Dad and I went under the series of overpasses that marked the southern connection between Interstate 95 and the Jacksonville beltway, marking that we were ten miles outside of downtown. The absence of any element of society around this connection brought about the distinct typology of the American city: the overpass. It seems that, in a myriad of cities across America, this serves as the informal gateway to a metropolitan area. Sometimes, they mark a small capitalist hub taking advantage of traffic passing through. Although we came to some development shortly after entering the final stretch, this was only a symbolic reminder that Jacksonville sat ahead of us. Ten miles ahead of us.
A second point that every American city possesses is a great view of the skyline from the interstate that passes through downtown. For those opting to head straight into a bustling area rather than taking the clearer beltway, this could serve as something to look onto if stuck in traffic, perhaps. From I-95 North, Jacksonville’s skyline is not very impressive. It slowly creeps up from the east, finally making itself known after passing the highrises on the southern side of the St. Johns River. The Fuller Warren Bridge isn’t even that attractive—simply a concrete overpass spanning the water, much like those all across Florida. The blue, noticeable Main Street Bridge marked the focal point of downtown as we continued on I-95.
I suggested to Dad to follow signs to Everbank Field. There were none to be followed.
We got off the interstate and eventually found ourselves in the heart of downtown Jacksonville. It is laid out much like the traditional American downtown most often used in car commercials, featuring the Jacksonville Landing as the main attraction for residents along the riverfront. Dad and I had been downtown before during a street festival, complete with live jazz musicians and plenty of activity, but there was none of that to show on this Thursday afternoon. We passed by the monument of Andrew Jackson, the city’s namesake, and continued east on Bay Street toward the stadium. Office buildings turned into highrises, then the sheriff’s office, then the Maxwell House factory, then the bridge overpass, then finally the parking lot sea surrounding Everbank Field. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” and my building site embraces this notion with its parking. Despite the presence of a football stadium, baseball stadium, basketball arena, factory, two TV station headquarters, a museum, and a park, it took us a couple laps to find a parking lot that was open. Once we finally guessed that one on the east side of the football stadium was clear, we got out and began to walk around the perimeter of the stadium as a site analysis.
The parking situation shows the current state of the site: if nothing is going on at the stadiums, then there really isn’t any reason to be there. Dad and I were the only ones walking around on that brisk “Florida winter” day, often having to guess as to how various facilities around Everbank Field might be used during times of higher traffic. Metropolitan Park, a lovely facility on the other side of the Hart Bridge complete with outdoor amphitheater and river views, sat empty. This site essentially has the feel to it of being caged in by the raised-up highways on the north, south, and east sides that connect to the adjacent bridges. The west side is the most active visually, with a terracing effect created by the baseball stadium followed by a church building (now the Jacksonville Historical Society headquarters) and the arena, with the downtown skyscrapers looming in the background. A tall radio antenna next to a retention pond serves as an impromptu focal point, in addition to the omnipresent coffee aroma coming from the Maxwell House factory.
We completed our loop of Everbank Field and got back in the car to head to the south side of the St. Johns River. The newest development in downtown Jacksonville on the east side of both sides of the river is primarily residential in the form of overpriced baby-barf brown neo-Spanish revival monstrosities along what used to be piers. At least those are being repurposed.
Much like outside the Jacksonville Landing, the park along Southbank was noticeably absent considering the quality of the day. A few families were in the science museum and nice music and smells were coming out of the River City Brewing Company, but it was only the two of us taking in the surprisingly nice yet ineptly hidden views of downtown.
The existing urban fabric of Jacksonville can be personified as a young man who uses his first paycheck at his dream job to buy a really nice suit that is three sizes too big. Although he has the resources to make himself look nice, he is only concerned with having the object without concern of how it affects his appearance. Jacksonville has everything going for it—the history, the people, the infrastructure—to be a great American city, but, much like many of its counterparts across Florida, it is only concerned with dropping pieces into the land available. The new highrises, the stadium, and the ten-mile gap between the beltway and downtown fit into this model. Perhaps this pertains to the fact that much of the Floridian population being displaced from other locations, merely expecting the same objects from their original homes to be present, only closer to the ocean and with Florida winters.
Needless to say, Dad and I were a bit discouraged after coming to this revelation. Fortunately, we ended our day by visiting two incredibly interesting neighborhoods to the south of downtown: San Marco and Riverside. The hub of San Marco sits just south of Southbank, making up about three square blocks around Balis Park. In addition to a series of small businesses and restaurants and a couple churches that flank San Marco Boulevard, it is bordered by older homes built with excellent craft and care. I wanted to get up close to the brickwork on each house and take a picture in order to create a texture map for future computer models. Dad and I were very refreshed and had renewed hope in the Jacksonville metropolitan area as Southbank office buildings came visible again.
We headed back across the St. Johns River to the Riverside neighborhood to the southwest side of downtown (we turned left off I-95 instead of right, as when we blindly headed toward Everbank Field). Riverside is most notably home to the Cummer Museum and Gardens, the most noteworthy art museum in downtown Jacksonville. It also has a series of highrises, but their scale and architectural style is much better associated with the planning of Riverside compared to those in downtown. Like the homes in San Marco, the homes in Riverside have distinct characteristics, most notably the elegant wood siding that graces them just as well as the aforementioned brick. Unlike the lively San Marco, however, Riverside uses its close proximity to the river to create a much more solitary approach. What is so unique about these neighborhoods is their indirect relationship to downtown, treating it in regard to the experiential quality as a mere object visible in the distance. Downtown Jacksonville has a tendency to objectify its own attributes, so it is only fair that the planning of the surrounding neighborhoods does the same. We stopped at Memorial Park and took in great views and experiences. Even the fellow riding his skateboard in a circle around the memorial monument in the park fit into the atmosphere just as well as the old man sitting on a bench smoking a cigar and listening to his portable radio.
Heading south on I-95 back to Daytona Beach, I caught that great glimpse of downtown Jacksonville that was not granted to me on the way in earlier that afternoon. The design task that I face will keep me busy, but this quick, unexpected view proved to me that determining the true language of Jacksonville’s urban fabric is both attainable and feasible.