The first in an ongoing series reexamining the arguments and public opinions that captured the public imagination or swayed the conventional wisdom about how the city would develop in the future. The decisions of the past affect us all in the present, and understanding why things were done or what the prevailing opinion was at the time can guide us in making the decisions about the future. This is a summary of the public perception of downtown development from my own Magazine, Dare Tabloid in 1990, about 19 years ago. Its hard to believe that nearly twenty years has passed since I wrote the following feature articles.
The Bold New City of God.
What is to become of it?
Yes, yes, the editor of Dare already knows. The Bold New City sucks and living here is strictly for the birds. He has been told. As a matter of fact, he hears it all the time. Every day of the week, practically every hour, on the hour. The common consensus is that there is no future, much less vision in Jacksonville. Only fools and Baptists (inseparable in many minds) would stay here if presented with a choice......
Our staid little town is a big trip to nowhere, run by stiff necked Baptists....a city filled and brimming over with rednecks racists, goofy fundamentalist types and obnoxious philistines whose lives are so pointless that they manage to equate progressive kids with devil worship and Art with communist/homosexual plots to convert the rest of decent godfearing humanity to perversion and evil....a community so culturally dead and prospectless as to become a departure point for talented, happening and with-it people who want to pursue that big shiny better deal in other bigger shinier cities with real city cultures.
The editor is certain that the gentle reader is as well acquainted with the litany as he is. The constant, and in certain fundamental aspects, justifiable complaint might be fine for the cattle like herds of suburbanites in Mandarin, First Baptists of Downtown, rednecks of Northside/Westside and the ruling classes of Ortega/Avondale and Baymeadows, but that for anyone else, it is a boring hellhole and a stifling bag pulled tightly around the neck of whatever culture, enlightenment or genuine liberalism might dare to rear its ugly head. Well the editor of DARE, for one, is tired of hearing it. ANd not just tired either, but sick and tired.
Oh to be sure, he can see how, the skeptical pessimism is so commonplace, (and after researching this article, he thinks he can guess why as well) But this humble servant is here to tell the gentle reader that Jacksonville is not the backwards tidewater town that popular perception would make of it. Changes are on the way, and further, these changes have been in the making for some time. As a matter of fact, our city is changing so rapidly and so incredibly that when (in little bursts of excitement) we've shared our findings with innocent bystanders, they have treated us as harmless, but still demented mental cases.
Again it is easy to see why.
One cannot help but wonder if the Bold New City's older residents feel like crying when they see the boarded up storefronts and buildings of downtown. To our present age, and the recent arrivals to the city the dingy empty structures are testaments to an unfathomable malaise. The evident blight and abandon are visual proof of a cultural stagnation, spiritual decay, and ramshackle opportunity. They are silent but eloquent symbols at the very heart of our community that its center is as dead and vacuous as the broken windows that stare out along Davis Street.
It is no wonder that there aren't many oldtimers that like to go Downtown anymore. But they didn't used to feel that way.
Jacksonville has not always been a collage of doubleknit polyester, dirty grey asphalt, collapsing buildings, artless graffiti, tedious Deerwood people, Baptists in would be Laura Ashley dresses, strip malls, grotesque street signs and substandard shops.
Once it centered around a vibrant thriving downtown whose vitality was the lifeblood of the entire city. It was the focal point of local culture and the channel through which the ambitions of its citizens coursed.
Charlie Dixon, who is not only the spokesman for the JTA, but also one of the most cultured southern gentlemen in this city remembers when going downtown was something one dressed for. Women wore gloves and men wore hats. It was a distinct experience that one looked forward to.
This writers grandmother also remembers that time. A time in which Jacksonville boasted six major performance theatres downtown (out of which, the Florida Theatre, the Arcade Theater, and the Ritz are the only ones left standing, and the Florida is the only one open.) , and restaurants in all the beautiful hotels around which social life radiated. In those days, the Jacksonville families would buzz through the streets after performances of the entertainment greats, or dinners in semi opulent ballrooms, and then stroll through Hemming Park and listen to the street musicians who played Jazz, or fiddle music, or youth groups singing the Gospel. The grandmothers also remember when Gone With The Wind opened and the streets, shops, and diners were crowded with people chattering about it.
Henry Klutho, our most famous architect had designed most of our public buildings, including the former city hall, the former library, and his masterwork, the St. James Building, which became May Cohens, the center of shopping for the entire region. At that time, Hemming Park was surrounded by shops and fashionable people still took walks down Adams Street.
