Wearing glasses and a bright blue turban, Gurdev Singh stares right into my eyes, his face tilted slightly forward. It’s not his thick Punjabi accent that makes him difficult to understand so much as his softspokenness. He walks and speaks with a calm precision and gentle intensity.
“Good food is a good cultural ambassador,” he says.
When he and his brother Narinder opened India’s Restaurant in a strip mall on Baymeadows Road in 1997, they couldn’t have known that they’d lead much of Jacksonville’s Indian diaspora to settle in this once bland exurb. With seven Indian restaurants and groceries, even Indian dental offices, along a one mile stretch of Baymeadows Road, the area, originally so vanilla, today more closely resembles coriander and saffron.
Two decades ago, the Singh brothers chose Jacksonville, instead of Miami or Orlando, because the city lacked Indian cuisine. They chose Baymeadows for the same reasons many other Jacksonville transplants have: crime was low and the schools were good.
In a largely suburban town like Jacksonville, the inner rings of yesterday’s suburbia become “inner city,” while decades after “white flight,” the furthest suburban subdivisions are sometimes more ethnically diverse than hip urban neighborhoods.
When Jay Patel moved with his family to Jacksonville in 2005, he quickly discovered that more Indians lived in Baymeadows than any other part of town. So he opened Indian Grocery and Produce next door to India’s Restaurant.
Here, several customers, Indian and white, move along the stalls of fresh vegetables, shopping among eggplant, daikon, and ginger, beside large canvas bags of basmati and jasmine rice.
Jay had owned and operated a service station in New Jersey, but hated the weather. After staying a week in Jacksonville while visiting friends, he decided he was moving.
“The weather here is just like the weather where I’m from, in Gujarat,” he says. “I tell all my friends and family in New Jersey to come to Jacksonville. Five or six families that I knew up North have moved here now.”