The Voice of the Gem City

June 4, 2020

This is Marcia Lane, your roving reporter.

Putnam County’s courthouse is closed today and downtown businesses have been urged by law enforcement to close at noon as Palatka prepares for a three-hour rally on the courthouse lawn. Organizers want removal of the Confederate memorial commemorating those who died in the Civil War and are seeking to have all oak trees on the courthouse lawn cut down. They say those are considered symbols of oppression in the African-American community. The rally is from 4-7 p.m.

It’s a rain event in the three-county area today with rain predicted through the weekend. That’s good news for lawns and trees since the water table is low in many area.

Florida Department of Health in Putnam County reported no new coronavirus cases Wednesday. In Flagler County the case count is at 191, and in St. Johns County it’s 269, showing an increase of seven cases.

Beginning Monday drivers using Gordon Chapel Road off State Road 20 will have to find a new route at least until late August. Florida Department of Transportation says the closure is required as the widening project on SR 20 from the Putnam County line to SW 56th Avenue in Alachua County continues. Traffic detours will be clearly marked. This is part of a project to widen SR 20 from two lanes to a four-lane urban roadway, and this segment completes a 12-mile span of improvements.

About 200 people took part in the first of two marches in Flagler County Wednesday protesting the death of a black man by police in Minneapolis. The “black lives matter” message was repeatedly emphasized by the group at the Palm Coast march, which was described as peaceful.

On his first evaluation Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton got a 3.73 out of 5 score. That meant he was eligible for a 5 percent raise of $7,250. But he’s turned it down. Morton pointed to challenges including the economic fallout from coronavirus that will mean less money for the city. He said he appreciated it but hoped other staff would follow his example as a means of helping the community.

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis is allowing bars, movie theaters, nightclubs and bowling alleys to reopen with 50 percent capacity indoors and full capacity outdoors. It comes at a good time. The Northeast  Florida Regional Council which includes Putnam and St. Johns counties, says a new survey estimates more than 41,000 jobs will be lost because of coronavirus. Effects are expected to be 15 percent higher in northeast Florida than the rest of the nation.

News that the 130 plus year old Maltby Oak in Palatka is being targeted by protestors who say oak trees are a symbol of oppression to African-Americans has roused other memories. Historical research shows the tree by the Putnam courthouse has never been used for lynchings, despite urban myths. It has been the site of weddings and provided shade to people gathering for community events including the annual biracial Day of Prayer. For years it towered over art shows sponsored by the Palatka Art League and later the Blue Crab Festival. When county commissioners talked about cutting it down due to falling limbs more than a decade ago, people rallied. It was a letter by two teen girls from Interlachen that probably drew the most support and arborist Chuck Lippi from St. Augustine provided for free the needed help to revitalize it. For years the tree was lighted for Christmas. Judy Torode posted on Facebook many years ago she was the Palatka Beautification Council member who each night for a month would come over the bridge to flip the switch on at 7 p.m. and come back at 11 p.m. to turn the lights off. “One thing I will always remember, one evening I went down to light the tree. There was an elderly woman on Fourth Street side where I parked. She said to me, ‘I thank you turning that tree lights on. I am alone and this is my Christmas tree.’” Torode said, “It made all the hard work worth it all,” then added: “If we destroy our past history, we will be sure to repeat it in the future.”


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