Looking Forward

When I took the helm of Folio Weekly last October, I was anomalous. (Don’t worry. I’m used to it.) I, Georgio Valentino, do not live in Duval County. I reside in St. Augustine.

Now, to be sure, I’m almost as fraudulent a St. Augustinian as I am a Jacksonvillian, having landed in the Ancient City only six months previously from god knows where (conspiracy theories abound). But the fact remains: The editor of Folio Weekly lives in St. Augustine. Let that sink in.

Our office is still in Downtown Jacksonville, of course. (It’s a fun commute!) And we continue to devote a lion’s share of our ink to the behemoth that is Duval County. (I’m starting to feel my way around.) But St. Augustine and its environs have long been part of our remit.

So our inaugural Best of Saint Augustine, whose winners are announced on the following pages, is probably overdue. Readers might have registered a recent rise in St. Augustine-related stories across our varied sections as well, from news to editorials to arts and entertainment. We’re renewing our commitment to the area in many ways.

Why? First, because St. Johns County is a vital part of Northeast Florida’s metropolitan ecosystem. Many of you live and work there. And that number is growing. Northern St. Johns County has become a suburban safety valve for Jacksonville, with affluent retirees migrating to Ponte Vedra, up-and-coming families heading to Nocatee, and discontented rednecks taking refuge in the trackless, unincorporated hinterland of one of the state’s most fiercely conservative counties. (By way of silver lining, the Duval Democratic majority grows as Jacksonville’s Republicans defect en masse to deep-red St. Johns.)

The dynamic is problematic in some ways, as it diverts valuable tax resources and civic engagement away from Duval’s ailing services, especially its schools. And, let’s be honest, there are clear racial overtones to the exodus: It’s a straightforward case of white flight.

Then there’s St. Augustine. The Ancient City was once a diamond in the rough, but the world is slowly getting hip to the fact that it’s one of the most historically significant sites in the entire United States. In Florida, there’s no competition. (Key West? Pensacola? Don’t make me laugh!) And yet, ever since the Great Depression put an end to the city’s Gilded Age pretensions, St. Augustine has largely been run like a cheap roadside attraction. Now, for better or worse, those days are coming to an end.

With the influx of northerners, mostly from Duval County and New Jersey, and a new wave of tourism from Florida’s booming latinx community (I welcome my fellow Puerto Ricans with open arms), St. Augustine is changing rapidly.

Forget about the cultural and political implications for the moment. The numbers alone have swamped city infrastructure. Like Manhattan, the presqu’île of historic St. Augustine—bounded on three sides by the Matanzas and San Sebastian rivers—ain’t getting any bigger; unlike New York, however, we have a city ordinance that imposes a 35-foot ceiling on any new construction. We all know what happens when supply can’t keep pace with demand. Real estate prices and congestion are through the roof.

Change is inevitable. Will it come through capricious, backward-looking diktat, commanded by the city’s near-feudal oligarchy of good-old-boy dynasties? Will it come in the form of unregulated, laissez-faire suburban sprawl, advocated by corporate daily newspapers? Or will it come from a healthy quorum of stakeholders, representing citizens as well as landed gentry and corporate interest groups?

Be warned here: The citizenry here is no silver bullet, but rather a woefully mixed bag. To its credit, it’s moving in a more thoughtful direction. Hurricanes Matthew and Irma forced most of the area’s residents to open their eyes on environmental issues. But there remain some rather surreal sticking points in this 21st century, as evidenced by Mayor Nancy Shaver’s delicate electoral coalition. While she is broadly progressive, the mayor dares not touch the third rail of St. Augustine politics: the Confederate monuments on the Plaza de la Constitución.

I get it. As an elected official, Shaver is walking a tightrope. And if she falls, her replacement could easily be a real sh*tkicker. I’m more thoroughly disappointed in my alma mater, the University of Florida, for its refusal to properly “contextualize” the Plaza monument under its charge. (Hint: The only appropriate “context” is a museum.)

Eventually, though, it won’t matter. At some point in the future, those monuments will be removed from the public square. St. Augustine is trending more and more cosmopolitan. Residents and tourists would rather immerse themselves in Spanish (and British) colonial life, Minorcan heritage and Gilded Age decadence than hear another pseudo-romantic eulogy of the lost cause. Yawn. In the perspective of St. Augustine’s four-hundred-fifty-three-and-a-half-year history, the Confederate interlude (lasting fewer than 14 months) was the blink of an eye. It’s time we treat it as such.

As these issues resolve themselves, as the Ancient City assumes its rightful place in the pantheon of historic American sites, as Northern St. Johns County becomes a full-fledged bedroom community of Jacksonville, Folio Weekly will be there, keeping ’em honest … and enjoying the Best of Saint Augustine.