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World Citizen

It’s 6:59 p.m. Cameras are about to roll on the set of St. Augustine Tonight with Jorge Rivera. The YouTube talk show streams live every Tuesday evening through March 31. It’s now in its fourth season, and as Laurence Fishburne’s drug-dealing John Hull says in Deep Cover (check it out at your local video store), “Business is improving, from almost nothing to almost something.” Rivera, a New York-born Puerto Rican, dove headfirst into video production five years ago and has since become St. Augustine’s de facto chronicler. He can be seen at every city event with a press pass around his neck and a camera in his hand. This show is Rivera’s chance to step in front of the camera, and he relishes the opportunity.

It’s now 7 p.m. The talk-show host mounts the stage in his new, custom-built studio situated within the Corazon Cinema & Café. He’s looking dapper in a pinstripe suit. The room is filled with friends and supporters, many of whom are wearing branded merch. Action.

“My formula is easy,” Rivera told Folio Weekly before the show. “Monologue, bad jokes, three guests and a band.”

It’s the classic late-night setup, inspired by Johnny Carson. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The only difference is that instead of Hollywood stars, Rivera’s guest list comprises local artists, musicians and personalities (even the occasion alt-weekly editor).

Production values are high, but it’s been a steep learning curve. Rivera launched his production company, FirstCoast.TV, with nothing more than an iPhone, a whole lotta passion and Boricua ingenuity. The iPhone would soon be upgraded, but the passion remained. It’s the same drive that inspired Rivera to try his hand at professional acting in the 1980s and then travel the world for more than a decade. And the ingenuity, well, that’s how he’s been able to indulge his passion throughout the decades—both his artistic work and his travels have been supported by trade work and odd jobs. You name it, and he’s probably done it. Firefighter? Check. Electrician? Check. Painter? Check. Truck driver? Check. Salesman? Check.

Rivera’s youth was spent between his birthplace, New York City, and his parents’ homeland, Puerto Rico, giving him the quintessentially American experience of Anglo, Latin and African-American cultures. By the late 1970s, he was settled in Orlando, married (for the first time) and with a daughter. On a whim, he accompanied a friend to Jacksonville to audition for talent scouts representing the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. “I had done a little acting in high school,” he said. “I loved to write. I loved poetry. But I didn’t expect to hear anything back.”

Months later, however, he did. In the meantime, marriage number one had fallen apart, and Rivera’s ex-wife and daughter had split to Connecticut. New York looked all the more attractive, if only so he could be close to his daughter. He attended the academy for one year, in 1982, and spent the rest of the decade taking workshops, auditioning and working the occasional acting gig. He was even invited to audition for the uber-prestigious Actors Studio, although he didn’t make the cut. “The fact that they even gave me a shot at it was a big deal,” he said. “It gave me confidence.”

Alas, confidence doesn’t pay the rent, so Rivera supported himself with trade work. “Somehow, through a friend, I got into the New York Public Library as a helper painter, then as an electrician. I was in the union; the pay was great, and I got four weeks of vacation!” He used the opportunity to travel, making a grand tour of Europe—both West and East—in 1985. The experience expanded his community of friends and sowed the seeds of his future wanderlust. Before long, his New York apartment was a virtual hostel for international travelers, and Rivera himself would soon pack his bags.

“By 1989, my acting career was going nowhere,” Rivera said. “My friends who were doing it longer than me were still starving, too, living on deli coffee and bagels. So I sold everything, found homes for my two cats, and gave the key to my landlord.” Then, he bought a car and drove. And drove. And drove, staying with friends old and new, doing odd jobs and humanitarian work for a few weeks at a time before moving on to the next town, the next country, the next continent. “One year turned into 14.”

Fast forward to Maui, where Rivera found himself living for four years with a second wife, a French lass who eventually wanted to move closer to France. Rivera recalled the quaint village of San Agustín from his grade-school Spanish history books. It was a solid geographic compromise, and in a slight variant of the Tom T. Hall country classic, that’s how he got to St. Augustine. That was 2006. But marriages fall through, and so often they do. Within two years, Madame Rivera and their young son had left for La France. Monsieur remained in the Ancient City and worked his usual hustles to make ends meet. He assumed care of his ailing mother, who still lives with him in St. Augustine’s historic Abbott Tract neighborhood. Then he hatched his idea for a media and production outfit dedicated exclusively to his new town.

