Walking America: Jacksonville
Community among the expressways, interstates, and boulevards
Few American towns are walking towns. Almost every one of them is built around and for cars, which over time becomes the dominant personality of a place.
Jacksonville, however, is really really not a walking city. Whatever non-car past it once had, whatever community once thrived without an expressway, interstate, parkway, or eight-lane road smashing right through it, or looming over it, is long gone. Jacksonville is unabashedly designed for cars. And almost everyone there has a car. Or two. Or three.
If you are an adult and live in Jacksonville and don’t have a car it is because you are physically unable to drive, or your life is so fucked up owning a car or having a license is beyond you.
Those no-car lifestyle types, who fill NYC, DC, and Twitter, are rare birds in Jacksonville.
This means walking across Jacksonville requires navigating interstates, expressways, parkways, and cross-town eight-lane roads that carve it up into separated communities. Walking from one segment to another means going eight blocks out of your way to find a tunnel underneath I-95.
Or you can gamble with your life and dart across one of its huge intersections, hoping the 22-year-old in a heavily tinted silver Dodge in the right turn lane smoking so much weed the smell somehow hits you five seconds before the car does, is looking out for pedestrians (ha!), rather than busily ordering Chipotle, playing Fortnite, or DM-ing a dick pic. Nah. He has the right to turn on red, and so he is gonna do that like right now. And what is a pedestrian anyways?
That isn’t to say community still doesn’t exists in Jacksonville’s various disconnected neighborhoods. It’s just that it takes place within eye-shot, ear-shot, and smell-shot (?), of masses of zooming cars.
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My Jacksonville walk began (as it usually does) in a Walmart Supercenter parking lot on the south side of town on a highway (Philips), paralleled by an interstate (I-95), slightly south of a tangled junction of both with a boulevard (Atlantic).
Before that intersection is a mile of strip malls, auto dealers, gas stations, small businesses, and somewhat surprisingly, an old peaceful black neighborhood with houses right up against I- 95. It’s a reminder of what once was, before the cars took over, and a glimmer of what is to come.
The intersection takes up most of the rest of southern Jacksonville, a thick mass of roads that then split into three crossings of the St. Johns River. On the map it looks like a tangle of three yarns in the process of being twisted on both ends. In real life it has been urban-planned, landscaped, and water-fountained into another part of the scenery.
Just another part of very quaint Historic San Marco, where the preservation society is, without any sense of irony, next to a Panera.
San Marco, at least a few blocks of it, is indeed nice and working very hard to preserve a Florida-before-the-interstate vibe. There are blocks of low slung art-deco lite buildings housing colorful businesses, bespoke clothing stores, upscale chains, and artsy places selling artsy stuff. All of which, at least the morning I was there, were filled with overly cologned men working on laptops and overly perfumed women sipping coffee.
The rest of San Marco, once you again pass under 95, is filled with nothing but soulless modern business-like buildings and the homeless. Lots of homeless. Sleeping in the otherwise empty parks, under over passes, or in barely used parking garages. They have this northern tip of San Marco all to themselves.
Crossing out of San Marco and over the St Johns into downtown is a reminder that Jacksonville is gifted with an amazing natural setting. It is beautiful. Blue sky. Blue water. Cool breezes. Wonderful vistas. That whiff of sea salt in the air.
Yet once off the bridge, downtown is even more depressing than what came before it.
It is close to noon and the only people I see are cops, homeless, and a few church members doing homeless outreach.
They ain’t even scattered through the long stretch of downtown but instead are clustered around a fortress-like police station, an even more fortress-like jail, and a collection of bail-bonds shops.
The juxtaposition of beautiful scenery dotted with brutal buildings surrounded by desperate people sleeping next bail bonds shops. It is a bit too much.
East of downtown are more expressways, more parkways, and then two huge sports stadiums. Again, all empty. The only people I see are a few men pushing shopping carts, a few couples living in tents hidden away, and police. No tourists, no business people, no drunks tail-gating before the game, no kids playing sports. Just a huge empty football stadium surrounded by huge empty parking lots lined with closed-up empty sports bars. Which presumably are open like 20 times a year.
