Graphic by John Aloszka

Conquer and Divide

Graphic by John Aloszka

Society is fragile right now, but times of healing are the most opportune to inflict change, like how doctors reset bones promptly after fracture. But it is during the most delicate periods of healing that there is the most opportunity to affect positive change.

Jacksonville, like many other cities around the world, experienced a great deal of turmoil in 2020. From Black Lives Matter rallies to multiculturalism initiatives, local residents proved our city has the potential to be a role model in civil rights and cultural integration. Unfortunately, there is an unset bone holding the city back: Consolidation.

When the concept of consolidating the governments of Jacksonville and Duval County was first suggested in the mid-1960s, it was supposed to be in response to corruption scandals, declining population and a stagnant economy, among other troubling issues. As a result, local voters overwhelmingly voted to approve the idea in August 1967. On October 1, 1968, Consolidation became official, creating a sense of autonomy throughout the city. But it also lost the bond of collectivity and effectively fractured Jacksonville’s cultural potency. 

In reality, Consolidation was an effort to suppress Black voters and dilute their voice by expanding the city limits. Jacksonville, at its Urban Core, is a predominantly Black city. But because of Consolidation, decisions on city issues are inaccurately represented as suburban and rural areas surrounding the city have more sway through votership. 

Like the broken bone analogy, the fracture between races in Jacksonville has gone untreated for so long, it seems the only way to reset the damage of Consolidation would be to rebreak it. “Deconsolidation” would allow subcommunities to prosper on their own and, potentially, create a much more harmonious environment.

“Historically Black neighborhoods were decimated financially and politically through Consolidation redlining efforts and remain victims to the remnants of Jim Crow oppression,” said Christina Kittle, a prominent local activist and organizer of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC). Kittle believes the deconsolidation of Jacksonville could result in the election of city leaders who are more representative of their constituents and better suited to address their unique needs.

City leaders, like Mayor Lenny Curry, on the other hand, still celebrate Consolidation. Just three years ago, during a commemoration of its 50th anniversary, Mayor Lenny Curry said, “The spirit of Consolidation really is one city, one Jacksonville. It’s about getting city services to our people.” 

The current status of Jacksonville’s neighborhoods tells a different story. 

A far cry from the widespread blanket of abundance promised to residents throughout the city, the era of Consolidation has been defined by turf wars over government funding. Economic hoarding (as evidenced by the Jacksonville’s Sheriff’s Office receiving half of the city’s entire budget) means historically Black neighborhoods continue to struggle, which only fuels the disparity between racial groups, according to Kittle. She believes funds should be more equally distributed through community initiatives such as programs for kids to stay out of trouble, rehabilitation and mental health programs. 

The People’s Budget, prepared by JCAC, provides a concrete, material path to serve the community equally. The proposal suggests funding of the Sheriff’s Office to be reduced to 20% of the city’s total budget with remaining funds being invested in the people of Jacksonville including living wage job opportunities, mental health services and strengthened city infrastructure. (As JCAC’s website notes, “Crime decreases when the people are properly served.”) Yet when the People’s Budget was presented to the Jacksonville City Council, it received support from only one council member.

Areas like Northwest Jacksonville continue to be severely underfunded. Neighborhoods that are considered to be most dangerous and most in need of funding are on the lowest rung on the Consolidation funding ladder. Septic tanks have plagued environments surrounding underprivileged neighborhoods for over a half a century. Curry’s recent press conference revealed a combined $26.8 million to be put toward the project, even though it’s recognized the project would cost $100 million at minimum.

Jacksonville has a history of erasing entire communities. The construction of I-95 was a redlining effort that contributed to areas like Springfield forcing many of the neighborhood’s original Black families to move when property was bought out by builders from outside the area who then forced rents to rise. The once affluent and prestigious neighborhood of Sugar Hill is only one that has long been forgotten due to crooked infrastructure decisions by city leaders.

The community of Cosmo is another. A space that once held the highest concentration of Gullah Geechee people in America, Cosmo is a mere shell of what it once was after being destroyed by Fort Caroline subdivisions. (The Gullah Geechee people are direct descendants of people stolen from Central and Western African nations during slavery.) The deprioritization of preserving the history and heritage of Black historical groups like this is a perfect example of how Jacksonville politicians do not focus on making space for all groups.

Like Kittle, Gigi Lucas is trying to patch holes in our community created by Consolidation. She founded SurfearNEGRA, a non-profit organization focused on bringing cultural and gender diversity to the sport of surf, while a similar program called Textured Waves addresses the underrepresentation of women of color in surfing by building community and camaraderie.

Programs such as these, according to Lucas, help break down barriers between social groups while bringing the communal divide, that is obvious to so many, into the public eye.

“I think it’s teaching us and resurrecting the narrative, in terms of why our current situation is the way it is and why we don’t see so many Black people engaging in the ocean,” she said. “But everything has its reason, and everything has its time. And now is the time for change.” 

Even as one of the most influential advocates for racial diversity in beach culture, Lucas herself still experiences oppression accessing public waterways. She recounted a recent incident in Jacksonville Beach when she was told to “go back to her part of town”—as she walked her dog outside her own home.

“When I came to Jacksonville, my first impression was that this wasn’t Florida. It was more like southern Georgia,” she said. “I was amazed by how segregated this city is and how it’s very clear who lives where in terms of culture and race.” 

The continued prioritization of the needs of white communities over all other racial and cultural groups has not only created a visibly antagonistic relationship between white and Black residents but between all communities. While the original concept of Consolidation may have been presented as a way of uniting disparate groups throughout the city, it has only served to widen the divide and foster a climate of self-importance.

Instead of segregating, we should be celebrating Jacksonville’s multicultural populace—equally and in their own spaces. Deconsolidating the city would be a step in the right direction by offering more job opportunities, improving city services to the areas most in need, decreasing blight and eventually lead to a more equitably balanced government for all residents.

“It’s always better when there’s more to eat,” Lucas said.”When you add more ingredients to anything, things get more interesting. People begin to innovate more… to shift their styles and perspectives and their paradigms.”

Covering more than 800 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental United States. That should be more than enough space to allow all of our communities to prosper on their own.

About Vincent Dalessio

Vincent Dalessio is Folio Weekly’s Head Photographer and Writer. Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, he takes pride in resetting his roots in Duval County. Active in the skateboarding, surfing, rock climbing and outdoor recreation communities, he takes what he’s learned in his personal life and applies it to current issues facing these groups. His writing focuses on the environment, socio-demographic issues, biopics on community figureheads and stories on the communities he spends the most time in.