If you are like many folks who live here, you love Jacksonville and you wish that the city would grow the hell up. We see glimpses of greatness—then we veer off course, our hopes are crushed, and we wonder why we keep ending up in the swamp. There is greatness in us, here in Jacksonville. This city has a vibrant history of music and art. The trouble is, we don’t know it. And neither does anybody else.
Jacksonville boasts beautiful beaches, abundant land, scenic waterways, mild winters and an affordable cost of living. Our city should soar, yet it continually falters, weighed down with debt, corruption, stupidity and an almost intentional lack of vision. The destruction of The Jacksonville Landing and the proposed sale of community-owned JEA are two of the most recent—and depressing—chapters in a lengthy history of missed opportunities.
Lack of Identity
Jacksonville is a city that looks itself in the mirror and doesn’t know what it sees. Perhaps worse, it doesn’t know what it wants to see.
Is this a redneck backwater that happens to have a professional football team, or is it a city on the rise? Do we use our claim to fame as the largest city in the United States (in terms of geographic footprint) to continue to build urban sprawl devoid of character, or shall we embrace the vibrancy within and grow in meaningful ways?
Jacksonville is a mix of rural and urban, a riot of race and ideology, often in close proximity. This is a city of industry, innovation, beauty and creativity, but we are not marketing or monetizing our potential.
At dinner with some friends, someone said, “The answer to every question about what’s wrong with Jacksonville is simple: It’s the good ol’ boys.”
The good ol’ boys are understandably concerned about staying in power and making money. They resist change because change threatens their positions. But what if the powers that be could see how much more money they could make by embracing change? What if they capitalized on culture? That’s the ticket, because then everybody wins.
Culture transforms an ordinary city into a great one, and Jacksonville is leaving money and potential on the table. The only way Jacksonville becomes a great city is if the power brokers become allies and advocates for the arts, if only because they will make more profit. And there is a lot of profit in culture. Ask Austin, Savannah, Nashville and Miami.
Art Basel generates a half-billion dollars every year for Miami. For perspective, the wonderful Players Championship brings $151 million to the region. (It’s in St. Johns County, so for Duval, less.) A Super Bowl can bring as much as $50 million to a city, though there are reports that Jacksonville actually lost $12 million hosting its Super Bowl. We can make money with culture, folks.
Shine a Light
There is a certain energy that lives here, a slumbering source of vast untapped power. If you really want to sense this potential, go to Little Talbot Island on a Friday morning; feel the sun on your face and the sand crunch beneath your toes. Marvel at the clear water, then drive down A1A. Take in the wide ocean vistas, spot the silhouettes of Navy ships on the horizon, across the St. Johns River in Mayport. Minutes later, you’ll see the growing Port of Jacksonville, then the city skyline as you hurtle into Downtown.
Take a stroll through Riverside in the afternoon. Start out at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, then visit CoRK Arts District and Yellow House. Attend an open story night at Bab’s Lab and listen to live music at Rain Dogs in Five Points. You’ll meet artists, musicians and storytellers. You’ll feel the energy in your soul.
Finish the night with a cocktail at Black Sheep’s rooftop bar. Listen to the music spilling out into the streets. Watch the city lights twinkle in the distance. The singing feeling in your chest will bring tears to your eyes.
Yes, Jacksonville is a football town, a beach town, the River City, but we should be much more. The arrival of the Jaguars was a wonderful leap forward, but our story is far from finished.
Smith, the author of four published novels, is a solar energy consultant.