Seeing the city hiking down King's highway


More concerned with the rumbling in her stomach than the rumbling of the exhausts of the vehicles owned by the members of the International Motorsports club, Heather Covaleski plops down in the parking lot of Verde Plaza to eat a burrito on a recent Thursday night.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 11:55 p.m.
It was a hike, but not a walk in the woods. In fact, here in the town that once earned the title Tree City USA, I would find very little shade and even less canopy.
This was a walk down the street of many names, most notably 13th Street and U.S. 441. To road planners, it's State Road 25. What might surprise those who actually look closely at the 9- by 30-inch green and white street signs sprouting along the curb is that it's also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Highway.
My goal on Monday, a week before many of us take a day off to honor the street's namesake, was to walk that road from the northern city limit to the southern, and take a close look at the city and street that's grown to be more main than Main Street in Gainesville.
My first discovery was that Gainesville didn't start where I thought it did. There's this peninsula that juts out to take in the Deerhaven power plant and the Turkey Creek Forest neighborhood. Motorists see a city limit sign way before they see much evidence of a city. I hit the road a few blocks north of the Florida Highway Patrol station, or actually I hit the mushy right of way, directly across the four-lane from a sign that told me I was on the King Highway.
Easy to miss In my mind, I knew the highway was a memorial to the late civil rights leader, but I didn't remember seeing the signs until I started looking for them. I measured the letters, the street number "NW 13th St." was in letters and numerals 4 inches tall, while the letters spelling out "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hwy." were 2 inches tall, not much bigger than the type spelling out "Daybreak" at the top of this page. Maybe that's why I'd missed it. Reading it from street level was a challenge for my 55-year-old eyes.
Across the road, tucked behind trees, I could see buildings I didn't remember seeing. From those buildings I could hear the hum of a work day, while closer at hand vehicles whizzed by close enough to supply a breeze and a steady cloud of exhaust. Cars that probably cost more than my first house shared space with trucks that seemed to be held together with rust and prayers. There were go-fast luxury sedans and semis hauling goods to town. This I concluded is an equal-opportunity road, which seems fitting.
As I continue my trek south, I encounter a weathered billboard, where nearly every civic organization I've ever heard of, and a few I hadn't, announce their presence. There were rusty and faded emblems for the Woodman of the World, Soroptimist International, Kiwanis, Rotary, Civitan and more attached to the sign that once welcomed travelers to a smaller version of Gainesville.
At the 4800 block, life got easier as a sidewalk appeared. I walked passed a gray building called Royal Blue that I remembered as a very rockin' place called Dub's. A few steps farther and I was looking at Paradise, the Paradise Trailer Court that is, three snug rows of aging mobile homes and a sprinkling of small oaks that had somehow escaped my notice in more than 30 years of traveling the road.
It's a rarity. Except for the dorms and frat and sorority houses closer to campus, it's a street that few people now call home, but it was easy to see that hasn't always been the case. Former homes are now businesses. Where families once sat down for dinner, you can now buy a cell phone, insurance, real estate or get your legs waxed.
Final resting place for black notables Several blocks south, I spot the fence for Mount Pleasant Cemetery that says it was established in 1886. Later, I learn from Larry Saunders, who is chairman of the cemetery committee at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, that the date is when the church got the deed. There are graves with dates older than that.
It's thought to be the final resting place for several people who first arrived in the frontier of North Florida, enslaved to area plantation owners. Saunders says you'll find the graves for Gainesville's first black physicians, Dr. Julius Parker and Dr. Robert B. Ayer there, along with teachers such as L.K. Williams and Willa Gaines. You'll also find the grave for Lance Cpl. Vernon T. Carter, a young Marine, who in 1965 became Gainesville's first casualty in Vietnam.
"It's very appropriate," Saunders said of the highway honoring King that's just outside the cemetery gate.
As I approach what used to be the Gainesville Mall and used to be Kmart, I spot the pile of rubble and hear the machinery that's making room for what will be a Lowe's. Next to the old mall sign, a gentleman is using a suction cup-equipped telescoping pole to attach letters that spell out an ad for the Party Shop. "Louis" is stitched over the man's right shirt pocket, while the logo over the left pocket is a surprising blast from the past. It reads "Gainesville Mall."
"I saw it when it was going up and when it was going down," said Louis Mosley, who has worked as custodian for the mall and what's left of it for more than 35 years.
Mosley remembers when what was a shopping center was a pasture and the many other changes that have taken place along the busy stretch of asphalt. It was 13th Street that brought customers to stores like J.M. Fields, Woolco and Maas Brothers. It was the route for midnight big-biscuit seekers at Skeeters and that led smoochers and movie watchers to the Suburbia Drive In.
Civil rights landmark As I continue south, the purple on my right told me I'd arrived at Gainesville High School, another address on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Highway that played a part in the racial history of the city. It was there that in 1964 that Lavon Wright, Joseph "Joel" Buchanan and Sandra Williams became the first black students to attend an all-white school in Gainesville.
Soon it wasn't my eyes, but my nose that alerted me to my surroundings. Stopping to smell the roses may be a challenge, but the bacon at the 13th Street version of the 43rd Street Deli, the heavenly aroma of Krispy Kreme and the mouth-watering temptations of Burrito Brothers were sending out their welcome.
I crossed W. University Avenue, making the transition from north to south, and stepped onto the doorstep of the University of Florida. The steps of Tigert Hall have known the footsteps of protesters against segregation and against the Vietnam War and have echoed with the cries against apartheid in South Africa. Those same steps served as the stage for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday rally in 1989, when his name was added to the highway sign in front of Tigert.
Reggie Laroche, 21, is a fourth-year student studying exercise physiology at UF. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale a Gator fan. He's a black student on what 50 years ago was an all-white campus, and he credits Dr. King and other civil rights leaders of the past with helping bring about the changes he now enjoys.
When asked if he knew that 13th Street was also named for King, he nodded in the affirmative, but also motioned to a nearby street sign.
"Why is 13th Street in bold then?" Laroche asked.
Reaching the limit I kept walking, feeling a bit of protest from a budding blister. I walked past my place of employment and came to Gainesville's most popular street-side fishing hole at Bivens Arm lake. Duke Eastman was trying hard, but not having much luck, a fact that earned him the teasing of friends who had their catch lining the bank.
"I ain't never been lucky down here," he said, puffing on a cigar as he made another cast.
I trudged on, looking for the city limit sign that would tell me my journey was at an end. I pass Williston Road, a sign that informs me I'm on a scenic highway, and a mosque. When I spot the E.T.-like hands in front of the Florida School of Massage, I decide to call it quits before reaching the elusive goal. I call for a co-worker to give me a lift back to my car.
As we ride north, I learn this street had one surprise left. In my 8.8-mile hike, I actually went 1.8 miles too far. That city limit sign was sitting in plain sight just across the street from the fisherman. I traveled by the sign every day coming to work, but didn't remember ever seeing it. This highway of many names still has lessons to teach.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

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