My wife and I were driving Route 75 in Florida heading north out of Ocala when I had the sudden urge to make a detour up the road. In between the insane number of 18-wheelers streaming north and south on this, one of only two vital interstate arteries connecting the boot of Florida with the rest of the East coast of the country, we barreled up the racetrack to a new pit stop - in Gainesville.
You see, there was a rock and roll destination in that city, and as my wife found out on her phone while we drove, it was only nine miles off the highway. We could angle onto local roads, see what we could see, and then catch another entrance to the highway further north. Tom Petty Park had been dedicated six months earlier at 400 NE 16th Avenue in Gainesville on what would have been the rocker's 69th birthday - October 20, 2018. Tom's daughters Adria and Annakim, plus the star's brother Bruce attended the ceremony which brought out over 300 fans to witness and add their stamp of approval to the move by the city of Gainesville.
I hadn't read much about the dedication or the place; indeed, coverage of the event had been sparse, but it seemed like a brief pilgrimage would be the right thing to do since I was a dedicated follower of Petty since his early days passin' through Boston with the Heartbreakers at the Paradise Theater. In that long career which took him from the small clubs to the largest stages armed with one of the greatest catalogues in music, Petty etched his permanent mark. In the second half of the 20th Century and into the new, he was one of the few Rock and Roll artists who truly mattered.
We arrived at midday and cruised into town, Waze leading us confidently down streets like we'd lived there all our lives, except when I stabbed the car abruptly across two lanes to make an unexpected left (no biggie for a Boston driver). After leaving some angry honks behind, we abruptly came upon the place. The GPS told us we were there just as my wife spotted the distinctive red metal sign greeting visitors at the entrance. The "Damn the Torpedoes" album cover shot of Tom, Rickenbacker hanging off the shoulder in a frozen moment of rock coolness, grinned back at us.
We parked the rental and took some photos at the sign, then found another with all the park rules and restrictions. I suppose you were never allowed to smoke at what was previously known as Northeast Park, but the rule seemed a bit ironic, considering who the place was now named after. I suppose you could 'get to the point and roll another joint' there, as long as you didn't light it up! Equally ironic was the noise ordinance for Tom Petty Park, but I suppose you've got those at all public spots in residential areas.
I'd never paid much attention to the news reports about the dedication and now realized that Tom Petty Park was not what I had expected. I thought the city of Gainesville would have devoted an area of green space including a monument honoring its favorite musical son and, perhaps, a guide taking folks around to explain the little-known facts of his local life. Maybe this would be just one stop on a 'Tom Petty Trail,' linked by trolley which whisked you from his boyhood home, to first club gig location to this park and more. "And now to the left, may I direct your attention to the music store where Tom Petty bought his first electric guitar!" (Insert oohs and ahhs)
But it was just a park, with some baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and squash enclosure surrounded in colorful graffiti (actually nicely-tagged and arty). I was deflated by this; I thought there'd be more of an exciting tribute to an international icon here in his boyhood home. It wasn't until a day or two after we rejoined the madness on Route 75 that I read of brother Bruce Petty's excitement for the park's dedication since it had been the place where he and Tom played for hours, darting in amongst the tall trees dangling gnarled Spanish Moss, and learning to hit line drives that would get them to first base.
Realizing this, my initial disappointment gave way to a deeper appreciation. This was not the glossy, high-profile Hard Rock Café version of a Tom Petty tribute site, but something far more special and intimate for Gainesville's citizens. Tom Petty had not been transported to the spot from his adopted home of Los Angeles via a block of etched marble or granite commemorating his many musical accomplishments. No, Tom Petty had actually been here. He'd lived in these fields and bushes playing hide n' seek and, probably, sneaking a cigarette or one of those joints later on.
Gainesville is a city, a pretty big one with the University of Florida at its core, but the residents and government working on their behalf, displayed some small-town wisdom when they went the 'other' route. No Graceland here, its time to play ball instead. Tom Petty Park is about the kid in all of us, how we grow up, and then reach for the stars. It's just a simple ballpark when you drive by, but it's a field of dreams for so many who venture past the parking lot.
I'd forgive Gainesville a t-shirt and merchandise shack at the spot; it might help to pay the bills on the place. I don't know about the trolley idea, though….
Carter Alan 3-18-19