The 904, Duval, The First Coast, River City, the Bold New City of the South. Jacksonville has a host of nicknames, but together they represent the culture of this unique city, a city I didn’t fully appreciate at first. So much so, I was considering moving out six years after moving in.
It’s difficult to forget my first encounters with Jacksonville. I remember the three-hour, family road trips from Tampa, heading up U.S. 301 to I-10, to visit my aunt and cousins. Back then, Adventure Landing in Jacksonville Beach was a holiday for me and my sister, and St. Johns Town Center was little more than a Dick’s Sporting Goods with sweltering concrete sidewalks.
For many years to follow, that was pretty much my impression of Jacksonville … nothing special. It wasn’t until 2014—my freshman year at the University of North Florida—that I actually began to appreciate the city for what it was instead of what it wasn’t.
Despite its size, Jacksonville is pretty accessible. As a kid, I didn’t realize how convenient it was to be able to reach virtually any part of town in 30 minutes or less and how fun it was to explore the diversity of its neighborhoods.
How can I forget the mornings my college pals and I would spend aimlessly wandering commercial beacons along Southside? Or the nights spent at Memorial Park in Riverside with our legs dangling from the balustrade above the St. Johns River? The more time I spent in Riverside, the more I grew to love it. The historic homes, the eclectic residents and support for small, local businesses (vegan munchies at Southern Roots and organic treats from Sweet Theory are personal favorites) were a few of the reasons I eventually decided to make Riverside my home. Add to that the lore of nearby Annie Lytle Public School (P.S. 4) and other allegedly haunted UrBex hotspots, and Jacksonville quickly became a place that was too unique and intriguing to leave.
As much as I love Riverside, however, there’s nothing quite like the Beaches. Despite living on Florida’s Sunset Coast for 19 years, I was never a beach person. I hated the sand, sun and quote-unquote fun. But beaches on the First Coast changed all that for me. From Atlantic Beach to Ponte Vedra Beach, the variety of people—and things to do—is unique. It never feels overwhelming or too touristy. For me, there’s something about the alabaster sand and calming waves that sets the bar higher … and speaking of bars, there’s a bar for every kind of person here, too (hello, Lemon Bar!).
But to me, there’s one area beach that manages to outshine the others, Big Talbot Island State Park. Though it’s a hike from my abode in Riverside, its sprawling shores sprinkled with driftwood and fallen oak trees are unmatched in their beauty and seclusion and well worth the drive. Where the cypress woods meet the surf, Big Talbot Island is a tranquil rarity that offers an escape away from the city—a place to walk, run, write, hike and look off the shore’s rocks at what feels like the edge of the world.
Sometimes, Jacksonville itself feels like that—nowhere and everywhere. And yet, this town possesses a comforting duality between the familiar and “always something new.” We have a storied history, but we continue to grow with refreshing ideas and new development. What has most stood out most to me, however, is the sense of unity and loyalty of its citizens: to their hometown, their sports teams (no matter how depressing the results) and most of all, to each other. I’ve witnessed so many people who continually give of their time and resources to help neighbors, family and friends—and with a splash of Southern hospitality.
It’s these reasons, along with many others, I ultimately decided not to move. Once I was able to see the full portrait of Jacksonville, I knew it’s where I wanted to be. I look forward to the many names, places and stories to come with a touch of optimism in the city I now call home.
With love, Duval.