At a crossroads of commerce and counterculture, Riverside’s Five Points is looking for the right direction.
By Tricia Booker
Photos by Walter Coker
The kids came first. While the rest of Jacksonville straightened its spine to complete the transformation into a bold new city, the kids remained bent with the weight of nonconformity, and the crossroads they flocked to became their second home.
Five Points is actually just one point, sharpened by the intersection of five different roads and a confluence of cultures. Along its painted streets and graffiti- marked buildings, blue-haired teens step aside for blue-haired ladies. Suited executives stop at the newsstand to buy the Wall Street Journal, and they nod good morning to the homeless woman stretching her legs after a night in the park.
But the kids were here first, and they remained when others fled. They shaped the development of this little center of unorthodox eccentricity, these few little blocks where a person can get pierced, dressed up, dressed down, informed, fed, tattooed, shorn, drunk or outfitted with prescription eyeglasses. A few miles away, the mayor champions the city’s economic rebirth, but here, a kid’s still free to be a kid, nose-ring and all.
Five Points remains the epicenter of counterculture in Northeast Florida. After two decades, the area could use some renovation — sidewalks and better lighting, for example. But some people would like to go further, and the result could very well be a quaint little shopping district that competes with San Marco and Avondale for customers. If that happens,land values would increase. A cappuccino would be easier to find. Cute cafes with awnings would sprout. And the kids would have no place to go. Three groups represent the majority of Five Points personalities. First and most visibly are the teenagers and 20-something adults, many of them exhibiting Generation X’s uniform individualism, marked by pierced tongues and leather minis, fishnetted gams and black lipstick.
Then there are the businesspeople who feed off the kids, mostly mainstream merchants vicariously reliving their youth through their customers. Represented by the Five Points Merchants Association, they are motivated by economics, but also by their enthusiasm for the area’s funky composition.
Finally, there are the people for whom counterculture remains a mystery — and its members “undesirable.’’ Many are landowners dreaming of an upscale Five Points with skyrocketing property values. Others simply fear a place where the smell of clove cigarettes hangs in the air, and the scratchy rasp of skateboards on concrete competes with honking horns. Their ringleader is Simon Smith, a senior citizen, retired Boy Scouts of America executive and anti-pornography zealot who lives on the Southside but owns property adjacent to Five Points.
Despite the community’s low crime rate, Smith contends that Five Points is such a dangerous part of town that elderly people can’t walk the streets.
“I’m not trying to put anybody out of business. But I’ve got a lot of friends who live in the area, and they’re literally afraid to walk down the street,” Smith says. “A few years ago Five Points was one of those sought-after areas. Now it’s an area you stay away from.”
Cleaning up Five Points is a nice idea. The problem is defining the dirt.
With dusk comes a temporary respite from the daily animation of the streets.The Five Points News Stand has pulled in the papers and the pharmacy has locked its doors. A few locals stroll the sidewalks after a Caribbean dinner at Notre Gourmet or Chinese fare at Confucius Says.
As darkness descends, so do the kids like bugs to light, wearing everything from jeans to leather, resembling everyone from Greg Brady to Elvira, mistress of the dark.
Many of them gather near Nicotine, a politically- incorrect smoking store carrying a plethora of tobacco and tobacco-related products. Chris Maurice, the 24-year-old manager of the shop,looks so youthful it’s startling to watch him light up, like seeing a baby holding a beer. Last month, on a sunny morning, a television crew set up its cameras outside Nicotine, and a few minutes later dozens of police officers raided the store and confiscated what they deemed drug paraphernalia, including pipes and canisters of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). All of the seized products were on public display and for sale.
Consequently, Maurice was arrested on drug charges and, on the advice of his attorney, won’t talk about the case or his shop.
But business hasn’t slowed. Young people flock to the shop for its clothing, skateboards and supply of bumper stickers. Some come to get their belly buttons pierced.
Some of the hipsters who hang out at Nicotine are artists. You can find their work in alleys and on the sides of buildings, glimpses of urbanity peeking from behind city lights. “Most of the time It’s illegal,” Admits Local Graffiti artist Thomas, “just because where are you going to find a canvas like that? We’re only criticized because we don’t have a place to put it.”
With cans of spray paint, Thomas and Leon, both 22, create images as complex and intricate as spider webs. “We’re not trying to vandalize,” says Leon. “We’re trying to make it beautiful.”
By day, Leon works in the financial services division of a medical company, and Thomas is a fitness trainer. Numerous tattoos cover Thomas’’s body. On his arm is the world “Hero,” and the Vietnamese symbol for his name, which means “beautiful soup.”
