Jacksonville Has an Identity Crisis

There is a profound disadvantage as a newcomer to writing a weekly column about a place you know little about. These columns are, by their very design, meant to be authoritative. Yet I still find myself very much a stranger in a strange land, and am wary of inveighing on anything with too much vigor lest I open my mouth only to forcefully insert my foot — to borrow a maxim, “Silence is wisdom when speaking is folly.”

So instead of beating my chest and telling you what to think — this page will soon enough have plenty of that as I become more acculturated — I thought it better to pose a question: Who are we? More importantly, what’s getting in the way of us figuring 
that out?

This is fundamentally a question of identity, and an important one that, sooner rather than later, we need to answer. And I’m not the only one asking. Last weekend, I had a friend in from out of town, and he noticed the same thing: that Jacksonville, and Northeast Florida generally, seems to lack a sense of place. A few days before that, on my drive into work, I caught a conversation between WJCT’s Melissa Ross and Ray Oldakowski, a Jacksonville University geography professor, on just 
this subject.

“A sense of place is just like a personality,” Oldakowski told her. “You can have a very nice person who doesn’t have a distinct personality trait.”

That’s a beautifully apt metaphor. Jacksonville is — and Jacksonvillians are — very nice, very pleasant, very easy-going. (Except on the highway; there you’re a bunch of assholes.) But is it distinctive — or, rather, is there a singularly defining feature? If so, I’ve yet to see it.

Oldakowski is focused on creating a national identity, a mental association that the outside world makes when people think of Jacksonville, in the way Memphis has the blues, New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Orlando has Disney, Seattle has the Space Needle and so on. (Jacksonville has … um, a shitty football team and a bunch of insurance companies. Yay.) And so he argues for something iconic, maybe something like that 1,000-foot-tall observation tower being planned for the Shipyards.

That’s not without merit. But it seems to me it’s asking the wrong question. Finding a sense of place isn’t about a new shiny object or clever marketing slogan. It’s not about what outsiders think — although if you’re interested in attracting cutting-edge employers, finally passing that human rights ordinance would be a good start. (Nobody wants to live in a town run by Baptists.) It’s not about constructing the facade of a “world-class” city; it’s about actually becoming one.

It’s about nurturing a culture. It’s about livability. It’s about pedestrian and bike and mass transit — and placing less emphasis on cars and beltways — about turning development inward instead of the exurban wilderness. (Sprawl is the avowed enemy of place.) It’s about building a robust Downtown not just during bankers’ hours. It’s about fostering an atmosphere in which it’s unacceptable that less than a quarter of adults have bachelor’s degrees. It’s about prizing the eccentric and innovative over the milquetoast and safe. It’s about taking the germs of greatness that exist — e.g., CoRK Arts District, Riverside Arts Market — and encouraging them to blossom.

This sort of movement is happening all over the country. And it can — and should — happen in Jacksonville. The greatest impediment is a lack of imagination, a sense of complacency, a regression toward the status quo.

This — to cite just one example — is why the Riverside Avondale Preservation people are so worked up over the Florida Department of Transportation’s proposed widening of the Fuller Warren Bridge, which they fear will suffocate one of Jacksonville’s burgeoning neighborhoods under years of construction, not to draw people into the urban core but to help commuters bypass it. Maybe they’re overreacting, given the paucity of available details. Then again, maybe overreaction isn’t a bad thing. Public comment on the expansion begins next month. We’ll have more to say about it then.

In the meantime, my question is this: Who are we? And more important, what do we want to be?