Road Work Ahead
Urbanization and the gainesville music scene
by Edysmar Diaz-Cruz
In the late nineties, the space between what is now UF Nails and Wing Zone on University Avenue transformed from a serene coffee shop into a high energy punk-rock hub for residents and college students alike. On any night of the week thereafter, local bands would take over the makeshift stage while raging music fanatics danced in the crowd, banging their heads and spilling PBR on themselves, the floor and others.
These regulars, whether they were aware of it or not, participated in the making of Florida’s first punk-rock paradise, putting Gainesville on the map as the home to grungy, tatted, angst-ridden young adults. Known to long-time residents as Common Grounds, this venue would reign for fifteen years. Today, a bike repair shop stands in its place.
Such seems to be the fate of various local music venues and small businesses in Gainesville. As lively as the town is, with its plethora of college-aged youth, bustling midday foot-traffic and radiant nightlife, the culture of Gainesville itself seems to be at a crossroads.
A quick drive through Gainesville reveals the town’s current struggle to balance the overwhelming growth of the University of Florida and the livelihood of long-time Gainesville residents. One need not look further than the landscape itself: noisy construction of shiny, modern buildings bulges out against the quaint, colonial-style properties that characterize the town as one rich with history.
On my way to meet with former co-owner of Common Grounds, Jason Rockhill, my Uber driver Jacklynn revealed to me her plans to move out of town within the next two years. I was curious as to why, and she pointed to an awkwardly-located skyrise as we drove past it: The Standard, a blocky building towering over the storefronts scattered beneath it.
“That just tells me there will be a lot more students,” she said, expressing her concerns about the creeping development of student housing. As she drove toward Downtown Gainesville, she continued to gesture at various businesses that are shutting down or moving, including Leonardo’s By the Slice, a local favorite restaurant that is set to close in the middle of summer. She explained that a good friend of hers has been working there for five years but will soon be one of many Gainesville residents out of a job.
“We used to ride our bicycles to these places...now we can’t even go to them because it’s so congested and parking is so bad,” she said, remembering a time when Gainesville was more accessible to non-student residents. Having lived in Gainesville for fourteen years, Jacklynn blames the rapid, ambitious growth of the Gator Nation.
According to the Gainesville Sun, the block stretching from 805 to 819 West University will soon give way to Inception, a six-story apartment complex. This project was initiated as an expansion of UF’s Innovation Hub and approved by the City of Gainesville. One of the old gems already buried underneath the rubble includes The Jam, a popular venue that had to close its doors in mid-2017.
The Jam began as a passion project, and survived on the support of regular attendees — many of them including UF student. It ended with demolition after a four-year run of eccentric festival-like nights headlined by local bands.
“Our intention wasn’t to create a music venue,” said Blake Briand, sitting next to me on the steps of Heartwood Soundstage’s main building during its second annual music festival. A crowd of all ages lounged and chatted in the afternoon sun, “We became the stewards of something that had its own life.”
Briand, alongside brother and sister duo, Veronica and Eddy Arenas, co-owned the Jam. Previously, the property belonged to Veronica and was home to a small Cuban café called Puerto Tagwa, which she decided to close down before the end of its lease.
Equipped with a beer and wine license, an indoor/outdoor space and a shared passion for music, the three decided to team up and host one show per week as an effort to pay off the cafe’s rent for the remaining months. That traffic grew more and more consistent — and profitable — and soon, the venue formally opened to the public. Every Thursday night, friends and newcomers would gather and connect in the collective experience of jamming out to live music.
“Once we had established — somewhat quickly — a kind of house-show vibe, we noticed that we might have something here and got more serious about it,” he said.
Eight months later, the newfound music venue owners decided to renew the lease. This time however, they were put on a month-to-month renewal schedule: every month, Briand and the Arenas would have to renew another fleeting lease, knowing that this month could be their last.. The property owners wanted the freedom to tear down the building within the next six months, should any offers arise.
So the Jam had just begun, and it was already in jeopardy. The trio continued signing each lease despite the looming threat, and before they knew it, The Jam had turned into a local staple — a go-to spot for performers and music-lovers. It would survive on this precarious lifeline for almost four years.
“I’d like to think that we established a firmer culture in Gainesville for the music scene. We fostered a lot of bands and there was definitely a community that formed specifically around the Jam,” Briand said. “We adopted the misfits of Gainesville.”
Informally known as the Jam Fam, this tight-knit community formed as a result of the Jam’s inviting atmosphere. Now it exists in pockets, members bumping into one another like old friends at other venues or music festivals held around town. Briand noted that he saw about thirty Jam Fam members at Heartwood Music Festival.
The last time this many of them were together at once was at Spirit Fest, a music festival originally held at the Jam, but made possible one more time at Heartwood Soundstage as an homage to the venue and the feel-good vibes for which it was known. As The Jam’s fate came to an end, Briand made a rather impulsive and emotional decision to announce the festival on Facebook despite a lack of location. He figured he’d use the last of The Jam’s funds to get “the Jamily” together one last time. Bands performed for free as a nostalgic thank you to the venue, many of them having started their musical careers by playing at its old one-night shows.
Now, sitting on the same steps where Spirit Fest took place, Briand paused and solemnly watched a couple play frisbee as a band performed a cover of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie on the outdoor stage. Although The Jam has been closed for over a year now, Briand is constantly reminded of that era of his life. He tells me about a young man wearing a Spirit Fest shirt at Barcade a few nights prior to our conversation.
