My first exposure to the notion that Jacksonville had an identity crisis happened in 1979, so I’ve had a long time to think about this one. I was 12 years old and I, my childhood friend and his father made the trek over the Mathews Bridge and into the old Gator Bowl to watch some fat guy get out of a helicopter at the 50-yard line. This event holds such mythological status in this town that it reminds me of the story of the Mayflower. There were only about 40,000 of us there, but now so many people claim to have been present that the building would have collapsed under the weight of all that humanity. That man, of course, was Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay, who later sneaked the Colts out of Maryland in the middle of the night. Then-Mayor Jake Godbold was making a pitch to bring NFL football to Jacksonville; obviously, we were fulminating just to be taken seriously as a city. Twenty years later, we got an NFL team, and people are still asking the same question: Why isn’t Jacksonville considered a first-tier city?
The question goes back even further than that, though. I can remember being a kid and overhearing adults discuss why Jacksonville couldn’t be more like Orlando. How come we didn’t have a theme park like Disney World or SeaWorld? The counter argument to all this is also one I’ve heard a million times, and though it has many variations, it’s probably best expressed, “If you want to live in a big city like Atlanta or New York, why don’t you move there?”
I guess I’ve always sort of fallen between the two viewpoints. I don’t really care if Jacksonville is recognized as a great city or continues to be derided by outsiders as a podunk, a wannabe. That doesn’t mean I’m not well-versed in the argument, though, and I believe I have a fairly reasonable, well-thought-out opinion on the matter.
Nearly 100 years before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants wearing shoes and hats with funny-looking buckles set foot on Plymouth Rock, the waters of the First Coast and the land adjacent were already well-known to European nations. Fifty years before the pilgrims set up shop, there were Frenchmen living in a fort they’d built on the St. Johns River in what is now Jacksonville. They’d chosen the spot because of a recently discovered natural phenomenon called the Gulf Stream. Spanish mariners used this flow of water to sail back to Europe in ships full of precious metals taken from Central and South America. All these ships had to sail right past the mouth of the St. Johns River, so it was a convenient spot from which to conduct salvage operations of sunken galleons as well as pirate those ships that escaped the often-stormy seas off our coast.
What followed the establishment of that fort was an unlikely and amazing story that included the first two battles between European nations on North American soil, as well as mutinies, betrayals, political ambition, Indians and mass murder. Spanish, Indian and African-American history in the area continued for another 150 years before the descendants of those folks in funny hats and shoes began to populate Jacksonville. The funny thing is, unless you went to school in Duval County or study history for a living, you have no knowledge of this fantastic history — and that is no accident.
Part of the reason why Jacksonville is not celebrated for its history is because it does not fit into the very narrow, fundamental view that America was found, conquered and developed by WASPy people of Northern and Western European ancestry, rather than by the Catholic Spanish, who were more Mediterranean than Nordic. And there is certainly no room in this Anglocentric narrative for explorers and colonizers who practiced inclusive rather than exclusive racial policies. Unlike the English, whose philosophy was to wipe out or enslave whoever wasn’t white, the Spanish often intermarried with indigenous peoples. In fact, it was their policy in Florida that any African-American who wished to escape enslavement could find asylum here.
This same “conservative” attitude interrupted Jacksonville’s progress again at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Jacksonville was an important, thriving international port city. There were people from all walks living and doing business here, including a man named Henry John Klutho. He’d moved to Jacksonville after the 1901 Great Fire, and he quickly became the most prominent and influential architect in the city. He’d trained in New York City, and with Frank Lloyd Wright. He built many of buildings that still rise in the city’s skyline. His vision was to make Jacksonville into a scenic metropolis interspersed with forested parkland abutting the St. Johns River, creating something akin to New York City’s Central Park. Klutho was also instrumental in facilitating the silent movie industry growing in Jacksonville during the same period.
Then, curiously, Jacksonville took a conservative turn. As many immigrants flooded into the city to join the already-existing African-American minority community, job competition grew. This pitted the racial groups against one another, and one need do nothing more than take a look around to see who won that conflict. Jacksonville was a Southern city, after all, in a time when Jim Crow still ruled.
In the 1919 mayoral election, conservative candidate John Martin won on a platform of eradicating that silent film industry and the rabble who worked within it. Apparently, the movie crews were unwilling to comply with the prevailing Anglo normalcy. Subsequently, the movie industry moved to friendlier cities like Los Angeles, and Klutho was relegated to designing homes in his Prairie School style, many of which still stand today in neighborhoods like Riverside. Another opportunity was squandered by the practice of white exclusionism, and Jacksonville was robbed of the diversity that made cities like New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle international destinations, for business and tourists alike.
This policy of exclusion rather than inclusion also led to the ghettoization and sequestration of the African-American community to the urban core. This focused poverty and crime into certain parts of town. The proliferation of the automobile led to white flight, draining the city of tax dollars and focusing building in outlying counties, to the detriment of the inner city — the same inner city we’re now trying to invigorate.
Before we can do that, we should probably face up to the fact that a sense of white superiority has helped create this lack of personality we all recognize today. Just imagine what music or sports would be like without the contributions of African-Americans, for instance. Without that diversity, we would all be listening to country music and watching basketball players practice the bounce pass. That’s what passing through Jacksonville is like — watching an NBA game without the dunk.