“I realized that St. Augustine was being mistreated, neglected,” Rivera recalled. “Many people don’t even know this place exists. Jacksonville media doesn’t really cover St Augustine. I love Melissa Ross; she’s one of the few that covers what happens here. So I started FirstCoast.TV with a friend: Fernando Bernall. After a few months, he felt it was too much work. He had a family to support, and there was no money in it. I was on my own, armed with only an iPhone 5s.”

Rivera styled the company “The Gentle Voice of the Community” and set out documenting local events, accumulating professional gear—and learning how to use it—as he went along. “I’ve always loved film. I’ve always had that aesthetic eye,” Rivera said. “It’s like someone who likes fashion but doesn’t sew; he knows where he wants to go but has to learn how to get there. Lots of tutorials, lots of Googling, lots of experimentation, and you just get better and better.”

In 2017, he launched the first season of St. Augustine Tonight. “The idea came about from FirstCoast.TV just meeting these incredible people,” he explained. “For some of them, their glory years were over, but they had incredible stories to tell. And some were just beginning to live their dreams. I realized we could do a tonight show featuring these personalities.”

Between his reporting for FirstCoast.TV and St. Augustine Tonight, Rivera’s work has become a digital library of city life: “I felt it was my duty to keep the city present in some sort of video format. Someone even told me, whether I know it or not, I’m creating a video archive of this city.”

Editorial
Accountability Now

Former Mayor Jake Godbold told the world and anyone who would listen why this JEA scandal belongs to Mayor Lenny Curry: because Curry purged the JEA board and replaced its members “with his own hand-picked cronies.” The frightening reality, however, is that every board, commission and agency in Jacksonville today is occupied by Curry cronies. Joe Peppers, Dr. Barbara Darby and a few others are an exception.

As for the JEA privatization scheme, Folio Weekly Editor Georgio Valentino wrote in a recent article, “…I reckon this merits federal attention. This isn’t a simple sweetheart demolition contract or a good-old-boy appointment; with a price tag of around $7 billion, if JEA were to sell under this cloud, it would be a staggering swindle, far above and beyond Jacksonville’s high standing tolerance for corruption.”

Although everything remains to be seen, State Attorney Melissa Nelson was right to call in the feds. Nelson has multiple conflicts of interest involving the mayor and two top members of his administration: Brian Hughes and Tim Baker. Nelson must recuse herself from all JEA matters. Both Hughes and Baker served as political consultants in Curry’s re-election campaign and Nelson’s run for state attorney. Baker has earned a number of consulting contracts with several of our city’s independent agencies since Curry was elected mayor. Let’s not forget that he and Sam Mousa, another City Hall insider, pitched an unsolicited and scandalous lobbying service contract to Duval County Public Schools. Many citizens questioned if they were not peddling influence.

The members of the current JEA Board of Directors have close ties to Curry and his political influence peddlers. A review of the situation suggests it was Curry who started the train to sell our valuable public utility. It was Curry who recommended Aaron Zahn, a member of his church, without a day of utility experience, to lead JEA. It was Curry who purged the board. And it was Curry who pulled the plug on the operation when it got too hot to handle. The JEA board immediately complied with his December 23 statement and terminated the invitation to negotiate. This JEA scandal has a direct connection to Curry. The fiasco was conducted behind closed doors, avoiding the sunshine. It was perpetrated like a crime ring run from City Hall.

After months of a steady drum beat and a loud chorus to form a grand jury investigation against the sale of JEA, Nelson finally made an official comment a few weeks ago: “This office is—and has been—looking into matters involving JEA.” Now she is handing the investigation to as-yet-unnamed federal authorities, who must investigate thoroughly and independently of Nelson’s office. Jacksonville has a high tolerance for corruption; it’s endemic. The pattern of corruption has endured thanks to prosecutorial discretion. The citizens deserve a root-and-branch investigation of Curry’s scheme to sell our public utility.

________________________________

Gray is a very concerned citizen.

