To most people, Jacksonville is known primarily for its size. Other than a couple of towns in Alaska, with small populations dotting the landscape, Jacksonville boasts the largest landmass of any city in the US. It is, to quote the current president, “yuge”. Despite the gripes of so many cultural critics, homogeneity is hardly our calling-card. Indeed, our bigness belies a depth, in terms of demographics, with all kinds of ethnic enclaves scattered throughout the city, and a history so rich that it’s almost confounding for those attempting to tell these stories.
Venerable Florida Times-Union columnist Mark Woods is one who has made those stories his livelihood. An ace with language, Woods has an eye for detail that other reporters would envy, if he weren’t such a nice guy. Years at the paper’s Metro Desk endowed Woods with tons of institutional knowledge, which he has applied to great acclaim in his most recent projects. The first was his excellent book Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks (2016), a love letter of sorts to the sites of childhood vacations, and to the family that brought him there. He followed that with the definitive look at contemporary Jacksonville, a series of columns called “Mark Walks Jax”.
Instead of walking a mile in another man’s shoes, Woods walked 158.8 in his own. The first series was written a couple of years ago; he went north to south in that stretch. “There wasn’t a set schedule,” says Woods, who estimates that he talked to hundreds of people during that time. “When I did this the first time, walking from north to south a few years ago, I made the mistake of starting in late April and doing most of the walks in the middle of summer. So I typically did those as early as possible, often starting before sunrise. This time I was smarter. I did the first walk on the last day of October, and had great walking weather for most legs of the walk.”
The second series began last year, and on those walks he went from west to east. “It ended up being 25 walks,” he says. “I did every walk on Wednesday, except for the final one. I switched that one to Saturday morning so that it would be easier for others to join me.” The pictures in this article were taken on that final walk, which ran along Atlantic Beach on March 27. “Part of the reason I chose to do the walks on Wednesdays,” he says, “was so that if the weather ever was really bad, I still could do the walk on Thursday (and write the column for Sunday’s paper). But that never happened.”
Will there be a book? He’s not sure yet, but it seems like an easy sell. When it’s all said and done, “Mark Walks Jax” may go down as his most important contribution to our public life. In a city largely controlled by car dealers, gas station owners, and road construction firms, Woods decided to move in the most seemingly counterintuitive direction possible. He’s spent the last couple of years meticulously walking the streets of his city, documenting not only the personalities of its various neighborhoods, but also taking a stand in defense of the average pedestrian.
In a city that is widely considered hostile to their interests, Woods has spoken out repeatedly on the need for more crosswalks, and more time to get through them. His influence has already proven crucial in helping raise awareness of these issues, at a time when injuries and deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists are at historic highs from one end of this state to the other. These here streets are already at least a little bit safer, and that is part of Mark Woods’ legacy, as much as the byline.
If you’d like to know more about Woods’ walk across Jax, he’s mapped the exploration in its entirety, HERE.