I live in 5 Points and I cherish whatever is left of the old downtown. And I wonder about people who don't mourn the lost glory of our city. But lately I feel the decline and dynamite-fueled response was due to the rise of new technology, not the result of greed or stupidity. The original downtowns of cities arose because that's where the ports were. Cities grow at bottlenecks of commerce, so if the ships had to dock downtown, then that's where all the trains, producers, manufacturers, banks, and insurers (all the employers) had to set up and so that's where everyone had to live. No one complained when the technologies of the steamship and train created a boom in downtown Jacksonville, but later technologies like highways created a bust that we are still dealing with. We should focus less on negative-nostalgia and more on our vision for how Jacksonville can take advantage of today's technologies to become a leader among cities.
The post-WWII period destroyed the natural monopoly of cities as centers of commerce. When did cargo ships get so large that the ports had to move closer to the ocean? When did the highway system pull cargo off of ships and onto trucks? When did cars become affordable for everyone to ride the new highways? Although it is an island of finance and luxury now, Manhattan was once mostly factories and wharves! After WWI, it had the same problems and the same responses Jacksonville had. We have already forgotten how by the 1970s New York City had become a worrying symbol of national failure. Robert Caro's famous 1974 book about New York City's famous dynamiter and builder Robert Moses was subtitled "The Fall of New York". Would anyone say today that New York City is "fallen"? The factories are gone, but the city grabbed hold of finance at the start of a global financial boom and has been reborn.
I think we need to step away from the nostalgia some times and the glamorous cities in our minds that never really existed except for an elite, lucky few. Cities were pretty filthy place for a long time. Would anyone like the paper factories to reopen downtown to dump stinky pollution into the air and river? Living away from the dirt and noise of the city was a dream-come-true for most. For better or worse, the factories are gone and downtown is now a very clean place ready for a fresh start fresh.
The rise of the information economy and technology in general have given us the oppurtunity to make the downtown better than it ever was. We can reclaim the good parts of the past cities (democracy, culture, commerce) without all the bad parts (pollution, pollution, pollution). To make the downtown a part of the new economy, we need new types of businesses and institutions to move there. UNF's acqusition of MOCA was thrilling to me, because I've seen how VCU has transformed downtown Richmond, and how NYU has filled Greenich Village in Manhattan. UNF should continue expanding downtown with a new law school right near the courthouses and the business school right next to the banks. That would be a job-oriented "public-private partnership" that the mayor says he loves. I'm not saying that we don't need people in occupations of all kinds -- I think the elimination of vocational training in our high schools has been a tragedy for young people. But I am thinking strategically about capturing the BIG money that flows to the cutting-edge businesses that move where the workers are educated and the government and universities are intertwined.
The old downtown was doomed. Dynamiting was a well-intentioned, drastic, and unfortunately ineffective way to try to change the city into something new for the post-WWII economy. Who could have predicted how far cars and television would change our society? My point is that this we need to focus on ideas for downtown that are a part of the high-end of the new global economy. We don't want to compete with China, because those jobs are terrible and pay nothing. The reason China is growing so fast is because it was so poor that there was nowhere to go but up. We want to compete with Houston and Charlotte as one of the new centers of educated workers. In the 1800s, Jacksonville was in a prime position for citrus and timber. What will be our niche in the 21st century?