Business was almost audibly booming, Jacksonville was the busiest, richest city in Florida, the St. Johns was bustling with activity, city life was glamorous, gossipy and exciting, and when performers stopped into town, they performed to full houses before swilling down illegal liquor connected by escape tunnels to the River in Empire Point. Faye Wood, the beloved queen of Regency was in her prime and raising hell.
What happened to it all? If there could have been a terminator like vision of the future in those days, it would have been very close to what downtown has become. If the editor were in his 70s no doubt he would burst into tears every time he was forced to view the grisly remains.
Today, no sane grandmother would be caught dead downtown after dark, exactly for fear of being caught dead the following morning. Hemming Park is a filthy, all but abandoned square whose bricks are crumbling beneath the weight of buses, which circle around what has become a roman forum for the homeless, the criminal, and the crazed. Klutho's St. James Building is closed. The city hall he designed was razed to make way for the truly green eyesore which imprisons the downtown library. Shopping is a fiasco, except for Barton Sligh's (providing of course, one is white), otherwise the only products easily purchased are office supplies and the more illicit offerings of street vendors peddling crack and tainted flesh. The Landing has become the most expensive video arcade in history and the once vital theatre/hotel districts are decayed ruins squatting on streets like beaten vagrants too mean to die.
It is very frankly an outrage that Downtown has been allowed to descend into its presently hellish condition, and it is more than high time something be done about its cultural calcutta and the pessimism it has bred amongst some of our younger citizens.
We decided to check out what was up. After all, this magazine and its editor have always been true believers in Downtown revitalization and have therefore followed with great enthusiasm the various plans submitted by the DDA, the JTA and the Chamber of Commerce. We cheered the prospect of the Landing, we supported the development of the Riverwalk, we were ecstatic about the Barnett Tower and the new American Heritage Life Buildings, and very nearly delirious when the JTA announced their intentions to construct a citywide lightrail rapid transit system.
Things must be moving right along, we thought to ourselves and let it go at that. Soon enough, we mused internally, all of our patience will be rewarded, all of our secret hopes will come true, and finally all of the grousing grumblers who seem to hate living in Jacksonville professionally, will be silenced with sheer wonder.
So we have watched massive and strangely unheralded projects proceed along in uniquely bold new City fashion; protested but ultimately unimpeded in their inexorable progress towards realization. But still, the dismaying refrain from the masses clamors at our doorsteps and in our ears.: "Nothing is going on in Jacksonville!......This Town SUCKS!"
And so this article was originally intended to map out mostly startling course of Jacksonville's development over the next 10 to 20 years as it is planned out by our various institutions. We had expected a pretty cut and dried little task of merely transferring a wealth of information, provided by touchingly eager press agents from the Downtown Development Authority, into a comprehendable print overview right here in the pages of Dare.
Ah. How Naive we were....how innocent. Little did we know what was in store for us.
Far from finding scores of presswhoring press agents, we were confronted with a creature whose megalomania and grotesque obesity approached the proportions of a comic book character. In the end, the singular uncooperation of this bizarre, grunting, furry entity turned out well. It caused us to do footworking field research which allowed us to view the development issues without the suave spin controlling which the DDA practices with spectacular regularity, and also revealed how fragile is the thread upon which the entire course of this community's future hangs. At this printing, we are at a turning point, a fork in the path of our future. Our leaders and planners may either sow the seeds of this city's future stagnation and collapse, or build the framework for a thriving metropolis.
In addition to the cultural deficiencies which weve already painted in lurid detail, Jacksonville is facing several issues which will greatly effect our future. They are:
A decentralized infrastructure due to urban sprawl.
A segmented community with no common city culture and rising racial tensions due to segregated neighborhoods with very little in common.
An increasingly service based economy with an unqualified work force which does not meet its needs.
The environmental havoc being wreaked by increasing population and the inadequacies of the present mass transit, garbage disposal, and growth regulation systems.
Population growth due to the general migrations from larger northern cities who did not address the above problems and are now themselves collapsing.
If each of these problems is not overcome, then we will face grave crises in the future, at a time when we will have developed to the point that correcting them will be exponentially more expensive. No doubt, the reader of DARE is wondering exactly what the hell all of this has to do with revitalizing the Downtown District of our conservative old Southern City, but these are exactly the problems which the timely but speedy redevelopment of Downtown will immediately address.