Today is Halloween, a holiday full of scares and fright. People dressed in costumes of characters like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhies and that weird looking guy from Scream mark the occasion. Some will be trick-or-treating with their kids, some will be watching their favorite horror movie on the couch, and some will break out the Ouija Board and attempt to communicate with those that have left us. I will be doing neither. Instead, I will go where few dare to go on a dark Tuesday Night: Downtown Jacksonville. For those who want to be one with scary characters and haunting people, one can look no further than downtown’s deserted streets on a dark weeknight and get all the scare they need to last then through at least next spring.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. If you look at the crime statistics for downtown, you will see that downtown is near the bottom of the different areas of Jacksonville. However, it can still be an undesirable place. This was accentuated this past week when a downtown merchant’s surveillance camera captured a vagrant defecating on Laura Street in broad daylight. This is the side of Jacksonville’s Downtown that city officials don’t want you to see. They want to entice you to come downtown by telling you about all of the public and private investment that’s been going on, the new housing that’s been coming online, and even their plan to put popcorn carts on the Main St Bridge. However, they haven’t mentioned to you how they’ve cleaned up the vagrant problem – I wonder why that is.
Recently, The Florida Times-Union asked readers to submit their visions for downtown. There were submissions that included tall spires, things for visitors to do, and a riverfront aquarium. My vision for downtown is simple: A downtown that I can walk around a night without being asked for money, so someone can “catch the bus”.
Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton has previously said that downtown is a priority. His first plan was dubbed the “Big Ideas” plan, a plan that included some ridiculous ideas, such as demolishing buildings that they didn’t own, closing a lane of a bridge that they don’t control, and turning the southbank into the best children’s paradise this side of the Neverland Ranch (for the record, I have nothing against children, I’m just not sure that building a kids’ center in the middle of an are with a homeless problem is the best course of action).
Apparently, once the Mayor’s Office sat back and thought about their ideas, they came to the conclusion that they were half-baked. So, after a standing room only crowd filled the City Council Chambers for a Downtown Town Hall Meeting (some with “Recall Peyton” signs), Peyton tried again, and went back to the drawing board. He created four task forces to study different areas of downtown. The task forces have all hired consultants, who will all charge the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop studies that we can proudly put on the shelf to collect dust (see MetroJacksonville.com’s “Downtown Frankenstein” series). I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say that there’s a better chance of George W. Bush winning the Nobel Peace Prize than there being any discussion of solving the vagrant problem in these studies.
You know, I bet that the people that run our local social service centers have talked to a few colleagues in other cities. I’d be willing to take that a step further and say that there may be a city or two that has a better handle on their downtown vagrant situation than Jacksonville. One more leap of faith – these social service organizations won’t charge Peyton hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit down and discuss what other cities have done to control this issue.
There are many that would rather I not write this. Some of our city officials prefer to think of downtown as this bustling place with no problems. I guess they would prefer for someone to venture downtown (somewhere outside of the Landing, the Stadium or the Arena) for the first time in 25 years and watch someone defecate on the sidewalk. Welcome!
On this Halloween, I challenge our city leaders to discuss a way to get a hold of the vagrant problem downtown. Maybe next Halloween Downtown Jacksonville won’t be quite as scary.