guest editorial

Gentrification in Jacksonville

Preserving the past, present & future of the Bold City

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I remember being embarrassed to say where I grew up, when I went off to college. Yet in a few short years, Jacksonville has become a city under transformation. People are starting to recognize our town by name. We’ve made it onto some notable “up-and-coming” lists. But what about the not-so notable lists, like highest rate of eviction? Combining these feats creates the perfect recipe for gentrification. There is a debate, however, about whether Jacksonville can even get gentrification right, especially when you consider the city’s proclivity for never-ending construction. Regardless, it is a growing topic of conversation in this city, and it is starting to become unavoidable.

What does the word “gentrification” mean? Put simply, gentrification is the process by which residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods by higher costs of living. This happens when long-game investors see potential in an area and then buy up the land and property. They plant expensive housing, shopping centers, coffee shops and niche eateries. This brings in a new, preferred demographic: wealthy, white young professionals. The groups that get pushed out tend to be working class and minority. All of this in the name of urban innovation.

When asked about this process, there seems to be a disparity among Jacksonville residents. The younger generation—my generation—sees gentrification as a method to clean up the city and pave the way for prosperity, while removing certain undesirables in the process. We admit to contributing and we know it affects a specific demographic, but it doesn’t hurt us. Therefore, it is not our concern.

On the other hand, we have an older generation of Jacksonville citizens who see gentrification for what it truly is. It creates stigma and forces our neighbors out. They still aren’t sure what to do about it, but they can admit there is already evidence of change in our city.

In 2005, residents saw the beginnings of the St. John’s Town Center. The shopping center now holds a farmer’s market, Louis Vuitton and a Tesla store—and it has no intention of slowing down. IKEA and TopGolf have also popped up in the vicinity, bringing even more traffic to Southside. We are finally seeing I-295 expand to help with that traffic. But what about the introduction of tolls on the First Coast Expressway? Convenience comes at a price.

Downtown, with its dilapidated buildings and growing population of folks experiencing homelessness, has always been considered the eyesore of Jacksonville. Then in 2018, it was announced that Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan had plans to build a convention center and hotel in The Jacksonville Shipyards. This year we saw The Jacksonville Landing, a downtown staple, destroyed to make way for this.

Perhaps the most significant example of change, however, comes from the Riverside area in the Brooklyn, Five Points, Avondale and Murray Hill neighborhoods. Any semblance of history has been erased; the area is largely associated with hipsters laying an inauthentic consumerist culture over the original culture.

I cannot pretend to have not indulged in or contributed to some of these new luxuries. But that becomes a harder pill to swallow when you start to understand the consequences of those luxuries. I don’t want to be responsible for the complete loss of character in my hometown. I think anyone who has come to understand and appreciate Jacksonville would agree. So, what can we do?

A large factor in contesting gentrification is understanding it. Starting conversations, asking questions, and being plain curious is a start. That’s when you can consider your role in the process. I felt compelled to boycott any new enterprise that came to town, especially if it screamed bourgeoisie. I can’t stop what is already here, but I can find balance between supporting impending change and my city’s history.

These small steps are great, but what will actually make a difference in a city on the verge? This process is really about the displacement of communities. If I don’t like what’s happening in Jacksonville, I should let my local government know. As a community we can seek co-ops, demand affordable housing and protect public areas.

This matters to everyone, including my generation. We know gentrification can bring radical change to communities with bright, new ways to work and play. But we also know the effects can uproot residents and leave them with nowhere to go. Change can be exciting, sometimes necessary. But what is a city devoid of its people, history and culture?

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Leslie is a writer, traveler and observer of Jacksonville.

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