center. 

But we got another reminder of our suburban sameness when the city commission backed off GNV Rise in the face of an angry public backlash. With opponents hurling accusations of corruption and incompetence, the city’s modest plan to encourage a more affordable housing mix was dismissed as just another venal scheme to enrich South Florida developers and destroy neighborhoods.

To turn Gainesville into Orlando. Another Miami.

Oh, and that ugly word, “gentrification,” got tossed around in hand-grenade fashion. Never mind that the flip side of gentrification is segregation.

And that’s what we’re really talking about here. 

Like most American cities, we in Gainesville self-segregate ourselves. Mostly by income, but also by race. And we are comfortable in our little niches.

Daniel Herriges puts it very well in his recent Strong Towns essay: “Go to any planning meeting in an American suburb and you’ll hear plenty of talk about ‘protecting neighborhoods,’ but from what? From the side effects of new residential construction.”

In the end, what’s what the knee-jerk opposition to GNV Rise amounted to: Protecting neighborhoods from “others” – prospective neighbors who don’t look, sound and earn like we do. Students, low income workers, single moms and their kids, young people just entering the workforce and, of course, people with different shades of skin.

We’re freezing ourselves in amber here in Gainesville. Which by default means fostering sprawl, sprawl and more of the same.

It’s not that GNV Rise couldn’t use more work, any plan can. Conspiracy theories aside, it was at best a modest attempt to begin to grapple with a very complicated challenge. 

These days UF’s biggest housing problem doesn’t involve students. It’s finding affordable and proximate housing for lower income workers, entry level professors, graduate assistants, lab workers and so on. Lacking options folks inevitably end up in the suburbs – or maybe Putnam and Levy counties – and driving to campus each day; creating a horrible parking situation on campus and daily traffic snarl for Gainesville. 

Eventually UF’s strategic planners – whose consultants have bullishly promoted Boston-type urban infill as key to our town-gown quality of life future – are going to figure out that Gainesville is only kidding when we say we want the same thing. 

No, infill is gentrification. It’s a developer’s plot. Infill won’t protect neighborhoods.

Anyway, there’s plenty of developable land remaining on the west side between here and Cedar Key. And if the Plum Creekers get their way, eastward sprawl is just over the horizon. 

All we need are more cars. We’ve already got the stroads to accommodate them.

There’s an election coming up. If history is any indication, Lauren Poe is in trouble (only one incumbent, Pegeen Hanrahan, has been reelected since we started picking mayors separately from other commissioners). Poe’s opponents will likely run on the “protect neighborhoods” platform, just like Tom “The neighborhoods are getting hammered!” Bussing did.

There is also a pretty good chance that City Manager Anthony Lyons is going to be forced out. All of which means that the city commission will likely become more cautious about taking chances and making changes come the new year. 

GNV Rise will likely not rise again in 2019.

And if that comes to pass, Tigert Hall may begin, slowly and quietly, to back away from its strategic partnership with Gainesville on the grounds of municipal fickleness.

But at least we will have protected our neighborhoods from others.

Child of the Anthropocene

I am a child of the Anthropocene.

In my lifetime I have leaped, not just from one century to the next, but from one geological epoch to another.

Scientists calculate the beginning of Anthropocene at roughly the mid-20th century, when World War II ended and humanity reached the 3 billion served mark. 

That’s when we plunged feet first into the “Great Acceleration,” and all of our consumptive indicators suddenly jumped off the charts.  

The great acceleration of population, energy use, industrialization, technological development, globalization…next-gen warfare. It’s when we filled our atmosphere with all of the detritus of our excesses, from carbon dioxide to radionuclides. When we began in earnest to alter the very face of the Earth itself with our machines and our ambitions. When we began to treat our water like dirt. On a global scale.

Talk about being there at the creation.

They weren’t kidding when they called us baby boomers. It was the booming birth of sprawl, suburbanization, highways snaking out in every direction, strip mines and oil derricks and all of the accoutrements necessary to nudge our planet into the next geological age. The booming dawn of a period of Earth’s life span when the prime force of change would be the activities of a single species.

Anthropocene Man.

But you can call me AM for short. 

And, listen, there was nothing we couldn’t do.

We literally moved mountains to get at the coal under them. We drilled deep into the ocean bed to bring up the oil. And when conventional carbon wells seemed exhausted, we used pressurized water and chemicals to coax out the leavings. 

We piled up plutonium in cooling pools, where they will remain for generations to come, so we could hard boil eggs. 

Listen, there was nothing we couldn’t do with cheap oil, cheap water, cheap food, cheap mobility, cheap politics and cheap asphalt and concrete.

We split the atom and then scattered radioactive isotopes to the four corners of the world. We develop new chemicals to wash our hair, scrub our skin, debug our crops, clean our clothes. And then we spewed all of those chemicals into our air and our water and, ultimately, into our very bodies.

Sure, all of the chems we’ve been creating and absorbing may be lowering our collective intelligence and making us more susceptible to cancers and other diseases. 

But that’s surely a small price to pay for the Great Acceleration.

Because the payback is The American Dream writ large. That five bed-three bath on a cul-de-sac. The McMansion. The Quarter Pounder. Donald Trump. Big shiny SUVs stacked up eight-, ten-, 12-lanes abreast as far as the eye can see and beyond. 

A new new epoch. 

