Steve Williams has been observing the ebb and flow of Downtown Jacksonville’s street spirit for 51 years. The native-born business executive, artist and art patron has noted the cyclical nature of investment in the city’s delicate central business district, and he reckons it’s due for a revival—if the good ol’ boys who run this town would stop demolishing its historic structures.
Williams recently joined forces with videographer Joe Karably to do something about it. Their #mappingjax project has generated a YouTube video, a Facebook group and a lot of discussion. Now they’re figuring out how to channel the momentum into concrete change in the face of an intransigent city government.
“My interest now, at 51, is I want to see some cool sh*t here before I die,” Williams tells Folio Weekly as he sits in his office. He is CEO of a Southside sign company. It’s a role for which he was literally born. In 1962, his grandfather founded the company that would eventually become Harbinger. Control passed from grandpa to Williams’ father a decade later. Williams is now in charge. Since taking over the company, he has merged his two passions by installing a contemporary art gallery, Florida Mining, at Harbinger HQ.
Williams is first and foremost a cheerleader for Jacksonville, the city that could be so much more than it is. There’s nothing unique about this sentiment, of course. There are a limited number of world-class cities on this Earth; the rest are just jockeying for relative position, and most feel themselves underdogs.
That said, there are underdogs and there are underdogs. Enter Jacksonville, a city half-full of folks who never seem to be able to forget that they’re just from Jacksonville. (The other half votes Republican without irony.) Again, nothing spesh. Every city has such characters. In fact, touring rock musicians and carpet-bagging magazine editors—two demographics I know intimately—have a name for them: locals. And there is a psychology at work. At their worst, locals weaponize underdoggery to rationalize their knee-jerk attachment to the place where they happened to be born or raised. But at their best, locals eschew self-pity in favor of sympathy and curiosity, soberly situating theirs in the great constellation of cities, and trying to make it the best place they can.
Steve Williams strikes me as a good local. He doesn’t proselytize (too much); he’s not territorial; he’s not more Jacksonville than thou. Then again, he doesn’t have to do or be these things, and such comfort in one’s skin is born of that dread luxury: privilege. More on that later.
First, Williams’ story began—where else?—in Jacksonville. When he was a child, Williams recalls, his mother brought him Downtown to while away weekend afternoons strolling and shopping.
“It was just like it is now but cooler,” Williams says. “It seemed a lot more alive.”
Williams registered another efflorescence in the 1990s, when he returned from college as an artist. This time, it was he and his peers pushing the change.
“There were no galleries Downtown,” he explains. “I was young. I said, ‘I’m gonna change this place and make it better.’ So we opened a gallery [Brooklyn Contemporary Art]. It was an amazing time. Then, after 9/11, everything just died.”
The fortunes of Jacksonville’s various neighborhoods have waxed and waned since, but without any noticeable net result. The most significant recent development has been the whittling away of Downtown. As Shad Khan and Mayor Lenny Curry seek to turn the Sports Complex into a new downtown, the real thing has fallen prey to the wrecking ball.
The immediate impetus of Williams’ #mappingjax project was Downtown demolition, specifically the spectacular implosion of Jacksonville’s old City Hall. The 15-story mid-century modern structure came thundering down Jan. 20. Its execution was an event, with spectators watching from the Southbank and boats on the St. Johns River. The building and the neighboring former Duval County Courthouse were cleared ostensibly to make prime waterfront property available for development.
“When I saw City Hall and the Courthouse torn down—that was the moment,” Williams says. “I got married in those buildings. I pulled permits in those buildings. I don’t care who tells me how much asbestos and rats are in there. That’s negligible compared to the history. I’m offended that they tore [the buildings] down with no plan. My family is offended; my ancestors are offended. I don’t think I’m alone. Now The Landing is going. These are pieces of our history. Three world-class structures that developers would have eaten up. And we tear them down with no plan.”
As he mentioned, next on the chopping block is The Jacksonville Landing. The scandal of the ailing festival marketplace’s sale to the City of Jacksonville has been largely forgotten. After years of stalemate between city officials and the building’s erstwhile slumlord owner, the latter leveraged this year’s mayoral campaign to score a payday beyond his wildest dreams. The photo op made you want to take a shower. Then, after the mayor’s reelection (by some eight percent of the electorate), City Hall announced The Landing would be demolished to make way for ... a field. The deed will be done early next year. Public discontent is still palpable.
“It was easily fixable,” Williams says of The Landing. “It was a very nice structure. They just forgot to clean, paint and take care of property. The problem was they sold it to someone who didn’t want to keep it up. It could have been like Jamestown’s Chelsea Market or Atlanta’s Ponce City Market.”
For Williams, the Landing debacle indicates—perhaps more than previous demolitions—Jacksonville’s crisis of confidence.
“The Landing was originally intended to tell our local story,” he explains. “There were signs telling the history of Jacksonville. The whole thing was about pride in our city. You could feel it when it first opened. And it was absolutely amendable, but nobody wanted to take that creative step—to think.”