There was a limited supply of about fifty shirts and seeing one lights Briand up. Having sold them all himself, he remembers the design clearly: “Jam” in front, and “Long Live The Jam” bumper sticker in the back.
Having paved the way for venues like The Jam and The High Dive, Common Grounds filled a long, exciting chapter in the history of Gainesville music. Today, the city is known for its heavy punk-rock subculture, and this venue was one of the earliest byproducts of that. Borne out of a need for local bands to have a space to perform, what was once a coffee shop evolved into a small, intimate hole-in-the-wall for locals.
Jason Rockhill, who was then looking into the business of opening a record shop, decided to get involved with the management of Common Grounds when it moved to a larger property, where The High Dive currently stands. During his time as co-owner, Rockhill was in charge of production, security, and promotion. When asked whether or not Common Grounds faced any challenges, he let out a large sigh.
Like many local businesses, the venue did poorly over the summers, a time in which students of University of Florida leave town for summer vacation. Business is slow — almost nonexistent — and it becomes difficult to break-even.
“You’re tied to the college schedule, whether the college students are coming to the shows or not. It’s how this town works,” he said.
That was the case for Common Grounds, but Rockhill and his team managed to make up their summer deficits whenever school was in session. Although the venue could count on non-student regulars, it usually needed a lot more ticket sales to turn a profit. However, as UF continued to climb the ranks as Florida’s leading public university, Rockhill noticed a shift in college student attendance.
“I think that as time went by, the college kid fell away a little bit for us,” he said. “ I don’t think that kids today find that going to see a band Friday night is their ideal plan for the weekend.” Rockhill noticed that DJs and nightclubs have gained traction over the years, while student interest in attending live rock shows has dwindled, losing its cultural significance.
As a result, Common Grounds found itself having to compete with venues in surrounding metropolises such as Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa. In order to attract acts that would entice students to buy tickets for a Wednesday night show, the venue would often have to outbid these cities — which was not always great for business.
“A different kind of kid comes to UF now. The entire university is more skewed toward the sciences and research. Entrance requirements are much higher than they’ve ever been before,” he said. “A lot of the liberal arts programs are naturally shrinking and I feel like a decent chunk of those kids who get an art degree or a music degree are the ‘band kids.’ There are not as many in town anymore.”
For fifteen years, Common Grounds hosted bands like The Black Keys and Explosions in the Sky and spurred the success of smaller acts like Against Me! Ultimately, the venue succumbed to the pressures of shifting music trends, apathetic college students, and the challenges of maintaining a business. It closed its doors in mid-2011.
After Common Grounds moved from its original location, 1982 Bar briefly stood in its place, continuing its legacy of late-night punk rock n’roll shenanigans. The grungy, sweaty nights of raw, uncensored, and adrenaline-infused live performances, however, officially came to an end with yet another venue-closing, giving way to the birth of Gainesville Cycle, a business that now fulfills the needs of UF bikers.
Across the street stands an abandoned building, burgundy paint chipping away with the passage of time, surrounded by an empty lot — it’s own history attached but long forgotten, surviving only in the memories of those who lived long enough in Gainesville to remember it.
Once a year, Downtown Gainesville transforms into a mecca for punk-rock and pop-punk fanatics as out-of-town bands perform across various venues ranging from small bars to large concert halls. This underground festival is known to thousands as The Fest, attracting pierced and tatted music enthusiasts from all over the world. For one whole weekend, attendees overwhelmingly book the entire Holiday Inn for a several days of binge-drinking, guitar riffs, and venue-hopping. One can usually hear the music echo from downtown from as far as a mile away.
In my ten months living in Gainesville, I hadn’t once heard about this festival among peers. I learned about it for the first time from Jacklynn, my uber driver. She revealed to me that I wasn't the only student to be so surprised. The music scene in Gainesville is so distinct, tangible, and historically significant, yet students remain out of touch, which brings to question UF’s role in overshadowing the cultural oasis that at one point defined this town.
There is a generational divide between what younger Gainesville residents and older residents think is right for this city. Residents like Rockhill and Jacklynn seem to prefer the golden days,drunk on the nostalgia of small hole-in-the walls and locally owned business that could draw a steady crowd of quirky pre-hipsters. Younger generations of today, the bulk of Gainesville’s current population, seem to prefer and embrace the urbanization of this college town. They are excited by the modern age and the prospect of new, hip places.
Caroline Fried, whom I met outside of Maude’s Cafe, nodded skeptically at the idea of UF changing Gainesville for the worst, amused by the idea of this insidious entity out to erase Gainesville’s history and culture. Currently a senior pursuing a major in Microbiology, she has high hopes that the growth of the university will be good for the town.
“I’m pretty excited to see what Gainesville is going to be like in five to seven years,” she said. “I’ve been told that Gainesville may become the next Silicon Valley in the Southeastern Region of the U.S.”
Having lived in Gainesville since the age of two, Fried viewed the sprouting of new developments as a good thing, and not necessarily a threat to local businesses. As she explained this, she gestured behind me to the Maude’s Cafe sign, a charming landmark coffee shop in Downtown Gainesville.
“Maude’s isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” she said.