Jacksonville is on fire right now.
The city is among the fastest-growing in the country, both population-wise and in terms of business and culture. People are flocking to Jax for new job opportunities, which are readily available in many industries – and many of those are young people looking to get their careers started. Development spending has ramped back up. Long-blighted neighborhoods are seeing new development and community investments.
Even downtown, for decades largely viewed as a lost cause, has found renewed hope and is seeing renewed interest from developers.
There’s only one problem: we’ve been here before.
Jacksonville has long been a city plagued by false starts – threatening, at turns, to form an identity, but never quite sealing the deal.
For example: in the 1910s, Jax was set to become Hollywood before Hollywood even existed, with film studios popping up all across town and stars of the day walking the streets of downtown. But after enough complaining by puritanical residents of the time, the studios were largely chased out of town and straight into the welcoming arms of Southern California.
During World War II, we became a “Navy town”, with two bases being established here. But the end of the war brought about the end of that business boom – although the Navy still maintains a strong presence in the city.
By the ‘60s, Jacksonville-Duval County consolidation was our gimmick, and we branded ourselves as “The Bold New City of the South” – in honor of the city’s slow embrace of the civil rights movement, and as a way to distance ourselves from the rampant local corruption of the ‘50s. Unfortunately, the bold moves pretty much began and ended with consolidation.
Other dubious titles, such as “insurance capital of the South”, “America’s logistics center“, or “banking capital of Florida”, came and went over the years as well.
For the past few decades, the city’s reputation has closely reflected its lack of direction. Comments along the lines of “who even knows where Jacksonville is?” were pretty commonplace nationally – especially once the city was rewarded an NFL franchise in the ‘90s.
Following its stint as host of the Super Bowl in 2005, the city became an even bigger punchline nationally, having been viewed as unworthy of such an event.
For those who know of Jacksonville but have never visited, contemporary descriptions of the city have generally depicted it almost like a hillbilly town that was granted a magical wish to become a real city, but then it got a little too big for its britches.
But now, in 2018, we again find ourselves on the upswing, threatening to develop a fully-formed identity. With an influx of new, younger residents, the opportunity is now here to revolutionize the way Jacksonville is seen.
This time, the identity forming is that of a cultural safe haven in the heart of the South – a place where creativity is welcomed, and it’s okay to be a little weird.
But refining and amplifying that identity is not without its challenges.
While a new generation of residents is certainly on the rise, the old guard still exists – and, when need be, it comes out in full force. This was evident back when it took a city council hearing packed with passionate residents just to get a brewery’s zoning exception approved over the objections of church leaders.
Or when it took an equally passionate fight to ensure civil rights protections for LGBT residents – again, over the strong objections of church leaders.
It’s the same brand of uptight nonsense that chased filmmakers out of town years ago, or that obstructs liquor licenses downtown to this day. It has nothing to do with earnestly-held beliefs or protecting the city. Rather, it’s an excuse to complain about things changing, and to impede the progress of a new generation looking to improve upon the failures of the past.
In the past, when such obstacles have arisen, previous generations have failed to rise to meet the occasion. The old guard has won, almost indiscriminately, throughout the city’s history.
So now, we’re faced with what is a pivotal moment for our city. This newer generation has a choice. It can keep fighting for progress, keep coming up with new and exciting ways to engage the community, and keep “making Jax weird.” Or it can give into the temptation to just let things be, or to feel unreasonable for demanding change when others oppose it.
It won’t be easy, and it won’t come without setbacks. But Jacksonville is a city that deserves so much more love than it’s been given – and this is our chance to make sure that changes.