Future City Series: Jacksonville, Fla. + Saint Marys, Ga.
Han Vance on American cities: When you look at the tropical enticements of the Sunshine State from a national, or even more so, international reputation perspective, the Greater Metro Jacksonville Area is far from any topical forefront. Yet, on my most recent sojourn, of many, of late, to the state directly to the south of my home state – this time for misadventures around a long-fabled American college football spectacle – I reconsidered JAX. It is an area of merits with much potential.
While some of the more ambitious locals have already come to think why not Jacksonville, the big philosophical shift may need to be to a resounding here’s why Jacksonville, as the only truly Southern large city in Florida has grown and still failed to reach a palpable cultural maturation point.
As a longtime Georgian, and a decade-plus megalopolis of Atlanta-proper, inner-city resident and American cultural critic, I must admit in full disclosure that much of my interest in the sprawling, water-featuring area is its status as a true bi-state area.
First, Saint Marys.
ST MARYS as you see most all the signs say, is a hidden gem at the edge of the eastern United States, which sits on the winding waterfront of the pretty St. Marys River, a meandering division of the internationally-popular Southern states of Georgia and Florida.
These days a suburb or at the very least an exurb of Jacksonville, Saint Marys, Ga., maintains distinct small town charm typical of the Deep South’s finest little enclaves. Still the type of place you can safely scoot around on central city streets in a golf cart at night, we did.
The old town Trolley in a mini-museum was a stop I had to make, being a transportation guy.
Extremely blessed to have been roommates at the University of Georgia in two houses with local Saint Marys’ legend Mike Helton, I was getting the tour in some detail from the one-time: Navy man, marine mammal federal program employee, meat market nightclub owner, Tex-Mex resto-magnate, niche construction supplier, ranked pro hydro sports athlete and current catastrophe insurance claims adjuster. He has lived an unusually interesting adult life, I opined aloud.
His lovely, affable wife Jill Helton came along for the joyride to clarify and further pontificate. Mrs. Helton is the editor, publisher of and a wordsmith/photog contributor to the fine local paper and several media offshoots. Her insights into Saint Marys proved invaluable, while Mike is as they say The Man. They are an undeniable power couple in Camden County.
It was fun. The oceanic night air felt clean and only lightly crisp on the first of November, the day before the so-called (because it is!) World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. We were more in reunion than partying hard, like the Georgia Bulldogs football fans were down on Amelia Island, Fla., I knew from a previous trip to the huge annual game.
But, we still got it in pretty good, in the home state.
An esplanade segmented main thoroughfare enhanced my notion of the truly Southern essence of these city streets, as we at low speeds zoomed by stately architecture which reminded me some of both Rome, Ga., and Eufala, Ala., the latter where I routinely stop on the way from ATL to Florida’s 30A.
The South in all her faded glory still a truly transportive place. I was feeling it, y’all.
Jacoby (the younger), who I know personally a bit from Atlanta and is lately best known for the successful redevelopment of former brownfield Atlantic Station into a vibrant newish West Midtown of Atlanta, has purchased and gutted the medium-sized main waterfront area, next to the Cumberland Island launch point. Plans are underway to develop it into a future destination. When that happens, expect the fairly-vibrant but notably calm area to flourish…and boom.
Whose gonna run your wild horses…whose gonna taste your saltwater kisses…
On JAX: The Landing is closed. I was told the former nightlife area has been purchased by the wealthy owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars with plans to “do it right.”
This is at the heart of the area, the heart of this article, too. These two waterfronts seemed to me to represent the American future. The dream. Peninsula Florida is part of the African plate, so when you look at Jacksonville, you see the actual edge of the American continent. The rest is, ahem, something else…down there. Go ahead.
Explore the seashores that wrap all the way around from the Atlantic and Jax Beach to the edge of Alabama, way way west in the state. Miles and miles of beaches and not the biggest state, long but not so wide across. Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River. Jacksonville has an international airport, but the attraction-in-location primary I see is for those who want to drive. I arrived via MegaBus, a fairly painless six-hour foray each way upon public transportation. $50 roundtrip.
JAX isn’t so far into Florida, and is all the way as Florida as can be. Paths back to an old home would be closer. So the draw to sunshine and water is complemented by a proximity to the main mainland.
Jacksonville has the most area and the most people of any city in Florida, although the Greater Metro Area is fourth behind: Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Like I was saying, though, those are down there. Miami is rightly considered the new “Capital of Latin America,” although I personally still see San Antonio as such and LA being in strong consideration, too. I’m a Texan by birth and wrote a book about California (“Golden State Misadventures” 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020 Silver Stone Press), so that’s my life. South Florida is what it is, and The South it is not. Orlando, where I enjoyed living in 1995, is still in Mickey’s shadow, some hours down from JAX. And when I think old Florida, I think the Tampa Bay area. Tampa and St. Pete perhaps most starkly in contrast to the New Urbanists’ vision playing out along HWY 30A. Although other than being distinctly Southern, Jacksonville and 30A are not so similar, either.
Jacksonville proper is still fairly full of the sad, staggering African-American poor struggling to survive and stereotypical rednecks in trucks blaring country music with God, Guns and Glory bumper stickers and Florida plates, so you know it’s still the Deep South. But, for how long?
Golden old coastal Georgia, right above there remains glorious, naturally, as the Atlanta money impacts it evidently, though the miles from The City are so many. It is Georgia, and the state economy is mostly strong as I write this (Nov. 2019). Florida has around four times the state population of the Peach State/Empire State of the South and by far the most total population in the Southeast. Is the future in northern Florida such that North Florida becomes an international, at least national – more than just a regional – scene, so to speak?
Bridges to everywhere.
Could a shimmering waterfront be rebuilt to thrust a downtown renaissance into the national spotlight, like Baltimore’s harbor did for an otherwise faltering laughingstock or sad sack of a city?
A Super Bowl was played in Jacksonville and they do have one professional sports team, of many in the sports-crazed state. Keeping the Georgia-Florida game in the city is of top-level importance for the attention of the area. The “Cocktail Party” has been played there, as a mid-season game, almost like a college football bowl game, featuring a neutral site approximately 50-50 crowd since the 1930s, with the exception of two football seasons when the old Gator Bowl stadium was finally somewhat modernized. The city needs to keep that there, and the UGA folks have warmed to not relocating it since winning three straight and 6-of-10 in the teens, to grow Georgia’s series advantage to 10 games.