Jacksonville is one of the most-overlooked cities of the South. It is the largest city in geographic land area in the United States (thanks to the annexation of surrounding Duval County) and has a considerable population. Unlike Atlanta and other cities in the South, however, where fragmented incorporation of smaller towns and suburban areas makes for a metro area instead of a city proper, Jacksonville is indeed a single, vast, and unified city unit.
This is the concept American cities were built on over a century ago, but few manage to commit to it on a civic and legal level today. Such endless tracts of land have become necessary for Jacksonville. Hosting several Navy bases and a multitude of industrial businesses focused on maritime, railroad, and intermodal transport, construction, and manufacturing, Jacksonville simply requires the land. It can do things a city smaller in land area could not, and its key port and rail connections are crucial for American trade. It is also a leading regional center for health care and education and plays a key role in professional and recreational sports.
Despite all this, a city that numbers among the top leaders in most every economic regard is often a footnote in American media attention and travel promotion. Part of this is due to Jacksonville’s strong repute as a center of shipping and industry coupled with a lack of knowledge of its history and cultural appeal, but that is something the city is now dedicated to changing and is accomplishing with impressive success.
Jacksonville really came into its own after the Civil War, as industry and shipping returned and expanded in the American South. The city, along with nearby Saint Augustine and Palatka, became a center for tourism in the winter months when Northerners came to enjoy the warmer climate and hunt and fish the St. Johns River. In time, the beaches became tourist attractions as well. Growth was impressive, and the Gilded Age provided Jacksonville with the arena it needed to make the most of its geographic situation and bountiful natural resources.
In 1901, however, a horrible tragedy, hardly remembered today, stunned Jacksonville and its prosperity. A fire broke out at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory when a pile of dry Spanish moss was ignited and spread in a scant few hours to engulf most of downtown. It was the worst urban fire in the South, the third-worst in the history of the entire nation (behind the horrible fires of Chicago and San Francisco). Historical records claim the enormous plumes of smoke and even the glow of the flames could be seen as far away as Savannah, Georgia. Nearly the entire downtown business district burned to the ground, and thousands lost their homes. The rebuilding of Jacksonville required the governor of Florida to issue a state of martial law in the ravaged city, enforced by the state militia.
As terrible a fate as the Great Fire was, Jacksonville rebuilt, and its urban core today shows ample signs of the rebuilding. Since nearly all the property deeds of the time were also lost in the fire, current deeds denote a property’s listing as either belonging to the old court deeds of the city or the new, indicating either a pre- or post-fire origin of the deed. It’s reported that Duval County is the only county in Florida with such a system, and so the effects of the fire linger on over a century later.
Parts of the city, however, were beyond the reach of the fire and were only starting serious development around 1901, notably the Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods. Fearing the possibility of another fire due to the number of factories downtown, wealthy residents moved in the 1910’s to Riverside and later to Avondale, which was for its time the best-planned and structured of all Jacksonville’s neighborhoods. In a time when racial strife in the South still was an ugly issue, it was also planned as an all-white neighborhood.
Today Avondale and Riverside are two of the most sought-after addresses in all of Jacksonville. Thanks to strong historic preservation efforts, these neighborhoods retain a legacy of homes and other buildings spanning from the 1910’s to the 1950’s, including some of the grandest homes in the region. Since these communities developed in an age when walking to the store or office was as common as driving there, while mainly residential, they sport some charming blocks of shops and restaurants. While most businesses, as would be expected, are not the same as a century ago, the basic layout of neighborhood retail and restaurants meshed with blocks of homes is a refreshing look at how real communities functioned prior to the suburban expansion seen in so many cities. In Avondale this approach has been nurtured, and everything from ice cream parlors to bike shops to bars can be found in walking distance of local homes.
A great part of Avondale’s charm is that besides (and sometimes literally right beside) grand homes, one can find cute bungalows and small apartment buildings. This diversity in housing indicates that far from simply being the exclusive upper-class white community it began as, Avondale matured into a more inclusive neighborhood with a very organic feel. The variety of restaurants is also impressive and showcases some of the best food in Jacksonville.
While Riverside and Avondale are thriving, downtown Jacksonville has in recent decades seen a downturn in interests beyond the necessary work done there through the business day. In an effort to lure people back downtown after hours, the Friday Night Live festival provides a free, family-friendly showcase of a variety of bands and solo performers in a contest format vying for the audience favorite.
Organized by local singer Jasmine Rhey, judges who work in the music industry as well as the audience vote for the act that is best-received, and the judges also offer these young bands and singers advice and critiques on their performances. Much like popular television shows of the same format where judges help shepherd up-and-coming artists to stardom, the contest environment adds excitement to the concerts and has been a vast success in bringing people to the Jacksonville Landing, a multi-use space designed as a small river-front shopping mall, which has fallen somewhat to the wayside as newer, larger malls have been built elsewhere in town.
Jasmine Rhey herself is an energetic and utterly charming person, full of excitement for Friday Night Live and the artists performing. Catching the performances on September 11, I was at once impressed by the number of people of all ages, as well as the quality of the music. In between the live acts, DJs spun party favorite dance numbers which fully motivated a festive crowd to get up and dance, and the live music was even more exciting.
Most impressive of all was a group of four young men—all from Jacksonville—known as L.O.P.A.
This band combines smooth harmonies and precise vocal talents to take on covers of pop/rock favorites plus their own original compositions. Recalling the boy-bands of the 1990’s and early 2000’s but with a swiftness and earnest sense of fun, I felt I was in the presence of an act that should be on national TV or a world tour and not just in Jacksonville. Speaking with one of their members, Jacob Dye, after their performance I also found them to be very down-to-earth and humble, focused on success in the long run but deeply proud of their local roots. They’re a band I would likely never have heard had it not been for Friday Night Live.
September 11 was of course also a time to reflect on the horrors of 9/11 in 2001 and how America remembers the loss of many on that tragic day, but also how we as a nation have moved forward with resolve and courage. Watching people of all races and ages come together for Friday Night Live certainly indicated not just America’s triumph, but that of Jacksonville—a patriotic city which has moved forward through so much and continues to strive towards new goals today.