Everybody knows the cheerleaders. They’re the ones who are always talking the city up and celebrating its many wonderful features. Jake Godbold, mayor from 1979 to 1987, is remembered as perhaps greatest cheerleader for Jacksonville in the city’s history. At The Jaxson, we’ve done no shortage of cheerleading ourselves, talking about the Downtown Northbank’s burgeoning renaissance of adaptive reuse projects, promoting our undersung Gullah Geechee heritage, celebrating our diverse neighborhoods and talking up our distinctive local foods that brim with such authenticity and flavor that they put Charleston and Savannah to shame (yeah, I said it. Someone had to).
A city needs its cheerleaders. However, when it comes to discussing measures to move Jacksonville forward, cheerleaders can inadvertently present a problem. Unfortunately, much cheerleading and boosterism can move from celebrating the things that are working to papering over the things that aren’t – or worse, spinning problems and mistakes as victories demonstrating that everything is, indeed, awesome. Taken to extremes, cheerleading can cast valid criticism as the real obstacle to progress.
There are too many examples of how this plays out in Jacksonville for one column, so I’ll pick one: the demolition of the Jacksonville Landing. Starting in February 2019, the City of Jacksonville launched a plan that would buy and raze the old festival marketplace. Cheerleaders extolled this as a major accomplishment that would move the city forward, opening the door to a better future for this iconic site. Critics of the move were dismissed as standing in the way of the future.
The issue with this is that this proclaimed better future is still years and millions of dollars away. It’s already been three years and at least $25 million, and the so-called “Lenny’s Lawn” remains a grass lot that sits unused for most of the year. By focusing only on the positive, or hoped-for future positive, we gloss over the fact that the space in its current state is considerably less active than the Landing was even during its lowest point. If we can’t give or listen to an honest assessment of the state of things, we’re bound to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, getting nowhere. In that situation, cheerleading becomes mere advocacy for the status quo.
The cynics sit at the opposite end of the spectrum of Jacksonville opinion-havers from the cheerleaders. You know the type: folks who reliably find the problems in everything. They’re the people who say that accepting the “Lerp” sculpture reflects poorly on Jacksonville, or conversely, that not giving the artistry of Lerp a chance reflects poorly on Jacksonville (typical Jacksonville!)
Cynics can provide a valuable service in some circumstances. It’s healthy to question the powers that be and their motives, exposing flaws and weaknesses is very often the way to get them fixed. But in many cases, cynics get so caught up in the negative that they don’t notice or accept when something is actually working. As a stance, it’s reactive. Its focus is countering what others are saying (or are perceived to be saying), not breaking new ground.
Take for example the debates around Consolidation. A collective of Jaxsons, particularly active on Twitter, argue that the Consolidation of the City of Jacksonville and Duval County governments was an outright failure, and the root of many of the city’s current problems. They believe that positive takes on Consolidation are the result of spin from generations of politicians and bigwigs who benefited from Consolidation and its many negative effects. In other words, it’s the antitheses of the perceived “official” account that lauds Consolidation.
The problem here is identical to the problem of the cheerleaders: by focusing so strongly on the negative, cynics miss that Consolidation’s effects have been complex and nuanced, and certainly not all negative. In the rush to counter the official story, they overlook the fact that Jacksonville’s urban problems long predated Consolidation, and that Consolidation was a far more equitable, efficient and effective way of mitigating certain nationwide trends than other cities like Tampa, Orlando and Miami employed. The cynical take on Consolidation, and many other issues, isn’t better reasoned than the cheerleader’s take – it’s just a palette swapped version.
The space between
One of the more amusing things about writing for The Jaxson is that we’re pretty regularly criticized for being both cheerleaders and cynics. Certainly, we have elements of both: we do explore the city’s problems, and we are unabashed Jacksonville lovers who take every opportunity to talk up the city’s great assets and limitless potential. But we believe the way forward for Jacksonville involves both extolling what we do right with the intensity of a thousand summer suns (or Sexy Rexy’s eternally glowing eyes) while simultaneously digging into what we do wrong in hopes of finding actionable solutions to our obstacles. Celebrating awesome things while fixing problems: does it get more Duval than that?
Editorial by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Delaney’s new book Secret Jacksonville, a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is out. Order a signed copy at thejaxsonmag.com/books.