Christopher Hooks on the Jacksonville Identity (or the lack thereof).
“Even if a city is known for being the most broke in America, at least it’s known for something!”
My wife and I are discussing Detroit, of course. We moved back to Jacksonville a few years back. We both have familial attachment to northeast Florida, and decided to move back after the birth of our daughter.
I know that I love Florida. We both pined for sandy beaches, water, any water, and really couldn’t understand during our four years in Texas why we moved there, or why Texas was so proud of Texas, and why people smirked or mocked us when we said we were from Florida. They called Florida the Nation’s penis, but we missed it anyway. After Texas, we lived in Philly. The people there felt that Florida was built specifically as the home of spring training for the Phillies.
Much has been made of Shad Khan’s recent comments regarding Jacksonville’s lack of anything iconic. The point has merit. And it does sting. The words wouldn’t sting if they were untrue, they would simply be dismissed.
But why do I love Jacksonville? What am I proud of? What is the draw to the area, aside from family, that would coax me to stay indefinitely?
I was born here, then lived all over the place, attended four high schools in three cities, lived in Atlanta, Norfolk/Hampton Roads, Saint Augustine, Austin, Savannah, Philadelphia, to name a few; arguably cities with strong identities, and of course some of these stronger than others.
How does Jacksonville identify and distinguish itself? If a drinking glass for tourist traps or a mug for Starbucks were being produced for Jacksonville, what distinguishing features of the city would set it apart?
Daytona has a speedway that embodies the city, Saint Augustine has age and a fort that it displays to signify it, Orlando has a mouse, Tampa has cigars, and Miami has a wealth of art deco, even colors that make you feel the city. And these are just other cities in Florida.
Jacksonville has slogans and bumper stickers. No doubt about it. “The Bold New City of the South” dates back to 1968, “The River City” is used by every other city located on any other river, “The First Coast” is regional, and I Heart JAX is very sweet. Any slogan, however, needs to be backed up, and none of these distinguish Jacksonville in a palpable or tangible way. What image comes to mind when you say, “Jacksonville”, to your friend from Kentucky?
I Heart JAX. Why?
A city is not one neighborhood. Although creativity hotbeds can certainly stem into the city and cause change, Jacksonville is HUGE landmass-wise, and all of these areas, whether desired or not, do make up the city and have an equal share in crafting the city’s image. So what is the pared down, nugget of Jacksonville’s identity? We don’t have a special sandwich. We do have a message we send out to the world. What is it?
These questions perplexed and frustrated me for three years. I asked others what their thoughts were, and heard that Jacksonville is a “great, average city.” I kept hearing and thinking that there was “no real identity”. This truth haunted me and I couldn’t feel settled in a city that felt so at ease with settling.
Then, we got involved. And we realized that it was easy to do so. There are many people in this city that are eager for betterment, and ready to help. And then I saw the beauty and perhaps what people were trying to express when they said that Jacksonville is “average”. This is an accessible city. Do you want to eat at one of the best restaurants in the city this Friday? Sure. And you can get a reservation. Would you like to go to the Cummer on short notice? Okay. You can walk in. Would you like to go to the Jag’s game? Go. You can get a ticket. Most importantly, would you like to make this city a better place to live? You can.
There are amazing organizations in this city that are making it better everyday. Visit Hemming Park during an Art Walk Wednesday or strike up a conversation at a coffee shop and you can introduce yourself to people that are taking an active role in their attempts to make this city a better version of itself. One that can be noted for its embrace of ideas and art. These things make our city better. Do you have a unique skillset, your first step to helping positive elements put Jacksonville on the map can be as simple as an email to groups with city-transforming missions such as: Rethreaded, The Cathedral Arts Project, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. These organizations are creating a lasting movement in a city, and are more than likely not concerned with an identity. Their concern is primarily on the humanity and humanities in our city.
What I didn’t consider was the possibility of an identity being a mental trap. A city’s identity can work to the detriment of its ability to grow, to change, to become modern or the city that it would be at its best. One not defined by icon, but by the positive presence of resident icons and the work that they do for the future of their city. A city that is made up of people, not landmarks.
What Jacksonville does possess is a blank canvas. The opportunity is real to make the city what we would like for it to become, to shape its future and to transform it into the place that we want it to be. We need to embrace the promise of open possibility, support diverse creative endeavors, and move forward in the flexible way that only a city of arts can.
Christopher Hooks is a novelist and artist. He lives in Jacksonville, where he is the Director of Development for Bridge Eight and works on his next books. His debut novel, Henry, was an Amazon best-seller.