I believe in ghosts, just not the supernatural kind. I feel “ghost” as history, psychology, patterns of life and behavior in place across time. So when Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass told me Henry John Klutho (1873-1964)—Jacksonville’s most historically important architect—throws paintings he doesn’t like down from their walls, I get it. Since Klutho designed this house for himself, Jefree and Carolyn see themselves as curators. It will always be Klutho’s house, like Macbeth will always be Shakespeare’s play.
Because people are fascinating, so are the structures with which they clothe their lives. This is how I read cities, not just London and Florence and Toronto; all cities.
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, all my friends thought Jacksonville was boring. I said it, too. I hadn’t yet been up in the Riverside Fire Tower or Mayport Lighthouse or down in the tunnels beneath the Black Masonic Temple. I hadn’t visited the Drew Mansion in Springfield, where a hospital orderly had hidden a stolen head; the former drive-in porn theater whose church congregants burnt old reels to drive out demons, or the mausoleum of the African princess assassinated while preaching. I didn’t know my own hometown.
I started chronicling my explorations almost eight years ago on my website, jaxpsychogeo.com, those last four syllables short for “psychogeography,” the artistic exploration of the psychology of place. In mid-December, I posted my 500th story.
I started JaxPsychoGeo by accident. I’d written a postmodern novel to tell the story of my hometown, location by location. The novel was as decentered as the city itself. As such, it contained grand, dramatic, and historic happenings as well as the fall of a leaf and the nestling of a cat beneath a car in a suburban subdivision.
But the novel asked to be broken apart. It was always the nature of it anyway. Even a part is more than the sum of its parts. So I broke the novel into its constituents, titled each one according to the place it happened, and started the website.
I hit strides. Each story I dug into connected underground to others. I found stories nobody had told since the 1950s or 1880s and did my best to walk into them and experience them in the landscape. The stories are out there. They don’t care if we find them or not. Finding the stories is our necessity, not theirs. They approach infinity. Every piece of a story you can break down into further stories and so on. It’s stories all the way down.
So I found Springfield Hospital for Abortions (located north of Springfield)—in operation two decades before Roe v. Wade—where fetuses were secretly buried and children born to poor mothers were adopted out to Tampa mob bosses. I found centuries-old crypts hidden in the verdure on Fort George Island. I found the pyromaniac fake-serial-killer Ottis Toole’s fingerprints all over the urban core.
I wandered through the diary that a woman named Carrie had scrawled on the walls of her transient room in the old Ambassador Hotel, the hovercraft ruins in Green Cove Springs, the strange compound of houses the artist Jim Russell built and called Coquina Gates, biker bars like Greybeard’s and old black gangsta joints like Silver Star. I explored Sin City, Babyland, the Dunehouses and the Cosmic Church of Truth. I’ve been welcomed, threatened, and propositioned. I’ve found most anyone will give you an earful when you tell them you’re writing a story.
So Padrica Mendez invited me into the house where she grew up. The City of Jacksonville destroyed most of the dense black neighborhood of LaVilla around her, but the house her father Pedro, a Cuban tailor, restored in 1946, still stands. Padrica spent 16 years in Italy singing opera and appearing in the occasional Italian movie, but came home to care for her dying mother in 1977. She knew then that she’d hold on to her childhood home for the rest of her life.
So architect William Morgan met me in the cedar-planked pyramid with 30-foot ceilings he built for his family at Atlantic Beach in the 1970s and told me how a house had to honor the earth, not conquer it. He spoke of the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Series, how frequently the spiral was found in nature, and how he built according to the natural spiral.
So Christina Gatlin walked me through her family’s home in San Marco, built in the 1920s for John Swisher, producer of King Edward Cigars, and told me how Martha Mitchell, who’d built her mansion, Villa Alexandria, on this site in the 1870s, visits her. “She died in the house,” Gatlin said, and though “it stood here abandoned for 20 years,” Mitchell resented how “they tore her house down.”
I could work this project for the rest of my life. My best guess is that right now it contains about 800,000 words, but any number would always be just a start. If the whole project is one story, you could only ever say it’s mostly composed of holes. It’s impossible for the well to run dry, for the net to catch all the fish, for the metaphor to make the point conclusively.
The only applicable and practical question regarding those facts is whether I wish to continue JaxPsychoGeo ad infinitum / ad nauseum. Part of me wants to come to some arbitrary endpoint. So how about 500? How about JaxPsychoGeo being a literary mapping project and collection of 500 stories—neat as a straight shot of bourbon?
My answer to that question is to announce a dimension to this project I’ve been considering half the time I’ve been writing it. Spring 2020 will see the first annual Citywide Crosstown JaxPsychoGeo Scavenger Hunt, during which teams will match clues to places chronicled on the site. Check voidlive.com soon for details: cash prizes, high jinks. It’s the right next step in the strange project of exploring and writing about this strange Capital City of Florida Gothic.
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s January 2020 issue.