When the deadliest tornado in Georgia history ripped through Gainesville nearly 80 years ago, the city was forever changed.
More than 200 lives were lost, thousands more injured, and the small town lay in ruins, which smoldered for days to follow. But the people of Gainesville, through their pain and loss, began almost immediately to rebuild.
Joey Summer and Louis Hokayem, Gainesville natives and graduates of Gainesville High School, have long been inspired by the city’s still-tangible spirit of renewal.
When Summer saw graffiti strewn across the wall of a historic downtown building this summer, he saw an opportunity to turn it into something good, something better than before.
“There was some vandalism that took place, just really cheap, street vandalism on the wall,” Hokayem said. “Joey saw that and was motivated to not only clean it up but turn it into something good and do something uplifting.”
Summer, a third-year law student at the University of Georgia, said he was inspired by travels to New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities in the South when he contacted Hokayem about creating a mural.
“When I was traveling, I saw a lot of street art on the sides of buildings, and it was kind of a fun experience,” he said. “A lot of them were really detailed and really good. Seeing that, I thought, ‘We live in this great, hometown atmosphere. Why don’t we do something similar?’”
The mural is located on a wall in the parking lot next to Recess, owned by Summer Historic Acquisitions and managed by Joey Summer. Painted in black against weathered, whitewashed brick, the face of President Franklin D. Roosevelt looks thoughtfully upon the words “Good People of Gainesville.”
“I’ve always been very personally connected with the story of the tornado because my grandmother survived it,” Hokayem said. “So I’ve always been interested in the impact it had on our community, in what the citizens of Gainesville did to rebuild the city and, really without skipping a beat, deciding to make it even better than before.”
Hokayem said he and Summer extensively researched the tornado of ’36, including the transcripts from Roosevelt’s visit to Gainesville two years after the storm, when the town was almost completely rebuilt.
“That’s where he addressed the citizens again, and in the intro to his speech, he referenced the citizens as ‘the good people of Gainesville,’” Hokayem said.
After settling on the words, creating the design, cleaning the wall and navigating some bad weather, Hokayem, with Summer’s help, painted the mural in one day.
“We got really excited about it,” Hokayem said. “We liked the open-endedness of the ‘Good People of Gainesville,’ while choosing something rich with history.”
Summer said the history of the tornado echoes what his hopes are for the future of Gainesville.
“I wanted this mural to be a sign of rebirth,” he said. “It’s a part of all the catalysts for the ‘get back to the square’ movement. Let’s rebuild this city, let’s become the greatness Gainesville was at one point, what it still can be and will be some day.”