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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

UF students and Gainesville’s Black neighborhoods: A ‘broken relationship’

Gainesville residents weigh in on how students can change Gainesville for the better

UF students come to Gainesville with the promise of education, new friendships, experiences and overflowing opportunities. However, their residence is temporary, and they may not realize how their actions could impact the surrounding community.

The Rev. Gerard Duncan, a pastor at Faith Ministries in Gainesville, said he has worked with students through the David & Wanda Brown Center for Student Leadership, a UF center providing guidance and resources for student organizations. He said it’s getting harder to live in Gainesville’s historic communities because the people native to the area can no longer afford to live there.

“A university can build relationships within a community where there's trust, and they can communicate,” Duncan said. “That relationship, historically, has been broken. Most community neighbors are very hesitant because of the broken relationship. They’re taking our jobs, taking our community, taking our houses.”

Peggy Macdonald, a public historian and former director of the Matheson History Museum, said the concept of ACRs — a nickname for Alachua County residents — creates an idea that residents are “townies” separate from UF.

“Gainesville doesn't view UF as separate,” she said. “There were so many people over the years who have gone to school at UF, who have worked for UF. The entire town of Gainesville stops when it's homecoming. So, there's a long tradition of embracing UF.”

UF dates back to 1853, when Florida established the East Florida Seminary, a public school that was merged with three others to eventually become UF, Macdonald said.

The East Florida Seminary was originally located in Ocala but moved to Gainesville in 1866.

When Florida Agricultural College in Lake City, St. Petersburg Normal and Industrial School and South Florida Military College were merging with East Florida Seminary, it was unclear whether UF would lay its roots down in Gainesville.

“The community of Gainesville fought hard to get UF and won over Lake City,” Macdonald said.

At first, she said many of UF’s faculty and students had ties to the Confederate Army. UF was established in Gainesville in 1905.

“It was a white, male-only school,” she said. “It replaced a Florida center, which had a long tradition first in Ocala of being pro-Confederate.”

Now in 2021, activists say Gainesville’s Black neighborhoods are being erased because of the city’s growth brought forth by the school that residents fought to bring here.

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“There are more people speaking up in the community against gentrification,” Macdonald said. “That has gone way back to the origins of the Fifth Avenue Art Festival.”

Nkwanda Jah, 67, was just one of the early organizers involved with the festival, which dates back to the 1970s. Organizers were concerned about gentrification and thought one way they could help was to celebrate the history of the Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street area, one of Gainesville’s historic Black communities, Jah said.

Some East Gainesville residents like Jah believe there are numerous ways UF students can help the community around them. She said students are especially needed for volunteer tutoring at local schools and clubs.

Her nonprofit, Cultural Arts Coalition, hosts a science club at several schools and public libraries to engage elementary school students with science activities, she said. The organization also has a bus that it turned into a mobile interactive science station that travels all over the county.

“The more volunteers we have, the more clubs we can have,” Jah said.

Gentrification creates barriers between people, said Faye Williams, a 66-year-old Porters Quarters resident and founder of cultural and activism center M.A.M.A.’s Club.

Williams believes that by not educating students about the history and people of Gainesville, UF is purposefully separating students from residents.

“Maybe we need students to come over to our centers and help our children,” Williams said. “Or maybe come over and take our children over to the art gallery. We need to live in one world. We got to learn how to communicate with each other.”

JoJo Sacks, a 24-year old coordinator for the local activism hub the Civic Media Center, said she volunteered at the CMC when she was a UF anthropology student.

Originally from South Florida, Sacks didn’t know about the history of Gainesville at first. She said she learned not by her schooling at UF but by showing up for community initiatives happening around town and getting to know people.

“UF doesn't really do a good job at educating its students about the community that the university is situated in,” she said.

The CMC has been around for 28 years and was started by people who, for the most part, weren’t native to Gainesville, Sacks said. The organization tries to support those with ties to Gainesville who have been residents of the city for longer.

“I definitely think that a lot of students realize that there is much more to Gainesville than the university when they come to volunteer with us,” she said. “I've definitely seen that happen.”

Alexandra Quintana, a 20-year-old UF political science senior, said she goes downtown a few times a week as an intern with the State Attorney’s Office. In her free time, she goes to the eastern corner of campus to hang out with friends at 4th Ave Food Park and walks over to Cora P. Roberson Park.

Quintana said she became aware of the gentrification in historically Black neighborhoods in Gainesville through volunteering.

As vice-president of Take Action Florida, Quintana has helped organize volunteering events at St. Francis House, which helps fight homelessness in the area. She has also volunteered at the CMC.

“I think Civic Media Center is kind of like that heart of that region,” she said. “Because I feel like it does really bring that area together, and, for me at least, keeps me up to date with all the things going on.”

However, Quintana said she recognizes that as a Gainesville transplant who will likely leave after four years, she contributes to gentrification.

“Obviously, I'm not part of that community, so I can't really speak on those experiences,” she said. “But from an ally’s point of view, I just try to support when I can.”

Students should try to get involved with community organizations in any way possible, she said. Students should follow activists and local organizations that share opportunities for student volunteers on social media and host events to inform students about community issues.

Rachel Wolfrey, a 21-year-old UF political science and public relations junior, said she spends more time off campus than she does on campus. Wolfrey considers herself more of a Gainesville resident than a resident of her hometown of Fort Lauderdale. 

“When I turned 21 last week, I changed my driver's license to here,” she said. “All of my mail gets sent to here, my car registration is here, and I use this as my primary address for everything.”

As a transfer student from UCF, Wolfrey finds herself being most fascinated with what Gainesville has to offer besides the UF campus.

“Gainesville is such an amazing place, and there's so many amazing people,” she said. “People really take for granted that this is people's home. They don't take the time to learn about the area whatsoever or its historical significance.”

Contact Jiselle at Follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.

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Jiselle Lee

Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.

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