He stands, day after day, staring out at the deserted street, a rough leathery hand arched to shade a weather-worn face.
I know, that could be any one of us these days. But I’m talking about the cigar store indian standing sentry inside Havana’s Wine and Cigar Lounge.
I frequently ponder his haunted gaze while cycling the empty downtown street that connects the unused Bo Diddley Plaza to the sealed Hippodrome.
This is Gainesville in a time of coronavirus.
Ah, but where there is hope there is life. Depot Park’s walking loops remain well-used. The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is entertaining more cyclists, runners and skateboarders than ever. There are picnics and yoga on the lush green Thomas Center lawn. And the trail following Hogtown Creek through Loblolly Woods is a favored destination for social distance strollers.
I have been embarked on a sort of social distancing experiment of my own these past weeks, cycling hundreds of miles on Gainesville’s streets, avenues and trails. Studiously avoiding human contact while trying to keep in touch with all that is so unique, so alluring, so…well…so Gainesville.
Along the way I’ve been taking pictures and posting photo essays on my blog as a tribute to our university city.
And they’re not all pretty pictures. One day I followed the broken course of our ironically named Sweetwater Branch from where it flows out of a pipe at the Duck Pond until it finally empties into Sweetwater Preserve. Here a drainage ditch, there a lovely winding creek. We gutted it, buried it and used it to carry off our effluent – and then spent millions trying to clean it up.
On another day I rediscovered Gainesville’s truly spacey Solar Walk. How often have most of us driven past it, on NW 8th Ave., without giving those meticulously sited pillars a glance? Closer examination reveals a display that is simultaneously a mathematical salute to the solar system and a flight of artistic fancy.
Strolling the deserted grounds of the Tu Vien A Nan Temple, with its enormous Buddhist statues, was a revelation. Gainesville’s downtown parking garage, emptied of cars, turns out to be a fantastic street art gallery. And the heroic bronze images of Steve, Danny and Tim are lonely figures indeed when no one is there to do selfies with them.
On a narrow street near the Thomas Center I encountered a winged victory-like sculpture that looks to have been been carved whole out of a dead tree trunk. And taking a random turn onto a Florida Park street I came upon a historical marker commemorating the Cox Cabin, built in 1936 and still standing.
Cycling through a nearly deserted UF campus makes for a beautiful if somewhat eerie journey. The new baseball stadium is coming along splendidly and is sure to be ready when (if?) the next pitch is thrown.
Urban cycling has been experiencing a resurgence in this time of coronavirus, so much so that some cities have even closed streets to cars to better accommodate human beings. Gainesville is a more cycle-friendly city than most, blessed with miles of tree-lined old neighborhood streets and off-road trails that can facilitate two-wheeled meandering while avoiding much of the traffic.
Tired of staring out the window with a haunted gaze? Try practicing your social distancing on a bike for a change. You may be glad you did.
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of the Sun. His photo-essays are posted at the top of his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.)
(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)
What’s in a name?
If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.
Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.
“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.
“My name is Red Cross.
“That might have won me the election.”
Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.
And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”
But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:
Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.
It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.
And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.
In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.
Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.
And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.
“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.
“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”
And therein hangs a tale worth telling.
Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.
“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”
Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.
“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”
Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.
“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”
How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.
And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.
Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.
“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.
Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.
The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.
When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”
Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”
That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”
“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”
What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.
Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.
“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”
Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”
Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.
Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”
In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”
This being the further adventures of the Sons of Henry Ford.
Henry Ford’s revenge
Call it the forgotten city on the Forgotten Coast with a forgotten destiny.
If you have never been to Port St. Joe you really ought to treat yourself. It is a picture postcard Gulf Coast community possessed of a walkable, old Florida-style downtown and blessed with spectacular views of Cape San Blas, just across the shallow waters of an shimmering aquamarine bay. With just over 3,500 residents it exudes small town charm.
Port St. Joe lacks the cache of its “oyster capital” neighbor to the east, Apalachicola. But neither does it suffer the beach-blocking high-rises and sprawl of Panama City to the west.
It is, in short, a small, compact and lovely little Forgotten Coast town that time seems to have forgotten.
All of which constitutes both the charm and the enigma of Port St. Joe.
Because this small resort community has all but risen from the ashes of a much larger city that once harbored grand ambitions.
Before Florida entered the union, in 1845, St. Joseph was an up-and-coming port city that aspired to be the next Savannah or Charleston. Already one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in then-territorial Florida, St. Joseph wanted to be bigger and more prosperous still.
Indeed, it is the town that birthed modern Florida government. The first state constitutional convention was held there in 1838, a precursor to Florida’s admission into the union.
And while playing host to delegates from around the peninsula’s widely scattered settlements, city fathers harbored no less an ambition than to become the very seat of governance for America’s newest state.
“There were some very wealthy and influential people in city of St Joseph, so there was a big push” to position it as the capital when the state was finally admitted into the union. It was such a booming town that it kind of helped in that situation. By some estimates there were as many as 12,000 people living there.”
This from Joanna Lindsey, ranger in charge of the State Constitutional Convention Museum, in Port St. Joe.
Ah, but such is the serendipitous nature of history. Far from becoming a coastal version of Tallahassee, St. Joseph in relatively short order went from boom town to ghost town. Only to be later reborn as a miniature version of itself.
All this due to untimely visitations of fever, fire, wind and financial ruin.
“by 1844 it was just a ghost town, it peaked and just died,” Lindsey said.
Perhaps the best account of the rise and fall of old St. Joseph was written in 1967 by Henry A. Drake, former postmaster at Port St. Joe. In 1838 Florida’s Territorial Council “selected St. Joseph over such older and larger cities in the territory, as Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Tallahassee, as a site for the drafting of a state constitution,” he wrote.
