Ever since I read an essay in the Folio titled “Who Are We? On Jacksonville’s existential crisis (if you want to call it that)” I have wanted to respond. I write this now four days before I leave my city for Birmingham, Alabama. I leave not by choice, but because of my husband’s job transfer. Our leaving is bittersweet; heavy on the bitter.
The author of the article, Editor Jeffrey C. Billman, begins by stating that there is a disadvantage to writing about Jacksonville, a place he knows so little about as a newcomer. I wonder, then, why he goes about it so harshly if he has not allowed himself to experience Jacksonville yet. He says Jacksonvillians are “very easy going, except on the highway; there you’re a bunch of assholes,” and he also states, “Nobody wants to live in a town run by Baptists.” These statements say a lot about him.
I grew up in Jacksonville; moved away a few times, returning the last time in 2005. I have been writing articles about people and places in Northeast Florida since 2009 and I have only scratched the surface of what makes Jacksonville tick. Mr. Billman’s complaint is that Jacksonville and Northeast Florida seem to lack a sense of place. He says we need to nurture a culture of livability, focusing on pedestrians, bikes and mass transit; we need to build a robust downtown. “It’s about prizing the eccentric and innovative over the milquetoast and safe.” I sense that Mr. Billman wishes that Jacksonville was something other than what it is. Did he come here to change it or did he come here to be a part of it? He asked two questions at the end of his article: Who are we? What do we want to be? I can’t answer the second question, but I can relate my experience to the first.
We are a not a melting pot but a smorgasbord. We are farmers, artists, and surfers in a county with the largest urban park system in the United States. We are writers, readers, and actors who live next door to the oldest city in the nation. We are a town of colleges, museums, and a fantastic zoo. We are baseball fans, coffee drinkers, and craft beer makers who work hard and want the best for our children, whether that’s public, private, or home schooling.
We have book festivals, blues festivals, shrimp festivals – corn mazes, art shows, and community theater. We like jazz, hip-hop, southern rock and Christmas caroling, with the symphony thrown in on occasion.
We are a people who give; sometimes through relays for cancer and sometimes through benefit concerts for children who’ve lost their parents or kids with CHD – you name it - we give money, time, and prayers. We give year-round, not just at holidays.
We also play year-round. We swim at the beaches, kayak at Amelia Island, boat down the St, Johns, bike the roads, golf the greens and eat our Barbecue.
It’s not about prizing the eccentric, but there is room for the eccentric. Just look at Ripley’s Museum, Castle Otis, belly dancers at the Riverside Arts Market and perhaps the woman down the street.
Yes, we should prize the innovative, but not while trying to stamp out the safe. A person who resorts to name calling and put downs in order to build up what he thinks is better is missing something. I hope he finds it.