The last epoch, Holocene, lasted 11,000 years, just long enough to create a near-perfect environment in which to grow our civilization. Imagine what AM will create. 

Melt the ice cap? Why not? That’ll just open the Northwest Passage and make it even easier for us to get at all oil and gas reserves that have been hiding from us under the Arctic ice.

Stronger, wetter and more destructive hurricanes? Listen, every time one blows ashore it creates the opportunity to build bigger and more expensive beach houses and condos atop the wreckage of the ones that washed away. 

Rain forests? Indonesia needs that land to grow the palm oil we need to run our cars on “clean” bio-fuels. And if we were doing proper forest management (cutting down trees) to begin with, we wouldn’t have all those fires in California. The President Of The United States says so. 

Red tides? Easier to catch fish when they’re already dead.

Plastic landfills the size of cities? Our descendants will be mining them for generations to come, picking through the detritus of our greatness for the leavings. 

Call it the ultimate recycling revolution.

I suppose this is all very easy to say at my age. The advantage of being born at the very dawn of the Anthropocene is that I won’t be around to witness the worst of the inevitable downsides;  rising seas, mass extinctions, desertification, droughts, floods, fires, killer storms, acid oceans, exhausted fisheries, waves of climate refugees, exotic plagues, resource wars and on and on. 

I’m a pioneer by birth. We break new ground and leave it to others to figure out what comes next.

Like the crew of the Enterprise, AMs are going where none have gone before.

And God help our children. And their children.

But don’t worry about the Earth. The Earth will be fine by the time we’re over and done with it. We really can’t hurt the planet. 

Oh, we’ll alter it in lots of negative ways. At least for the short term. 

But the Earth Abides. Always has and always will. 

Our species? Different story entire. 5CF0F34E-5FDB-4EDE-8F2E-DD4D92BEFE6D

The art of climate change

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 said aloud. She found herself swaying without pants or shoes on her porch. Poor alligators. Poor ibises. Poor stupid, greedy human beings. Boy, are you all in for it.”

“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, Ron 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.

Cross and double cross

Impressive things I saw on my trip to Russia in the summer of 2017.

The Kremlin. The Hermitage

Young couples pushing baby carriages. 

No kidding, they were everywhere. 

That might not sound impressive until you consider the “Russian Cross.” 

That was the infamous point in 1990 – amid the economic chaos that ensued after the fall of Soviet communism – when the rising death rate crossed the falling birth rate. 

The Russian Cross didn’t reverse itself until 2012.  And that didn’t come about by accident. 

Rather, it happened because Russians made a conscious decision to invest in children. Women were awarded “pregnancy allowances” worth several thousand dollars, and lucrative “motherhood capital” benefits for a second child…with still more tacked on for triplets. Child care and pre-school was heavily subsidized so parents could work without worrying about their kids. 

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the reverse of what we Boomers have been doing back here at home. For years now we have been front-loading our tax breaks and government entitlements toward the goal of making life easier for us seniors in our golden years. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with any society taking care of its elderly. But there’s no question that my generation has chosen to do so at the expense of our children. 

So It was no great surprise to hear, shortly after returning to the U.S. from my Russian visit,  U.S. Sen Orrin Hatch say:  “The reason CHIP’s having trouble is that we don’t have money anymore.”?

CHIPS being the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides care for about 8.9 million American kids. 

Or at least it did before we…um…ran out of money.

Call it the “American Double Cross.” That point at which the political imperative to award tax cuts to the wealthy surpassed the fiscally prudent strategy of investing in our children. In our future, really.

I’d like to think that we are a better country than that, but they keep proving me wrong up in the D.C. Swamp. Especially now that we have well and truly entered the Imperial Age of Trump.

Which is not to say that we are not capable of choosing to invest in our children right here at home. Indeed, in this election just past, Alachua County voters opted to bank on its children on at least two fronts. 

A healthy majority of voters agreed to raise their sales taxes in order to help fix up Alachua County’s aging schools – the State Legislature long ago having, um, economized on public school funding so as to pour more tax dollars into charters and private education.

And while they were at it, local voters also raised their property taxes to better fund basic children’s services: That initiative will raise $6 million to $7 million a year for pre-school education, after school care, early childhood health and nutrition services and more.

Right here at home.

Apparently at least we in Alachua County are better custodians of our children than the likes of Donald Trump and Orrin Hatch. 

One more recollection from my visit to Russia. While on a bicycle tour in St. Petersburg our young guide took us to a small park to show us a monument to the children who helped form the backbone of the local resistance when Germany laid siege to what was then called Leningrad during World War II. 

Just kids, really. But for nearly 900 days they played dangerous cat and mouse games with hardened Nazi shock troops amid the rubble of Tzar Peter’s grand city. And when it was finally over, predictably, the majority of Leningrad’s casualties were women and children.

It is a stirring image of defiant kids. In a green park. In a now prosperous city. In a country that  hasn’t forgotten its children.

I wish we could say the same thing here at home.

(A version of this blog appeared in The Gainesville Sun in Dec. 2017.)

Graveyard of ‘heroes’

(Wrote this in the summer of 2017 for the Gainesville Sun. Still relevant today.)

Stalin’s got a busted nose. 

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced. 

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths. 

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to. 

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face. 

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials. 

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.) 

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy. 

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is  everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park. 

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown. Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand. 

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.