When I was growing up downtown Gainesville slowly underwent the transformation that many towns went through as the exciting and new concept of malls appeared. The first big one was a strip mall out on North Main not far from the icehouse. It had a long covered sidewalk and a broad, treeless parking lot. Other strip malls followed and finally a real mall out on 13th with the stores all tucked up inside beige anonymous buildings.
Downtown languished. What had been the pricey stores ringing the courthouse (which of course had been a gorgeous old building torn down and replaced with a modern cube sometimes called the air conditioner by less charitable folks) went empty and then became low rent specialty stores for a while. Nearby places like the Primrose Inn stayed put longer but eventually most everything turned into something else.
The only good thing I can say about the “new” courthouse is that they put in a big fountain and the water pattern constantly changed and the whole thing was lit by rotating colored bulbs so it was like a symphony of color and water. We used to go downtown and sit on the benches in the evening when the streets started to cool off and watch the water dance and change colors. That was fine entertainment in those days — simple and free.
But we went to the malls like everyone else. My first two jobs were in strip mall stores, a G.C. Murphy’s after school starting with I was 15 and J.M. Fields a little later on. I was the person who printed all those signs, one for each display with the price and other info. Back then it was done by setting rubber type and then using ink and rollers to print each sign, one by one.
I had a little print studio in those stores that was my domain. I listened to the Rolling Stones singing about satisfaction on my transistor radio and worked away in my dark corner of the stockroom. There was only red or black ink so you couldn’t get very creative but I turned out some very cool modern art in between sign orders. Other than dodging the assistant manager with busy hands who would come back to see how my “work” was going it was fine. Pretty sweet job really.
But the arrival of those malls was a turning point and most of America has gone through it. First a town is tired of being old-fashioned and gives up its center to become modern and at the same time everybody wants to move to a new concrete block house in a new subdivision far away from the tired wood frame houses closer to downtown. Then later you realize you feel lost and disconnected and you hope Disney or someone will build one of those old-fashioned town replicas near you so you can move in and feel at home again. Or maybe you stayed put and got lucky and are still living in one of those downtown homes near the Duck Pond that have all been redone by now.
In the years since I grew up Gainesville has embraced its historic buildings and many are restored and back in use including old houses and businesses. There’s been a lot of repurposing — car dealer to dance club, post office to theater, movie house to concert hall, restaurant to offices — and some of it has been pretty good. People love Gainesville and compared to some Florida towns it remains a really good place to live.
Newnan’s Lake still beckons from right outside of town though it has a fancy parking lot and boat ramp where you are not likely to get stuck in the mud trying to put your boat in. Cross Creek and the memory of Miz Rawlings is still just down the road and so is antique-laden Micanopy out between Gaineville and Ocala. The Devil’s Millhopper is still there but now it’s a state park and you can’t scramble down the side of that deep sinkhole and explore the little creek on the bottom or pull your car in late at night for some closed-eyed heavy breathing and kissing. Now there’s a raised walkway that you must not leave it.
Maybe it’s for the best that the juke joints are gone along with the late night café down the street from my first apartment that sold chicken sandwiches that had whole pieces of fried chicken, bones and all covered with a slather of mayo and some lettuce and tomato. I don’t think the BBQ place just off 13th is still there with its challenge that if you could eat its hottest sauce, you could eat for free.
Oh but sometimes at night there are ghosts in the trees along the dark narrow roads leading in and out of town. Roll down your car window and you can almost hear singing in the distance or the sound of laughter soft and far away mixed in with the other night sounds.
Joni Mitchell nailed it, “Don’t it only seem to show that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
(All photos this page courtesy of Florida Archives.)