Tequila McKnight stood on the steps of Gainesville City Hall and told the crowd what it’s like to return to a home that no longer stands.
“When I walk through now, it's like a ghost town,” she said. “It makes me feel broken seeing my history gone.”
McKnight spent half her life in Seminary Lane, an affordable housing complex that was demolished in 2009. The Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development held a demonstration protesting a development plan for Seminary Lane’s vacant plot that drew more than 300 people Thursday evening.
The protest began on the steps of city hall at 6 p.m. and ended with a march to Seminary Lane’s vacant plot, located on the northwest corner of Northwest 12th Street and Northwest Fifth Avenue. Seminary Lane was located in Pleasant Street, Gainesville’s oldest historically Black community, which encompasses Northeast Second and Eighth Avenue and Northwest First and Sixth Street.
Residents were promised by the Gainesville Housing Authority that affordable housing would be built on the land when they were removed, said Desmon Duncan-Walker, president and founder of the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development. She said an Orlando developer is now trying to build student luxury housing on the plot.
The beaming sun illuminated the crowd as the evening began heating up. Eight volunteers encouraged social distancing and passed around masks and gloves. Speakers addressed the protesters at city hall and DJ E-LO Global played famous songs like “Sound of da Police” and “All Eyes on Me”, all from Black artists, to warm up the crowd for the next presenter.
Kali Blount, a local activist, told the crowd about the history of Seminary Lane.
He said it was built in the 1970s and housed more than 50 families.
Seminary Lane’s location gave its residents closer access to jobs, education, public transportation and stores, Blount said. Developers' plans to build luxury student housing will further displace members of the historically Black community and keep former residents from ever returning to their homes.
“They think our neighborhood is just a bedroom district for UF,” Blount said.
Wallace Mazon, a UF alumnus and member of the GoDDsville Dream Defenders, chanted “Black Lives Matter,” calling for Gainesville to vote in the upcoming election to create change for the Black community.
“You can’t say my life matters if you’re not showing up in November,” he said.
Development projects like Seminary Lane erode affordable housing in the city, said Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County chapter of NAACP.
When Foxx addressed the crowd, she asked them to raise a hand if they knew of any $600 a month one-bedroom apartments in Gainesville. No hands were raised.
“For someone who makes $12 dollars an hour, that price is 65 percent of your paycheck,” Foxx said.
Seminary Lane’s developers paid $8 million to buy the property, Foxx said. However, she said the developers can’t build unless permits are approved.
Five cars and a moped, representing local Black-owned businesses, led the march from the steps of city hall through downtown Gainesville.
Kiara Laurent, a 21-year-old UF criminology and sociology major and member of Dream Defenders, led the march through downtown Gainesville. She chanted “Black Lives Matter” at the top of her lungs through her megaphone. The crowd echoed it back to her during their walk through Main Street.
“I feel empowerment and liberation speaking because we are living in a revolution,” she said. “One day, I hope to see this written about in textbooks.”
At the march was Breonshea Speed, a 17-year old Gainesville High School student, who said she learned about the history of her community and the importance of fighting for a brighter future. She said it’s her responsibility to spread this information to other young people and fight for freedom in her community.
“Some of these people are my friends and family, and I just hope in the future that we can all come together and get what we have worked so hard for,” she said.
With the setting sunlight crawling through holes of the Spanish moss on the trees, some signs read “Homes for people, not profits” and “Housing is a human right.” The group arrived at their destination—the plot of land—at around 8:15 p.m.
Duncan-Walker stood on the flatbed of a navy Toyota Tacoma as she addressed the crowd again to inform them of a Gainesville City Commission meeting discussing Seminary Lane Tuesday morning. She told the crowd to flood the Zoom meeting to make their concerns heard.
City Commissioner David Arreola was in the crowd during the first part of the protest. Arreola told The Alligator he heard about the Seminary Lane situation from residents and community leaders months ago. He said it was clear that some people were removed from their homes under the pretense they would get them back.
He said he believes the private corporation is taking advantage of their ownership to turn a profit.
The development goes against the city’s comprehensive plan, the blueprint for future commercial and residential land uses in the city, Arreola said. The plan promotes affordable housing options in densely populated areas around the city.
“We don’t want to displace affordable housing,” Arreola said. “We don’t want to displace people out of their neighborhoods.”
The city commission must approve permits before building begins, he said. He declined to comment on whether he would support the permits but said permits for buildings that don’t fit the plan have been denied before.
“Residents were displaced under pretenses and promises, and now it is being changed for a massive high rise,” Arreola said. “I heard it was gonna have less than 10 affordable units. That just doesn’t equate.”
Blount sent the crowd home by reminding them who developers plan on providing housing for: UF students.
“All of this is going to be taken over by a university that does what for the community?” he asked the crowd.
“Nothing,” they shouted back.
“Take from us, we’ll fight back,” he said.
Protesters hold a banner that reads, "#StandForSeminaryLane," demanding that developers refrain from building luxury student apartments on land located in a historically Black community.