The two have been graffiti artists since their teens. Both belong to the Freeze Rock Breakers, a hip-hop group of street artists that signs its work with the FRB insignia and spends a lot of time break dancing. In Five Points, they both say, they’ve found a niche for themselves. “We don’t have to worry about people staring at us, looking at us funny,” Leon says.
Thomas, Leon and dozens of other graffiti artists butted heads with the law for a long time before shopkeepers stepped in and convinced the Sheriff’s Office that the kids weren’t hurting anyone. Now, an alley defined by the backs of several Five Points buildings has been declared a Graffiti-Free Zone, where white walls are fair game. The area is now an urban museum, a testament to artistic talent governed by passion and untrained style.
Thomas and Leon tromp back there one night to show off their artwork by the dim glimmer of a cigarette lighter. The shadow of windblown branches gives movement to the walls of characters, and the deserted passageways come eerily to life.
Not all of it is pretty. Some of the scrawlings are blight, nothing more than spray-painted obscenities. But there is clearly a difference between artists and vandals — and Thomas believes lumping them together is unfair.
“Most of these kids, they have jobs, they pay taxes,” said Thomas, “They need a place to hang out. What the hell?”
The most controversial part of Five Points coincidentally takes up the most square footage, a financial consideration that’s not lost on the parties involved. Club Five looms over the other buildings and anchors the businesses that draw the same people who are attracted to Club Five.
Club Five is one of the city’s top dance clubs, second only to the Paradome. It occasionally attracts national bands as well, such as recent shows by the Black Crowes and Megadeth, and national DJs like Jax- favorite Keoki. By all accounts, it’s a thriving, integral part of Jacksonville’s club scene. And though no one under 21 is permitted to drink, anyone 18 and over is admitted.
The club opened seven years ago, and since then crime in the area has gone down, property values have gone up, and once boarded-up buildings have been transformed into healthy businesses. Since most of those businesses cater to kids, young people have become a growing neighborhood presence.
This club scene is not for everyone. Each week, the club hosts “Saturday Night Seduction,” an evening presided over by a dominatrix who directs simulated sadomasochistic sex acts. Many clubgoers dress for the occasion; some of the men wear spiked dog collars and are led around on chains by their girlfriends. It’s an odd assemblage — straight laced denim-clad teens dancing next to raven-haired vixens in leather thongs and pasties. It’s the kind of scene that causes conservatives to lock up their children and write their congressperson.
“Saturday Night Seduction” is the brainchild of Club 5 manager Bruce Chambers, who has run trendy hangouts in Miami and L.A. He came to Club 5 after being recruited by the club’s owners, and he set out to create a place on the cutting edge of youth entertainment. He did — but not everyone is pleased with his success.
Earlier this summer, Chambers was arrested on misdemeanor obscenity charges for allowing a woman to get her nipple pierced in public on a Saturday night. Charges against the piercer and the piercee were filed, but dropped. Chambers still faces trial.
Chambers and others believe the bust — as well as ongoing efforts to have the club declared a“public nuisance” — are the result of intolerance.
Chambers compares such attitudes to complaints during the 1960s and ‘70s about long hair and peace signs. “It’s just the different look of the kids now,” Chambers says. “Older people looking at the youth of America and saying, “What’s wrong with the youth of America?’ I don’t think it’s any different than it ever was.”
Chambers notes that he hires off-duty police officers as extra security every night the club is open. He consults police on any performances at Club 5 that might be considered risky. “It’s all about entertainment. We put on shows,” he says. “We do push the envelope, but we don’t do anything outside of [the law].”
Chambers notes that during his tenure there has not been a single drug arrest at Club 5, and he and his staff often comb the streets picking up trash after a crowded club night. “We do our part. We do more than our part,” he says, holding up a can of graffiti-cleaner he keeps handy in case he needs to do a little scrubbing.
But while Club 5 has cooperated with law enforcement and zoning codes at every level, Chambers says, a recent telephone campaign by Club 5’s critics has led to fruitless investigations by the Fire Marshal and narcotics detectives. Chambers believes Simon Smith orchestrated the campaign.
When John Schultz and Schultz Properties purchased the Club 5 building and much of the surrounding commercial space 12 years ago, Five Points was dying. “We weren’t competing well,” he says. “These buildings were in terrible condition.”
One store was thriving, however. Edge City, an eclectic shop offering clothing and accessories ranging from grunge wear to costly designer brands, had a loyal following among area youth. Schultz decided that what the area needed was a specialty rather than the renewal of a generic retail shopping district. “As leases began to terminate, we began to look more for alternative-type businesses.”
