According to local experts, most sections of the wall have over 250 layers of paint now. In some places they had to replace concrete blocks because the weight of all those layers were weakening the stone.
It adds color to the scenery, in a way. It's gotten its own Wikipedia page.
There's also a memorial there that the city and the college students honor. It's rarely painted over, and when it is there is someone on hand to quickly repaint the memorial back in place.
1990 was my third year at UF. Studying towards a Journalism degree, although my middling grades were telling me I would have been better off going into Political Science or something. That August I started trying to do stringer work - freelance - for the school paper the Alligator and had gotten an article about the Harn Museum published (it would be the only one the Alligator would ever take from me, and I moved on to work for a local alternative monthly instead).
Classes were starting back up. The college town was packed with young men and women returning or arriving for the first time. Bicycles and cars everywhere. Apartment complexes surrounding campus packed with 35,000 students. Football season with Coach Spurrier starting up for the first year.
I had recently moved in with my twin brother. I went first year to live in a dorm whereas Phil went to apartment living, and the second year my dorm roommate and I tried a year at Gatorwood Apartments before Phil needed a replacement roommate for the third year. So there I went to Oxford Apartments on Archer Road while Mike moved on with some of his marching band-mates (funny story: if you ever watch the Florida-Notre Game bowl matchup (1992?), you'll see Mike being the one photobombing Coach Lou Holtz during a halftime interview. The Irish went on to beat the crap out of the Gators during the second half, so yeah, the loss is totally Mike's fault. But I digress).
That first week back in college... in my mind, I keep remembering it as being cold that week. A chill wind for some reason, even though it was Florida in the late August month. Maybe I'm remembering it that way because of what happened. Because of the sorrow.
A serial killer had arrived in Gainesville and began killing students that weekend.
The first day killings shocked the campus. The second day confirmed there was a serial killer on the loose and targeting young women. Rumors got out about what the killer did to the third victim's body. That weekend nearly every woman that could fled the city. My brother and I stayed. I have to admit, it was because as guys we wouldn't be targets. We were worried, obviously. Our female friends were threatened, but the ones we knew had fled to safety and they were going to be okay.
The third day of killings had a couple - girlfriend and boyfriend - dead in their apartment at the Gatorwood complex. I remember biking by the apartments - it was just down the block from Oxford - and all those cop cars, all that yellow tape, and I feared the worst.
Everybody - even the guys - panicked. Some of Phil's fraternity brothers came over to crash at our apartment that night. The thinking was "safety in numbers" although fear was rampant. Classes were cancelled for a few days.
Things calmed down once there was no sign of continuing atrocities, but things didn't fully return to normal. Every apartment building went through massive security redesigns. Some of the departed students never came back.
The police finally caught a suspect who used the same tools to commit burglaries elsewhere, and the man confessed. He was executed by lethal injection about ten years ago. Never say his name. The sonofabitch wanted to be remembered as a mass murderer like Ted Bundy. Screw him.
In time, memorials popped up. Five trees planted outside of Library East. The 34th Wall Memorial began that winter, and for all intents remains to this day and for as long as there is a wall there. Five palm trees bearing signs of the victims names - Sonja, Christina, Christa, Tracy, Manuel - are planted along the street median where the Wall Memorial resides. There may be others.
Gatorwood was bulldozed down years ago. It had been an aging complex when Mike and I lived there. There's a fancy expensive apartment tower there now. Oxford Apartments was still there last I visited Gainesville with my brother Phil and my nephews for a football season opener. Some of the places in town have changed. Places always do.
The memories and memorials never should change.
We shouldn't forget the lives taken that didn't need to go. There are so many of them taken from us every day across the globe, and the sorrow of it is how much waste and loss and pain there is when that happens.
If the killer had never been, right now Sonja or Christina or Christa or Tracy or Manuel would be my age or close to it, in their 40s. Likely married or with kids of their own. Kids old enough to be attending UF themselves by now, twenty-five years later. All five of them could be working somewhere, as doctors or engineers or teachers. Writing books, or painting, or composing music. Creating, adding to the world.
We are them and they could have been us. Maybe doing better, maybe not. But we'll never know, we'll never see.
All that loss during a cold week in August 1990.