Why? Perhaps because community leaders like newspaper editor Peter W. Gautier, Jr. and businessmen E.J. Wood, William P. Duval and Richard C. Allen were adept at playing “shrewd politics” in their determination to promote St. Joseph.
At the time of the convention, St. Joseph boasted a railroad, at least seven hotels, a newly built convention hall and a race track.
That latter amenity, Drake noted, “attracted the sporting element of distant places, and with the excellent public accommodations, including some gaming houses where liquors were imbibed in some quantities…St. Joseph soon became known as a fast town!”
St. Joseph’s capital city ambitions were nearly foiled at the outset by the skeptical voters of Florida. The constitution that finally emerged from the convention barely survived its 1839 referendum – winning by just 113 votes out of only about 4,000 cast. “I don’t know that (voters) objected so much to the contents of the constitution as to the ultimate goal of joining the union,” Lindsey said.
It’s what happened subsequently, however, that sealed St. Joseph’s fate. Call it a series of unfortunate events.
In 1839 a storm destroyed several buildings and blew a number of ships ashore.
That was followed by a yellow fever epidemic in 1841 that killed many residents and convinced many more still to leave town. Only an estimated 500 people remained in the wake of “Yellow Jack’s” visit.
Later that year a hurricane came ashore and did great damage. And then wildfires incinerated much of what remained.
All of this occurred simultaneously with a drop in cotton prices that caused the St. Joseph and Iola Railroad to close.
“The city might have overcome and survived the fever epidemic, except for the railway loss which had provided transportation in world commerce through the port of St. Joseph,’ Drake wrote. “But the city could not sustain itself under these adverse circumstances. Its plight was downward until its complete abandonment about 1854.”
As if to add insult to injury, some of the city’s grandest homes were subsequently bought up and shipped by barge to the hated rival city of Apalachicola.
“Many of the brick from the ruins of the old cotton warehouse and other buildings at St. Joseph were used in the paving of Palifox Street in Pensacola,” Drake recorded. “By the end of 1843 there were perhaps not more than 50 inhabitants at St. Joseph.”
It wouldn’t be until after the turn of the century that Port St. Joe began to take root about two miles away from old St. Joseph. For a time, Port St. Joe would also take on the trappings of a boom town, as saw mills and pulp paper companies began to move in. But these days it is mostly tourism that sustains the town. The white beaches of nearby St. Joseph Peninsula St. Park attracts thousands of visitors a year.
And while Port St. Joe largely avoided the major damage that all but destroyed its neighbor, Mexico Beach, when Hurricane Michael came ashore last year, that tempest arrived as a latest reminder of the fragility of life on a narrow, sandy spit of land that juts so precariously out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ultimately it was a former Chicago newspaperman who wrote St. Joseph’s obituary. In his 1922 essay titled “Old St. Jo.” George Mortimer West eulogized:
“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man.Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”
Captain Quarantine is everywhere. On the walls, in city parks, on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s a bit silly perhaps. But the dumpy little cartoon guy’s message is deadly serious: “Be a superhero. Stay home!
“We wanted to inject a little levity into the situation,” says Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman.
Listen, we can all use a smile right about now.
And here’s something else we can feel good about.
Donald Trump may have dithered for months. Ron DeSantis for weeks.
But Gainesville and Alachua County officials didn’t have the luxury of sitting in some far away office and bemoaning “fake news.” They acted with little hesitation to limit public gatherings, close unessential businesses, order residents to stay at home…and carry on as best they could with “business as usual.”
Fortunately, Feldman brought along his “Pandemic Response Playbook,” when he moved into the city manager’s office barely six months ago.
“Whether it’s a pandemic, a recession or a hurricane it’s the same playbook,” said Feldman. “The important thing is to be methodical and collaborative, think through the issues and don’t jump to conclusions.”
City Hall may be closed. But essential city services are not in lockdown.
Those “community builders” (Feldmanese for city employees) who can do their jobs at home are. Some whose jobs have been temporarily sidelined have been repurposed to do things like making calls to check on elderly shut-ins.
But GRU crews are still out and about. Public works is taking advantage of relatively empty streets to repaint lanes and do roadside maintenance. Cops are doing traffic control at mass food distribution events and providing security during coronavirus testing.
Some cities have stopped doing transit. But RTS buses roll still.
“We’ve given drivers necessary protective gear,” says Feldman. “We’ve reduced occupancy on the buses and gone to rear door entry. We’re cleaning the buses more frequently.”
Overall “we want to make sure everybody is protected while the work is still going on. We’re using this time when things are shut down to do work that might otherwise inconvenience businesses” or disrupt traffic.
And perhaps most remarkable, the old intergovernmental feuding that has haunted city-county relations for generations seems to have been exorcised. Mayor Lauren Poe goes on about “how well we have been able to work with the county and how responsive Hutch (commission chair Robert Hutchinson) has been. He made sure to consult with us before any emergency order went forward. He Incorporated our concerns in the orders.”
What, no fighting over who has “absolute” authority? What’s wrong with these guys?
What’s right is that city and county governments are those which are closest to the people. We are all, as Feldman never tires of saying “neighbors,” and neighbors look out for one another.
Still, the real test of local government’s effectiveness will come after things return to some semblance of normal. Lost tax revenue, business closings and joblessness will all conspire to challenge our collective ability to bounce back.
“What role can we play in helping avoid displacement of residents?” Poe poses. “How we help local business stay afloat? We have so few resources but all eyes will turn to us first.”
One way or another, coronavirus is going to test the resilience of daily life hereabouts.
“We’re going to have to deal with a significant economic blowback,” says City Commissioner Harvy Ward. “How can we do things differently and creatively” and with fewer resources? “There’s really no template for that.”
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.