When Club 5 opened, the fate of the area seemed secure. More people than ever were flocking to Five Points. “Our rents are triple what they were, and we can’t keep a ‘for lease’ sign up,” Schultz says.
Schultz, like Chambers, blames Simon Smith for the recent negative publicity surrounding Five Points, he says he’d love to see the street spruced up, and wouldn’t mind making a financial contribution toward that goal. “I’d be happy to participate in beautification,” he says. “But I don’t see that as what’s happening.”
Edge City is still one of his tenants, and is owned and operated by Tom McCleery, who just might be the hippest middle-aged man in Jacksonville. His customers come from all over Northeast Florida to check out the latest trends.
“Five Points is Jacksonville’s oldest continuously viable shopping district, aside from downtown,” McCleery says: “It has always appealed to the more eclectic crowd. We’re a very diverse little community. We like to think of ourselves as more artsy.”
McCleery and other shop owners comprise the Five Points Merchants Association, which is dedicated to planning and implementing a Five Points renovation plan. But the last thing McCleery wants to do is shove off the kids. “They’re good kids,” he says. “It’s a perception from some older people that kids are something to fear.”
Even the city has been hesitant to embrace Five Points’ diversity. When McCleery painted the cracked, dirty sidewalk in front of his store recently, officials promptly arrived to tell him he was breaking the law. “Arrest me, then,” McCleery told them. They declined.
McCleery says the Five Points economy is youth-driven simply because it evolved that way — and because Jacksonville needed such a spot. “In a city the size of Jacksonville there will always be a Greenwich Village-type area, and we’re it,” he says. “Business is good. The youth culture really supports it.”
Even many of the businesses that aren’t dependent on youth patronage want to see the community’s alternative bent remain. “That’s one of the endearing things about the neighborhood,” says Steve Williams, who along with Jim Draper co-owns the new Park Street art gallery Pedestrian.
Draper believes older people who live in the area would like to be part of Five Points, but are scared away by negative publicity. “If you keep telling people to be afraid, they’re going to be afraid,” he said.
Bruce Musser, owner of the salon Hair Peace, moved his business to Five Points two years ago because of the Merchants Association’s commitment to renovation. But he never anticipated that the neighborhood’s core appeal might be subject to change. Rather than trying to redefine Five Points, Musser believes the focus should be on exposing the diversity and talents in the area through various artistic endeavors. The youth, he says, particularly graffiti artists, could play a key role in such projects.
Musser also points out the importance of having an area where younger people can afford to start businesses. One of his employees, Heather Fredrickson, recently opened Square 1, a chic novelty store on Park Street. Fredrickson says she’s tired of hearing her community criticized by a few unenlightened souls. “I think the city sees us as an area that’s down and out, and we’re not down and out,” she says. “If people would just stop persecuting us, we have a lot.”
Plans for an improved Five Points aren’t all that drastic. Drafted by local architect Ted Pappas, who lives and works in the Riverside neighborhood, it includes wider sidewalks, more trees, enhanced lighting and better parking. “It’s not gentrification so much as just trying to improve the neighborhood,” says Pappas. “My agenda has been to make improvements. But the agenda is not to get rid of the kids.”
Pappas has planned a Five Points “charette,’’ an architectural term for a gathering to determine a community’s assets and problems. One goal might be a greater mix of businesses, Pappas says. For example, a bakery or a deli would be compatible with current establishments.
Some retail industries already have realized the area’s potential. Real estate developer David Surface has planned a Smoothie King and a PJ’s Coffeehouse for the corner of Park and Margaret streets. And around the corner, a new mailing center recently opened. But current merchants want to be careful about the tenor of the renovation’s progress.
“We don’t want to carry it to that next step, to an Avondale or San Marco, because we already have an Avondale and a San Marco,” says Terri Faircloth, owner of the Theory Shop. “It’s a funky little community. It’s a great place.”
If all of the people interested in Five Points were to choose sides for a game of softball, Simon Smith would certainly be the last one picked. His name has become synonymous with all that has gone wrong with the Merchants Association’s attempts to move forward.
Smith, who works for W.W. Gay, has made a name for himself in other circles as well – particularly in his high-profile campaign to purge the English language of the word “gay” in reference to homosexuality. On the walls of his cramped office he displays photographic tributes to his heroes. In one picture, he accepts his retirement plaque from President Gerald Ford. Another picture shows Oliver North in a stern salute.
