“Screw this place, I’m outta here!” Anyone who has lived in Jacksonville long enough has heard this tune before. You hear it from all sorts — people who have lived here their entire lives and simply need a change of pace, people from other cities unsatisfied with the way things are done here, and, of course, those for whom the grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence.
Then there are the cheerleaders who stand up and applaud at every piece of good news. Jacksonville can do no wrong in their eyes and every achievement is lauded as the next step toward the city becoming some sort of utopia. The food is always delicious, the bands are the best, and the sun is always shining even as dark clouds loom on the horizon.
I’ve found myself a member of both camps, oscillating back and forth between love and contempt for my adopted city. Every so often, I find myself asking whether or not Jacksonville is the place for me. Is it progressing fast enough? Does it have the essential and non-essential qualities, services and amenities that I desire? Is it a place that reflects my values and ideals?
Each time my mind drifts to this place of doubt and concern, I find it helpful to take an honest inventory of the progress (or lack thereof) this city has made of late before doing anything rash. To this end, I recently sat down with some friends to assess the current state of Jacksonville in a few key areas. Here’s what I came up with.
Arts & Culture
When young people think about what makes a city great, it isn’t the political climate that comes to mind, it’s the culture. It’s the art, the entertainment and the things to do that get us excited and keep us from packing our bags for the next biggest city with a better scene.
Take a stroll downtown, and you’ll find yourself in a walkable art gallery on a massive scale. Several large-scale murals from internationally-acclaimed artists went up thanks to the efforts of Art (Re)Public, a divisively contentious event that was largely criticized by the local art community for essentially ignoring native talent, but nevertheless left a wealth of impressive eye candy in its wake. Grassroots efforts in neighborhoods such as Springfield and Murray Hill have done the same, as they set their sights on building the future and leaving the economic downturn of the past few years in their rear view.
The Jaguars’ performance on the field may disappoint, but the Stadium District is fast becoming a destination for more than just sports. With the opening of Intuition’s new brewery and taproom along with Manifest Distilling on the same block, the vision for an exciting and impressive entertainment center has emerged. Say what you will about the aesthetic, but the construction of Daily’s Place finally gives our city a venue for top-tier music and entertainment that might otherwise have gone elsewhere.
Jacksonville is a rough place to engage in politics. On the one hand, we are a growing city with new blood and new ideas. On the other, we are a Southern town with a strong conservative establishment. Nevertheless, our city took some huge steps forward by passing the Human Rights Ordinance and in addressing pension reform.
The benefit of an ordinance that protects all residents from discrimination, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, should be plainly obvious. The HRO sends a clear message to current and potential citizens alike that Jacksonville is a friendly and welcoming place to live. It demonstrates to new businesses looking to set up shop and existing ones set on retaining talent that their employees will be protected from discrimination. It levels the playing field not only for those immediately affected but for the city itself as it competes with other cities for the kinds of things that spur economic growth and improve quality of life. The HRO will prove to be an uncontestable win-win for Jacksonville and its people.
Another W was placed in the win column in August when voters approved the mayor’s pension reform referendum. The pension issue has been a nauseating bore in the news, and if nothing else, the vote marked the beginning of the end of having to hear about it. More importantly, it frees City Council to focus on important municipal issues such as improving infrastructure and other quality of life enhancements now that a significant chunk of the city’s general fund isn’t being eaten up to pay off the sizable debt.
Business & Development
When we compare Jacksonville to other cities, we tend to put an emphasis on the hip businesses, shops and restaurants that we visit in those places. More often than not, the ones we think of are those operated by young people with fresh ideas and their finger on the pulse of today’s trends. From the Beaches to the Urban Core, young people full of optimism and novel ideas are taking a chance by opening businesses that reflect the kind of community they want to create. Having recently moved to Murray Hill, I’m experiencing it first-hand as Edgewood transitions from a once-ignored street full of vacant storefronts into a vibrant destination with mostly young people at the helm.
Beyond the boutiques and restaurants that make living here fun and exciting, Jacksonville is attracting new companies that provide employment opportunities while new residential developments indicate positive signs of growth. Following the notion in commercial real estate that retail follows rooftops, development in Brooklyn and future plans for downtown residential projects have ushered in an environment that will bring new amenities to Jacksonville. At the Beaches, further expansion of the Beaches Town Center including a new Hawkers location and the new Surfer the Bar in Jacksonville Beach show signs of promise for our coastal regions.
For as much progress as Jacksonville has made over the past year, there are those who maintain that it isn’t enough. It’s not that we shouldn’t appreciate what has been done but more so that we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. While new businesses open their doors every day, there are still thousands of residents who live below the poverty line. Recent census data shows Jacksonville’s poverty rate increasing to as much as 18 percent, while the rest of Florida’s declines and more than half of Duval County public school students are on free or reduced lunch. To celebrate Jacksonville’s victories without paying attention to the plights of others would be a huge mistake.
In general, things are looking good for Jacksonville, despite the inherent problems of a big city that operates like a small town. While all signs point to continued progress, you just can’t expect radical change overnight. I for one, still have work to do here and the temptation to relocate isn’t as strong as the hope I, and many like me, have for even brighter days ahead.
By Jack Twachtman | @jackdiablo | Staff Writer
*Special thanks to Jimmy Midyette, Tony Allegretti, Christian Harden and Meredith Johnson for contributing their thoughts and ideas to this article.*