Requiem for My Hometown

River City...you had so much potential.

They used to say you can’t go home again—I don’t know what the youngins are saying these days—but for me, that’s only partly true. With all of the back and forth traveling and living abroad that I’ve done since leaving the nest at 17, I’ve always had a pretty decent time visiting my family. In fact, aside from occasional head-butting amongst the males in the household, there’s nothing unpleasant about going home. Going to my hometown, not so much.

Someone once said to me that she considered Jacksonville to be Detroit with better weather. Before anyone takes that too personally, realize that both places have some great people, but both places are also paeans to bad municipal management in the face of serious historic economic shifts, and have high crime rates as a result. What Detroit has on Jville is an unbeatable musical heritage, dynamic redevelopment effort, and a highly successful airline hub. We’ve got a decent-sized port, some decent beaches, a couple of decent golf courses, and great weather (which, sad to say, is the only thing the place has going for it).

Sometimes I bite my tongue before criticizing “the Bold New City of the South” in front of my parents because they were born and raised here, but it’s not even the same city I grew up in, let alone them. Throughout the middle 20th century, despite segregation and serious racial unrest from time to time, the black community in Jacksonville thrived with commerce and industry, even spawning a little beach enclave in neighboring Nassau County (as the local beaches were off-limits to culluds; see the movie Sunshine State). People graduated from high school, went off to college in Tallahassee or Daytona Beach, then came back home to Jacksonville to raise their children amongst a broad, but close-knit community. Today, my parents still get together with twenty or thirty friends they’ve known for almost seven decades. I get together with maybe seven people, if that.

Some of it has to do with the more divergent paths young black folks take in an integrated society. Some of it has to do with a comfortable complacency that takes root in a place shackled by low expectations and a low cost of living. Some of it has to do with the misguided consolidation of city and county government, leading to sprawling suburban development at the cost of a vibrant urban core and missed opportunities for the city as a whole. Some of it has to do with Jim Crow-era laws, corrupt police, inept officials, greedy businesses, and religious zealots in government (Good Ol’ Boys, allovem). Some of it has to do with willful ignorance on both sides of the color line. All of it is reason enough for me to minimize interaction with my hometown.

Only when I think of the values I learned as a Southerner, a Floridian, and a black man reared by parents who were both educators, am I certain that I wouldn’t want to have been raised anywhere else.

Well…except Hawaii, maybe.

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