Smith feels stung by accusations that he doesn’t like kids. “I have spent my life doing things that would help kids grow up better,” he says. “I want it safe for the kids and the grown-ups.”
But Smith doesn’t think nipple-piercing, tattooing and frequenting Club 5 represent the types of activities that improve children’s lives. The overall community, he says, does not support such lifestyles.
“The community sets its standards, Simon Smith doesn’t set standards,” he says. “If most of the people in the area wanted to do the wrong thing, that would be different. But it’s just a few groups.”
Since Smith is not a merchant, his vehicle of protest is the Friends of Five Points, a loosely-organized group formed to raise money for the improvement projects. His major contention is that the area is not safe. “Many more people would go there if it was safe,” he says. “I’m not against anybody. But it’s real obvious there are things going on that are illegal.”
It’s true that business at some of the older establishments has eroded, in part because of a decline in the number of older patrons. Peterson’s 5 & 10 & Flowers Shop was once a bustling little variety store, but proprietor Farid Hawwa says his customers have stopped coming, in part because of the nearby 1-95 construction and the area’s jammed parking — but also because they are afraid of the kids.
Crime statistics don’t support such concerns however. Assistant Chief George Bennett, commander of Zone 4, which includes Five Points, says there haven’t been many problems there. Although some of the surrounding areas experience crime such as burglaries and muggings, Bennett says he has seen no evidence pointing to Five Points’ patrons as perpetrators.
Most of the infractions police see on Park Street relate to underage drinking and open container violations, plus some marijuana possession. “If we’re targeting kids, it’s because we see violations of the law,” he says. But Bennett says he knows that Five Points caters to kids “in the process of growing up.”
“I admit it’s a little weird for me,” he says. “I try to keep an open mind.”
The biggest challenge police have faced is the graffiti, he says. The Sheriff’s Office has agreed to respect the Graffiti- Free Zone, but there are still concerns that the artwork will spill over to the fronts of buildings. Bennett admits that some of the images were created by “pretty talented” artists. “It’s not something I’d want in my home, but it’s not offensive,” he says. “As long as the area caters to an alternative lifestyle, [graffiti] will be a problem.”
The group to which the area caters is precisely what Smith would like to change. One of his ideas is to bring entertainment to Club 5 similar to what’s found in Branson, Missouri — country-western, Grand Ole Opry-style acts. Older residents in Riverside far outnumber young people, he points out, so it makes sense to encourage senior-oriented businesses.
If more mainstream entertainment came, mainstream restaurants and shops would surely follow, Smith reasons. So would increased property values.
“Right now, it’s deteriorating,” he says, a notion few agree with. “The ones who own the property are missing a [sure] bet.” Smith is one of those landowners. His property on Lomax houses Fototechnika, a photo-processing lab that’s run by his daughter.
Smith claims most of the Five Points businesses are “on board” with his improvement plan, but the Merchants Association disagrees. In fact, most of them say they’ve never met Smith, and that Smith has never been in their stores.
Smith has spent years as an activist. He writes the newsletter for the Jacksonville Coalition Against Pornography, and he claims to be working closely with the Sheriff’s Advisory Committee, the Justice Coalition and city officials.
No one disputes that Smith has clout. He orchestrated a recent walk through the neighborhood by Sheriff Nat Glover, and many local merchants believe his persistence led to the Club 5 and Nicotine arrests.
“We would love to have his energy and connections to improve Five Points,” says salon owner Musser. The city, through Councilmember Jim Overton, whose district includes Five Points, has promised matching grants to help improve the area, and there has been some movement to start raising funds. Friends of Five Points has raised about $5,000 so far.
But some fear the momentum may stagnate if the interested parties can’t move forward in unity.
On most nights in Five Points, a tall, skinny, bare-chested man with a disheveled salt-and-pepper beard strolls up and down Park Street with a broom and a dustpan. He, too, has an alternative lifestyle: he’s homeless.
Some of the kids call him Papa Joe. Others call him Pops. He has inhabited local streets for the past seven years, and he has become a familiar part of the scenery. In exchange for sweeping up the streets, many of the store owners help him out with a dollar or two when he’s hungry, or sometimes with cigarettes.
Papa Joe loves the kids, and often chats with them about their lives and problems. He helps keep order on the streets. He has been known to chase off panhandlers or transients who cause trouble.
He has never heard of Branson, Missouri.
For the residents and merchants of Five Points, Papa Joe is as much a part of the neighborhood as Simon Smith. They represent very different sides of the community, but they keep things interesting. And in Five Points, “interesting” turns a profit — that’s one thing that will never be a point of contention.