The malaise runs deep, according to Williams. “For some reason we don’t love ourselves. Why don’t we? We’re literally the most exotic city in the South. It could be”—here Williams gestures to an imaginary marquee— “Jacksonville, Savanna and Charleston.”
In the absence of civic engagement, however, decisions about the future of the city, particularly its Downtown, are being made by in smoke-filled rooms by pygmy Machiavellis led by a mayor who may have been reelected but lacks a mandate. A series of controversial moves (from throwing a tone-deaf, let-them-eat-cake inaugural gala to blocking the school board’s proposed infrastructure-tax referendum) and outright scandals (Kids Hope Alliance procurement fraud and the broken campaign promise to not sell JEA) must have voters wishing they had actually left the house on March 19. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.
Williams doesn’t go quite so far. He wants to be a uniter, not a divider. For him, it’s not about the people in charge, but rather the process—and this process has been rotten.
“Why is everything cloaked?” he asks rhetorically. (I’m sure he knows the answer.) “There doesn’t seem to be any plan behind the scenes, just a bunch of random incidents. Though [the impending sale of] JEA does beg the question, ‘Is there a plan being orchestrated without the public’s knowledge?’ This project [#mappingjax] is about transparency. It’s about a plan. Where’s our plan?”
Williams first posed the question in a minute-long video that was posted online Aug. 20. This video, the spark that ignited #mappingjax, was the initiative of videographer Joe Karably.
“For a while I’ve been wanting to do something on Jacksonville and its overarching problems,” Karably says. “Growing up here, I’ve always felt the city could be so much more than it is. What Steve and I immediately connected on was a shared disappointment. He’s very outspoken on social media with development, especially in the Urban Core. I more or less approached him and asked him to collaborate, to put his concerns to camera. It kind of blossomed from there.”
“Joe got tired of me barking on Facebook,” Williams laughs. “He said, ‘Let’s do something different.’ And it made a lot of sense.”
Karably predicted that the video format would resonate with disenchanted residents in a different way than the written word. “In this day and age,” he says, “videos are more relatable than your standard op-ed piece. People are more likely to connect to a video, especially how we’re framing it, with Steve speaking directly to the camera, to the audience.”
In addition to the policy critique, the camera also allowed Karably to document the disappearing architecture for posterity.
“A lot of it was intended to be a criticism of how things currently are with demolition and things we perceive as poor and/or shady choices on the part of the city,” he explains. “At the same time, it’s very much serving as an archiving process. As unfortunate as the situation with The Landing is, I know at least from my perspective, trying to film and document as much of it while it’s still around is important.”
The video was a hit, generating more than 100 shares and 300 comments on Facebook. Next, on Sept.10, Williams and Karably started a Facebook group, #mappingjax. Its 1,800 members share posts relating to architecture, policy and best practices as well as memories and personal reflections on place. What next?
“I’d like to build the group and hear from folks, hear what they want and what they need,” Williams says. “What I’m most proud of is that there are people from every corner of the city [in the group]. I’ve been working diligently to build relationships with as many people as I can, by listening. I’m trying to bring people together. That’s where I think I can really do some good: getting some people together and having conversations, meeting in the middle a little bit better than what we’ve been doing.”
The answer is sufficiently vague to merit caution on the part of some participants. Artist and Folio Weekly contributor Madeleine Peck Wagner, for example, doesn’t see a clear path forward IRL.
“I hate to sound like a pessimist, but I’ve seen this cycle before—outrage tied to optimism trying to become action—and I’ve seen it dissolve,” she says. “It feels like this is another optimistic project that’s going to get dashed. It doesn’t feel that there are applicable solutions, at least not applicable to the Jacksonville political machine.”
Above all, Wagner wants to see some deliverables. “To start with optimism, big ideas, is what Jacksonville needs,” she explains. “Steve is good at that. And Steve is good at listening. But then what? If we’re talking about a mapping project, where’s the map? Where’s the thesis? Where’s the hypothesis? I’m curious and I’m hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
There have been other criticisms of #mappingjax, too, notably that Williams is too present in the discussion. There has been talk—which he neither confirms nor denies—of political aspirations. Williams says that he wants to be where he’s most useful.
“I’m ready to put 15 years into hard work here,” Williams says. “A lot of people have said, ‘Steve for mayor,’ and I’m not saying no. But is that the best way for me to serve? I can’t answer that right now. The reason I’m raising my voice is to find out. I don’t know how other people experience the world. I want to hear from them.”
Karably is sensitive to the undercurrent of criticism. “I think there were a lot of initial misconceptions about what #mappingjax is or was,” he notes. “For me, there are no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas. We’re not trying to put Steve in an authoritative position. His voice is one of many voices. Pairing that voice with my curiosity is the core of it. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m curious. I want to hear and tell other people’s stories.”
And that’s where things stand as Williams and Karably gear up to release a second #mappingjax video online. Williams says they are also considering ways to bring the digital discussion into the real world, and expand its scope beyond the Downtown developments that spurred their initial video.
“The project has shifted,” Williams says, “from archiving to letting everyone have a voice. We want this to be about community building, not just what Steve and Joe think.”