THE HEMMING ENDGAME

The smell of dirt weed, then the smell of piss.

Those are the olfactory sensations you experience if you walk on the Duval Street side of Hemming Park, toward the federal courthouse, if you are inclined to cover the trial events of one indicted politician or another.

The piss smell usually takes over around the time one gets close to the Skyway.

It’s like a million-dollar urinal, sort of like the old troughs at the Milk Bar, except those were cleaner.

After almost two years and hundreds of thousands of city dollars invested in a square block that’s referred to as the front door to City Hall, what’s really changed at Hemming Park?

When there are events — a beer fest (one that advances the interests of quasi-gentrification, instead of the impromptu ones park regulars have on the daily) — then the patron mix changes, from people drinking domestic beer out of cans to the kinds of people who are willing and who have the disposable income to spend $40 to drink in a public park.

When there aren’t events, it’s a different scene, as revealed last week in a special committee meeting of members of Jacksonville’s City Council to decide, again, what to do about the front door to City Hall.

The committee agreed to two more months at the current operating budget of $29,000 a month, slashing the $150,000 appropriation that was in a bill advanced earlier in the summer.

The operating budget, of course, was bigger a while back; at least twice that.

Then questions were raised by the Council, about the commingling of funds in operating and capital budgets, about trying to figure out what the park’s fundraising was supposed to do, and about trying to figure out why so much money went to lunches out and about, to three-dollar cups of coffee, to buy Apple TVs and to take trips to IKEA in Orlando.

Last Wednesday’s meeting was one at which staffers of Friends of Hemming Park made their case — and made their excuses.

Among them: that Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office patrolpersons were somewhat diffident in patrolling the square block, somewhat reluctant in spending an entire shift regulating a group of people who by and large have given up on regulating themselves.

There was the story about the park congregants who took a case of beer to the Kids’ Zone, which violates open container laws, and violates the dictum that “sharing is caring.”

Most kids don’t drink. Not spending time at City Hall, they don’t have an excuse to do so.

And then there was the story about the two park congregants who did decide that sharing is caring, and were doing lines of OxyContin off a table near Vagabond Coffee.

An FOHP staffer bemoaned the actions of the cop who addressed that situation by clearing the opiate off with a hand, then arresting people for trespassing.

There’s an unspoken paradox behind FOHP: It is the manifestation of white liberal guilt, and the outrage that inevitably comes when the forces of gentrification run up against the reality that there are a certain amount of people who congregate in public parks throughout the nation and likely most of the world, who are living in their personal portable hells, and who are therefore resistant to the kind of “park programming” that would change the mix of people at the park.

They may be looking for a place to drink away the day, or drink away the pain. They may be looking to just play some chess.

They don’t particularly care if their existence or presence makes it hard for city VIPs to sell out-of-town visitors on the mythology of a thriving Downtown. Because, as we know, gentrification means that those with more fluid residences,
those who live on the margins, those who live in shelters, those who eke out their existence in rented rooms on fixed incomes — they are all screwed: the remainder in a long division problem.

New private security forces, theoretically, will help. Maybe Hemming Park will become an oasis for the business class, with its current patrons dispersed to passive parks nearby.

More than likely, though, that’s not going to be the case.

It was suggested at the meeting last week that the City Council put more money into Hemming Park. That sounds good, but assumes there aren’t existential needs, such as the pension liability, such as a backlog of deferred maintenance, such as the need to give city workers a raise for the first time this decade.

There’s not money to have it all and to maintain an emergency reserve. And there’s the problem.

The Hemming Park experiment was a great idea. But it was an experiment. And the Council, sooner or later, will have to pull the plug.

The questions is when. And what the pretext will be.

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