Editorial
Building an Alliance

Do you enjoy all the wonderful activities St. Augustine has to offer? Dining, shopping, gallery hopping, pub-crawling, carriage rides or museums? And what about all the concerts, plays, shows, exhibits, nightlife and festivals that seem to never end? If you do, we need your help.

Did you know that even though St. Augustine has a population of roughly 14,000, it has more than 50 performing and visual arts nonprofit organizations that present delightful events all year round? That’s because this accessible and affordable arts, culture and heritage scene attracts people like you from across the region, the nation and even around the world.

Demand for events keeps growing, but our talented and expanding arts community has literally run out of performance space in this small town. St. Augustine does not have a dedicated indoor performance space with more than 250 seats, aside from schools, which are also outgrowing their facilities. A performing arts center can be a hub of artistic and educational activity, a centerpiece of an existing arts district, a catalyst for economic development and new investment, and a cultural legacy for many generations to come. It can attract high-value commerce and enjoyment to Downtown year round.

That’s why we need your help.

Who’s “we”? The EpiCentre Alliance: a nonprofit coalition formed to promote, build and sustain a visual and performing arts center in the St. Augustine area. Its founding members include: A Classic Theatre (ACT), EMMA Concert Series and Guild, First Coast Opera, Hispanic Culture Film Festival, St. Augustine’s Romanza, St. Augustine Chamber Singers, St. Augustine Community Chorus, St. Augustine Concert Band, St. Augustine Film Society, St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, St. Augustine Music Festival, St. Augustine Orchestra and several individual community leaders who support the arts.

The members have already contributed significant funds for incorporation and nonprofit administration. In addition, the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council recently authorized payment for two closely related and expensive professional studies. An independent consulting firm completed the first study in July 2019. It found that an arts center in St. Johns County would not only be viable, but it would have a significant economic impact on the county. The second study, to be commissioned this year, will identify and rank a number of specific site locations for consideration, as well as what range of facility costs may be feasible.

If we are going to build a performing arts center, we also need a formal business plan with operational and fundraising strategies to complement the results of those studies. This is where you come in.

First, look up St. Augustine EpiCentre for Arts & Culture. Follow us on social media and leave your thoughts and suggestions. The EpiCentre Alliance will use your input as it develops its professional business plan. The Alliance has engaged Vavarde Consulting for that purpose. Later this month, Vavarde will begin by researching our community—including many arts and culture organizations, who will put a performing arts center to good use, and the public, residents and visitors alike, who will enjoy and support our performing and arts center for decades to come.

The EpiCentre Alliance will need to raise $8,000 by March to pay for that professional business plan development. That’s the second thing you can do: donate. To spur that along, St. Augustine’s Romanza, one of the Alliance’s founders, has pledged to match funds up to $2,000 to help reach our goal. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

The Alliance doesn’t expect the county or the city to build and manage a performing arts center. It needs to be managed by a nonprofit, which is one of the reasons the EpiCentre Alliance was created. We are going to build something. We just don’t know quite how big, yet. That depends on you.

__________________________________

Syeles is president of the EpiCentre Alliance.

Weed
Great Lakes Tidal Wave

January 1 marked the start of something big in Illinois, as it became the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize the use of recreational marijuana.

As Folio Weekly has noted many times before, there are essentially two routes to legalization. One route involves organizers getting voters to sign petitions and vote in favor of a bill via the ballot (which seems to be a dead issue in Florida, for now). The other route, the one that has proven perhaps even more popular, involves a state’s legislature approving a bill and sending it to the state’s governor, who has the option of signing it into law. That was the route our neighbors up in the Prairie State took, and the results have been spectacular.

Under the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which the Illinois General Assembly passed on May 31, 2019, adults are now able to purchase up to 30 grams of flower or buy edibles with a maximum THC count of 500 milligrams; they can even buy as much as five grams of concentrate, also known as “wax” or “shatter.” Similar amounts would have resulted in felony charges in the past, but an estimated 116,000 residents with prior convictions will now be eligible to have their records cleared. Governor J.B. Pritzker, who signed the bill into law on June 25, 2019, has already issued pardons to 11,000 of them, and the rest are lining up.

