We were in Jacksonville, and my mother wasn’t crying. Note the progress.
To understand her emotions, we need to go back in time, to a two-year stretch in the 1970s. During this dark period in our family history, my mother wept often, shedding tears for what she’d lost (her life in New England) and for what she hadn’t cared to gain (a new existence in northeastern Florida).
I have no memory of our Jacksonville days, my infant brain having been too soft to hold on to the hard truths of Florida’s sticky heat, pervasive snakes and monolithic seasons. I am, however, a product of my mother’s recollections. Growing up, I heard about the barren neighborhood streets (too hot to play outside), the palmetto bugs (flying cockroaches) and the convicts in our forested backyard (they were trapping water moccasins).
My mother finally cracked a smile when my father told her that we were moving back to Massachusetts. She would never have to return to the area.
But then she had grandkids. Now a trip to Florida was inevitable.
Florida is the rare state that can satisfy the vacation needs of multiple generations, from seniors to toddlers, always-tired parents to tireless spring breakers. In April, my parents rented two condo units on Amelia Island, northeast of Jax (a common nickname; see also River City and J-ville), for a week-long family holiday including my niece and nephew, whose combined age I can count on my fingers. As part of the trip, I was going to drag — I mean, escort — my mother back to Jacksonville. I had two intentions. I wanted to help her find peace with this city, and I wanted to know: Is Jax really that bad, or was my mom being a tad melodrama-diva?
To prep her for the outing, I interrupted her lounging session at the pool one afternoon to ask her to name some positives of living in Jacksonville. Her like list included Atlantic Beach, catfish (live, not fried), the oak trees draped in Spanish moss and year-round iced tea. In New England, iced tea appears on menus as a seasonal beverage.
Our plan was to go backward, then forward, past to present. The day started off cold and rainy. We wore our Yankee finest — sweaters, jackets and socks. We drove to our old house in the Beauclerc neighborhood, passing the silvery downtown skyline, which had experienced a vertical growth spurt in the 1980s. Before crossing the St. Johns River, I noticed a big bowl on my left, the Jaguars’ football stadium. My father mentioned that this area had once been rough and disreputable; now, fans flow through the streets wearing teal fright wigs and animal-print face paint. Civilization restored.
For recreation, my parents would pull our 17-foot boat by trailer to Goodbys Lake, off the northward-flowing St. Johns River. We would set sail around sunset, but not for romantic reasons. “We couldn’t go earlier in the day because of the heat,” said Mom.
We drove in circles looking for the boat ramp, losing our way among the strip malls. We pulled down a leafy side street where a sign read, “Gun and Tackle Club.” My mother had a flashback moment: “I think I took you here to swim in the pool.” I hoped she’d dressed us in bright orange bathing suits.
Behind a Hooters, I found a marina and asked an employee for help. He directed us over a bridge and across the street, to a large parking lot with a concrete slope leading to the water. A small vessel carrying two fishermen floated by, a picture of the great outdoors framed by urban decay. Neither parent remembered the abandoned buildings with broken windows.
Before shifting to the present, we had one more destination from long ago — Atlantic Beach. From Atlantic Boulevard, we turned toward the ocean, entering a beachy community of fetching bungalows and bounteous gardens. Perhaps if we’d lived here, my family’s story would have turned out differently.
The beach was deserted, save for a few bundled-up souls. Weathered houses, many roosting on stilts or crouching behind flood walls, bordered the undeveloped strand. Seabirds hopped on the wet sand, leaving behind three-pronged prints.
“If you came here in June, you would absolutely know that this was not New England,” my mom said. “But on this April day, it feels and looks like a New England beach.”
By comparison, downtown fits no regional template; it’s the John Doe of commercial districts, more Midwest than Miami. High-rise office buildings shoot up like trees along the river, with restaurants, shops and museums occupying the lower branches. Hemming Plaza, the city’s oldest park, plugs in the doughnut hole of urban design.
Because of sprawl — in the lower 48, Jax claims to be the largest city landwise — residents typically stick to their own neighborhoods, rarely venturing downtown. To draw visitors, city officials dangled a giant carrot called Jacksonville Landing, an entertainment complex on the waterfront. We took the bait.
Our visit coincided with One Spark, a grass-roots fundraising (or in today’s parlance, crowdfunding) event involving hundreds of artists and entrepreneurs looking for a little something-something for their coffee cans. We rode the Skyway, a monorail system unveiled in 1989, to Hemming Plaza, where we bumped into our first One Sparker at the bottom of the elevator. Yvonne C. Lozano made an impressive case for her art project, I Am Jax.
“So many people complain about living in this city,” said the New Orleans transplant who has resided in Jax for 20 years. “This will help people discover the city, even people who live here.”
Her light bulb: to project the silhouettes of real Jacksonville residents on abandoned buildings and blank wall spaces, creating a daisy chain of personal portraits in a public setting. Imagine, you and you and you on a billboard. I’d brake for that.
En route to the Landing, we heard calls for help from an urban farming project, a young-adult historical mystery novelist, and a boutique lotion maker. Steps from the Jacksonville Maritime Heritage Center, an older gent bent our collective ears about his group’s initiative: to relocate the USS Adams from Philly to Jax and create a Navy ship museum. We’d already experienced the only boat ride-ish activity at the riverfront, a water taxi that putters from shore to shore, and agreed that Jacksonville could really use a bigger ship with serious battle cred (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Cold War surveillance of Soviet submarines).
“Maritime is the wet part of Jacksonville’s history,” said Paul Ghiotto, director of the nautical museum.
The dry half includes the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1901, the silent film industry, the Maxwell House plant (mmm, smell that canned coffee) and Beach Road Chicken Dinners, a fried-bird joint established in 1939.
“Never go after 7 p.m.; they’ll extinguish the sign as you are walking in,” Ghiotto said, updating my parents, former regulars. “And it’s no longer all-you-can-eat.” Nevertheless, he added, you’ll still need your Lipitor.
When newcomers arrive in Jacksonville, Ghiotto offers two orientation suggestions: Visit the Museum of Science & History across the river and ride the elevator to the 42nd floor of the Bank of America building, to soak in the 360-degree view.
On our way back to the Skyway, we tried to swing into the Bank of America for the pelican’s POV but were rebuffed by a security guard, who told us to return during regular banking hours. As a consolation, we bought muffins and coffee at Urban Grind, a local producer with a stand in the lobby. I ordered a pecan-flavored coffee, skipping the maple bacon mocha because the pig really crossed the line this time.
With our sort-of homecoming nearly over, it was time to ask my mother the exit-interview question: Could she finally let go of her grudge and accept — and even embrace — Jacksonville?
“I’ve had 40 years to mellow,” she said. “To be honest, it’s nice to be back.”
Her dry eyes confirmed her sentiments.