Oh, there is the Maxwell House factory. That is cool.
Once I turn north (and cross under another expressway), things dramatically change. I am in the “Historic Eastside,” or translated, the old pre-civil-rights black neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks where blacks were once forced to live, which is still all black, still poor, but being rebranded as historic, although when any upper income person who is otherwise automatically drawn to the historic hears you are going to Eastside will tell you “to be careful” or “don’t get shot.”
What changes in Eastside, beyond the race of the residents, is people are outside doing things, beyond being homeless. Although there is a little of that. There are eight old men sitting in front of a mortuary (!) shooting the shit. A block away, two old friends are sitting on benches while their cars are washed. Including Mike, who is especially chatty and wants to talk about his long career as a Merchant Marine: “Saw the world. Best city? Montreal. They got some good food and pretty generous women.”
There are block after block of small homes that actually look lived in. There are corner stores with people inside and outside chatting. There are tons of churches. There are signs of religion and faith everywhere. There is color. Oh so much color everywhere. Not color chosen by some marketing executive to evoke this or that buying impulse. Real colors that just splash. There is, simply put, life here. It is a huge change from everything before.
Sure, the interstates, expressways, boulevards, and train tracks that slice and dice Jacksonville up, are here. But there is also a visible engaged community and it is refreshing to see.
This continues for the rest of my walk, through other largely black working class neighborhoods, Eastside, Springfield, Phoenix, Mid-Westside, then finally 29th and Chase.
29th and Chase is where I end my walk, after roughly fifteen miles. I am told it is Jacksonville’s most dangerous neighborhood. It doesn’t feel particularly dangerous to me, or all that different from what came before it, which also didn’t feel all that dangerous.
I find the bus stop to take me back, which is a bench next to an empty lot. A young man smoking a blunt, talking on the phone, walking a dog comes over and sits next to me. His dog’s (Bella) collar is an old USB cord. I rightfully hold back on a dad joke about plugging him in.
He sits chatting on the phone for five minutes before offering me a hit on his blunt. I am tempted, but pass. He smiles, “It ain’t laced with nothing.”
I pass again, he moves on, my bus comes, and I head back to the Walmart Supercenter.
I spend the ride thinking how despite it all, despite the bad start, despite the dead downtown, Jacksonville isn’t really run by the car. There is community here. Even in the parts I didn’t like. If looked beyond the emptiness, there was still community in the downtown. In San Marco. Maybe the car isn’t Jacksonville’s tyrant.
I wake up early the next day, despite a late night, so I can do another walk, this time from west to east. My motel is next to a beltway intersection. I go to get coffee but the nearest McDonald’s is on the wrong side of the road and there is no way, with the traffic, I can turn into it. I keep driving until I finally find a McDonald’s I can get into. I am now five miles from my motel, and the road back is now completely jammed. Five miles and over an hour of traffic away. And when I finally do get to it, I am not sure how, with the intense traffic, I can turn back out of the parking lot to get to a place I can take a bus to where I want to start my walk.
After twenty minutes of trying to figure out a plan, I give up and give in to the absurdity, and the reality.
Yes, cars. You do really own Jacksonville. Silly of me to have thought otherwise.
Rough outline of walk
Pepe's Hacienda & Restaurant (3615 Dupont Ave Suite 900)
Very wonderful Mexican Restaurant in a strip mall. On these walking trips I almost always end up in a similar place, but this might be the best I have been in. Both for the quality of the food, and the atmosphere.
Filled with crews still in their “please Mister car don’t hit me” orange and yellow work shirts (if you ever wonder who gets the deep fried whole tilapia special), families, young couples out for a date, and regulars at the bar, it is a community center for the area’s Mexican and Central American immigrant communities, and a reminder how important these communities are to so many towns in the US.
The restaurant is attached to a much larger and busier Mexican grocery store, where you can get everything, including Jesus and Mary statuary, kids’ toys, and the various parts of animals few white Americans eat.
I make a point of going to places like Pepe’s for a end of day pick me up.