Day one saw more than $3 million in sales; that number had doubled to $5 million within two days and soared to nearly $11 million within the first five days. Sales had stopped by January 7, because dispensaries had run out of weed for the general population. That has happened in several states in recent years, but it has never happened nearly as quickly. It will be a while before we can clearly see what effect this will have on general conditions there, but one may assume it will be similar to those states that preceded: fewer arrests, less crime and an overall improvement in quality of life. This is even better news than usual, since Illinois’ most famous city, Chicago, has been plagued by a brutal and dramatic spike in violent crime that has captured the morbid fascination of an entire nation. Murder is on the rise from coast to coast; our own city, Jacksonville, saw a historic high in 2019, and the new year is already off to a bloody start.

Legalizing weed will likely have no noticeable effect, since the bulk of that crime is driven by the illicit trade in cocaine, opiates and other drugs that even the most libertarian-minded among us will admit are illegal for good reason. But any little bit helps, and the elimination of criminal penalties will, at the very least, prevent many young people from being saddled with the kinds of records that can block their entry into honest work, which then increases their likelihood of crossing over to the dark side.

Could this happen here? Nope. Illinois has 176 legislators, a healthy quorum (113) of whom are Democrats—as is the governor. In Florida, 96 of our 160 legislators are Republicans. So even though Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seems more open to the idea than most of his peers, he will probably never be presented with the option to legalize recreational marijuana. As our state struggles to move in the right direction, one can only hope that conservatives will see the tidal wave of free money washing in from Lake Michigan and consider following the lead.

Living
Do Right Down Under

Bushfires are all too common in Australia, but this season has set a grim record. Fires have raged for months across the continent, devastating wildlife and their habitats. As a result, koalas, kangaroos and even bats are injured, orphaned or homeless. When one local family heard about the catastrophe, they knew they wanted to help. That’s why Rebecca Hughes and her husband, Chris, are sewing wildlife pouches for animals and collecting material, supplies and handmade pouches from local makers.

 

Davi: How did you become involved in the Australian wildlife relief effort?

Rebecca: Seeing such devastation happening from afar, I felt the need to help and support Australia at a time when it needs it most. I give Steve Irwin credit for fueling my love for animals, and this love motivated me to act locally and get our community involved in supporting the relief efforts.

 

What is your role in the relief effort?

My husband and I have volunteered to be a donation hub for Northeast Florida, including Jacksonville and surrounding counties. We will collect all donations and ship one massive package to Australia, so donors won’t have to bear the cost of shipping abroad.

 

Have you received a positive response from local supporters?

Yes! We have had several individuals reach out who are interested in helping but unsure how they can contribute. I often say, “Time is the most valuable resource,” so if you can put your skills to work, like making homemade items for wildlife animals or cutting materials for other crafters, this is more intrinsically rewarding than giving money.

 

How can locals help animals in Australia?

Donate! There’s a tendency to think that, if you don’t have money, you cannot make an impact, but that simply is not true. People can donate fabric, time and skills to craft pouches for displaced wildlife. They can also donate supplies.

 

What items can people make?

Volunteers can knit or sew a variety of wildlife pouches and animal blankets. If you are not crafty, you can donate soft fabric (cotton, fleece and flannel) and supplies that can be used to make these items.

 

What is one thing you’d want our readers to understand about supporting Australian wildlife relief efforts?

We are all citizens of the same world. Many of the firefighters and animal rescuers are volunteers, just like those of us who are making koala mittens and bat wraps. You may not think your wildlife pouch is significant, but to the animal who receives it, it is the most significant gift of all.

 

How can people contact you if they want to support the relief efforts?

Anyone looking to help the animals can contact me at jbprmm@gmail.com or Instagram @catharsis_creative. Our shipping date is January 30. If you can knit, crochet or sew, wildlife organizations want your help to create special pouches and blankets for injured animals.

 

Young wallabies, koalas and wombats require pouches to grow. Without their mothers, they rely on handmade products from donors. Other animals, such as flying foxes, also require pouches to help their recovery, and koalas need mittens for their burnt paws. Animals are always in need of these wraps, not just in the fire season. Despite the outpouring of supplies, experts say they do not expect to have an excess any time soon.

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