In 2012 or so, with a handful of bars, distinctive dining options, and music venues—specifically Burro Bar, Underbelly, 1904 Music Hall, and Club TSI—coalescing around a few square blocks of Jacksonville’s urban core, a group of DT-Jax enthusiasts began calling the area “The Elbow” for the orientation of the thoroughfares (Ocean and Bay Streets) that served as the district’s connective tissue. On weekends and First Wednesday Art Walks, it was not uncommon to see a large and diverse population of music lovers, scenesters, and the downtown-curious traversing the Elbow (even filling the streets) as they bounced from club to club to club. In September of 2016, however, TSI shut its doors after 11 years in business. In October, another Bay St. staple, Underbelly, followed suit. And in April of that year, just months after throwing its five-year anniversary party, the beloved Burro Bar held its final show.  

Fits and starts.

In April of 2015, an estimated 300,000 people descended on downtown for One Spark. Billed as “the World’s Largest Crowdfunding Festival,” for a brief moment, the third iteration of One Spark provided a glimpse of a (quasi) tech-driven revival of the city’s urban core. Two months later, the majority of the One Spark’s staff was laid off. And though the festival limped along for a few more years, the spark had been doused. 

Fits and starts. 

In October of 2017, artists Wyatt Parlette and Matthew Bennett, along with Bennett’s wife Laura, opened the sprawling DIY art space, Space Gallery on E. Forsyth. Taking advantage of a local realtor’s offer to use the Old Steam Laundry Building as a pop-up gallery until the building was purchased or leased, the trio ended up bringing thousands of spectators and art-enthusiasts into the space for a diverse range of programming; from contemporary art exhibitions to live music events and panel discussions. A little over a year and half after the Space Gallery first occupied it, the building was leased to an out-of-town tenant. Today, it remains vacant. 

There’s reason to believe that, behind the scenes of a series of public disappointments, the city’s urban core has been building a sustainable foundation on the backs of a handful of hype-blind downtown diehards.

In April of 2018, Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s Iguana Investments submitted a $2.5 billion proposal to develop a portion of the city’s downtown that pushes from TIAA Bank Field to a long-undeveloped parcel of riverfront property known as the Shipyards. The proposal includes a handful of highrises, a concert venue, a hotel, and a substantial amount of parking. To date, no bulldozers, cranes, or heavy equipment of any kind have materialized to manifest Khan’s vision.

Heavy equipment—and dynamite, for that matter—has been present in the core, of late; unfortunately, as augurs of destruction. This year saw the demise of several structures, including the old City Hall Annex, a historic fire station in the downtown-adjacent neighborhood of Brooklyn, and a waterfront landmark, the Jacksonville Landing. 

Downtown Jax’s First Wednesday Art Walk still pops, as evidenced by the cache of cool photos Toni Smailagic provided us for this issue.

On the surface, the story of Jacksonville’s downtown revival is a circular one. It starts with hype, which at some point begins to look quite a bit like momentum, followed eventually by an abrupt, seemingly inevitable halt. Then, cue hype; repeat cycle. In other words: fits and starts. 

But there’s reason to believe that, behind the scenes of a series of public disappointments, the city’s urban core has been building a sustainable foundation on the backs of a handful of hype-blind downtown diehards. Elbow holdout 1904 Music Hall has proven that an appetite remains for a music venue promoting mid-tier and local artists in the urban core, as 1904 founder Jason Hunnicutt and team have their eyes set on expansion (“Maximum Capacity” by Daniel A. Brown). Meanwhile, after years of debate over whether residential or entrepreneurial interests should be prioritized in the city’s urban core, a boon in residential development and an influx of new DT residents is about to put that chicken-or-the-egg style discourse to the test (“Down(town) by the River Side” by Shelton Hull). And there are dozens of pioneers still willing to take proverbial arrows, opening businesses and/or making a home on the frontier that is the city’s core (“Urban Pioneers”). 

While many would welcome an ambitious project like Khan’s Shipyards development, it’s becoming more and more evident that a vibrant downtown—one that comes close to resembling the at-capacity crowds of One Spark nearly a half decade ago—will be contingent on a more grassroots kind of effort. More art venues like The Space Gallery. More live music obsessives like Jason Hunnicutt. And certainly more folks invested in the preservation of the core’s historic structures (“Put Us On the Map” by Steve Williams). 

Photo: Toni Smailagic

Great cities need great downtowns. And over the course of the last decade, despite fits and starts, Jacksonville’s urban core has flashed its potential, and is slowly morphing into a hub for innovative ideas and distinctive cultural activity. This issue explores the current state and future potential of Jacksonville’s downtown. It’s a celebration of those looking to make an impact in the heart of the city; in other words: the most CORE among us! 

Matt

This article originally appeared as the Liner Notes in Void Magazine’s March 2020 issue. 

Behind the Cover
Along with brick murals, substantial windows, and more than 80 angular, eye-catching exterior fins, these bright tilesranging from lime to pear to seafoamhave been a fixture of downtown’s distinctive architectural character for more than 50 years. Designed by Taylor Hardwick and opened as the Hayden Burns Library in 1965, the building was renovated, LEED Certified, and renamed the Jessie Ball duPont Center in 2014 and now houses a community of nonprofits.