After twelve hours of seeing our country’s inequalites, after hearing a lot of justified frustration from people surrounded by dysfunction, who are just trying to do their best, being around a functional, happy, and optimistic, working-class community, is a reminder that the American Dream isn’t entirely dead.1
Takeria Mix Honduran & Mexican Restaurant (6680 Powers Ave #108)
Similar scene to Pepe’s (working class immigrants happy to be American), but not nearly as busy. At least not when I was there.
The Mexican food didn’t look as good here, which given that it is a Honduran place, isn’t a huge surprise. So I went with the Hondurian food, despite it not being my thing, because I am not a huge fan of starch fried in lard. But when in Takeria Mix do as Takeria Mix does.
So I ate a huge plate of fried plantains and steak covered in basically ranch dressing. It was better than that sounds. Especially with a Presidente beer. Especially after seventeen hours of driving.
Then I ate a pupusas and I immediately wished I hadn’t eaten the large plate of fried plantains and had eaten five pupusas instead.
Readers. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Pupusas for the win!
Locals Pub (1580 Wells Rd Suite 1, Orange Park)
In a strip mall next to a Dominoes is Locals pub, a place I had intended to stay for only one beer, especially after seeing it was karaoke night. I ended up staying till after midnight, a decision I only briefly regretted the next morning.
Locals smelled bad. Stale beer and cleaning fluid bad, which is at least better than ass bad. The beer (Yuengling) was a bit flat, and the lighting a tad harsh. But it was a dive bar and you go to dive bars for the people, not the ambiance.
Like the guy next to me who immediately asked me if I remembered what he did last night. The bartender jumped in with a knowing laugh, before I could explain this was my first time here, ‘Oh, you were raging. Bought everyone a round after beating X at pool.” That was followed by the older lady on my other side explaining that she also doesn’t really remember how the night ended, just that she woke up cursing driving home because another DWI and she loses her license. Again.
I guess Locals facebook page is right “Everyone that comes in will be treated just like a "Local" that has been coming in for years.”
If I go to strip mall Mexican restaurants for a reminder the American Dream isn’t entirely dead, then I got to strip mall dive bars for a reminder that a failed American Dream can still be pretty fun.
If you have the right attitude about it that is. If you aren’t worried about being a failure. If you aren’t worried about being called a loser. If you don’t mind having your many many problems and complications out in the open.
If you move beyond all that judgemental worry, you can focus on hanging with other losers spending the night drinking and talking about your ups and downs and every small drama going on in your life. About your exes, kids, exes’s kids, kid’s exes, and so on.
Now you are part of a community (of all races, because being a loser is an equal opportunity) who can finally see the good in you. Like how you’re skilled with cars, or machines, or fashion, or makeup, or pool, or music. Or how empathetic you are. Like how you are not a dick at all, and actually care about people, and how that has fucked you over. Like care what’s in a persons heart, not in their brain or wallet.
Or, as the night of karaoke showed me, how even though you might look pickled, might look rough around the edges, boy oh boy can you ever sing.
Various Logistical Walking Stuff
As mentioned endlessly above, Jacksonville is not a walking city.
Despite that, Jacksonville has a surprisingly ok-ish bus system. I got yelled at on Twitter for saying that, but the reality is, the bus system is pretty extensive and modern. I never waited more than fifteen minutes for a bus, and the downtown hub is clean, well designed, and easy to use.
Almost everyone on the buses were from that tiny minority of Jacksonvillians who couldn’t drive. Which meant the physical and mentally handicapped, the young, the very poor, the very drunk, and the very felonied.
The guy on the downtown 12 bus, sprawled out on the back seat next to his walker, holding a brown bag, and with an ankle tracking device, had all of that. He was a Jacksonville bus rider’s Bingo players dream.
While the rest of the sytem was pretty ok-ish, the actually stops sucked. They ranged from a pole with nothing else around, to benches you can’t sit on with zero shade from Florida sun, to just a few well designed shelters.
You can’t have everything it seems.
That’s the optimistic me, when I have only had one or two beer and am feeling a little buzzed and high from finishing a fifteen mile walk me. If I drink more, and the post walk high fades, then cynical me re-emerges and I realize what I am seeing in places like Pepe’s is the physical manifestation of the Front Rows, “Oops we broke the working class, lets import another!” mentality.