JACKSONVILLE IS A SECRETLY COOL CITY – Jacksonville Times Union by Frank Denton

Simple demographics could argue that I may not be the appropriate contemporary arbiter of cool (certainly not of “awesome”), but — ahem — I would like to point out that my generation was present during the cultural mainstreaming of cool. We were cool at the creation. We get it, in our own cool way.

So when I saw the Huffington Post headline about “five secretly cool cities,” I was ready to go there.

Travel writer David Landsel was warning people looking to move to a cool city to avoid Austin and Portland and San Francisco because they’ve been so chic so long they’ve become crowded, expensive and civically narcissistic. Instead, he pointed to “five secretly cool cities where you can still get in on the ground floor.”

And of course, as you and I know, we’re already there. Yep, on top of Albuquerque, Sacramento, San Antonio and Baltimore, according to Landsel, the No. 1 secretly cool city in America is Jacksonville.

As travel editor of the New York Post for years before moving to Los Angeles, Landsel said he spent a lot of time in Florida and visited Jacksonville nine or 10 times. Here are the elements of coolness he found here: “A small but active community of entrepreneurs working double time to change the image of this large but sleepy city. You name it, it’s happening, from microbreweries (Intuition, Aardwolf) to outstanding cafes (the hang-out-all-day Brew in happening Five Points, the brand-new Vagabond Coffee in Murray Hill), impressive farmers markets where you can meet local growers like Congaree and Penn, known for their terrific rice. (Yes, if you lived in Jacksonville you could source your rice locally; imagine.) “Downtown, the city’s oldest public square, Hemming Park, now has an open-air café, drop-in yoga and a popular beer festival; across the street in a gorgeously renovated private club is now one of the country’s largest candy shops, complete with bar and restaurant. Out at the beach, stop in at Flask & Cannon for tiki drinks, while nearby in the couples weekend lamefest that is ye olde St. Augustine, signs of life like the Ice Plant, a stylish cocktail bar and small plates joint (try the pickled local white shrimp, devils on horseback, smoked fish dip) are beyond encouraging.” Of course, coolness is in the eye of the beholder, so let me tell you why I think Jacksonville is cool:  We are an authentic city, not one with just a dimension or two like a beach or history or one dominant institution. We have wonderful diversity, of lifestyles, businesses and other institutions, and of people, from all over the world.

Here we enjoy a creative blend of Southern charm, hospitality and civility and Florida sun and beach, along with a change of seasons, sort of. You know lots of people who come here, accidentally or unwillingly, are amazed to find they love it, and never leave. Water everywhere. Living up and down the big old St. Johns — monitoring the Maine-to-Miami flow on the Fuller Warren from afar, watching for dolphins, the water taxi, visitors thinking all that water around the Buckman must be the ocean. Imagine how much cooler it will be when we actually start using the river.And then there’s that other, larger and saltier, body of water a few miles to the east, with a very different lifestyle, but still part of Jacksonville. We are coming to appreciate and support our cultural treasures — yes, the Cummer, MOCA and the symphony, of course, but also the CORK Arts District, Chamblin Book Mine, public art in surprising places. For heaven’s sake, we have an art gallery and live music at the airport, of all places.

Pick your party: One Spark, the jazz festival, professional sports, Riverside Arts Market, Georgia/Florida, The Players, a concert of some taste most every night at a range of nifty venues, always something to do, always.Or pick your park: We have one of the largest urban parks systems in the nation, if not the largest, with more than 80,000 acres in 337 city parks, not to mention 10 state parks and five national monuments or memorials. Look at a map of all the parks; you’ll be amazed. My personal one is Elizabeth Park (well, I share it with my neighbors and the occasional fisher). You’ve heard of New York moments? We have Jacksonville moments. A few recent cool ones of mine:

Having drinks and dinner on Sweet Pete’s porch during Art Walk and listening to Chris Thomas’ band while revelers dance in the street adjacent to City Hall and Hemming Park.
Shopping the farmers market on Beaver Street and trying to persuade a man with no other customers to sell me some strawberries. Nope, he said, not fresh enough. I bought some at another stand where the vendor insisted I wait while she ran to get me change for a dollar I had told her she could keep.

Living within walking distance of the Shoppes of Avondale, having brunch last weekend in the window at Biscotti’s — and serendipitously running into three separate friends, two museum directors and a higher education leader. Sliding aside the bookcase at the back of Grape & Grain Exchange in San Marco to get into the cozy Parlour speakeasy with fabulous live music. Last time: the stylish Toots Lorraine. Tonight: a flamenco combo with an acclaimed cellist, a classical guitarist and our own Philip Pan, Jacksonville Symphony concertmaster who also plays a fiery fiddle. (If you try to come, shhhh — it is a speakeasy, after all. And there is a stiff $5 cover charge.)

But, alas, I’m indulging in my own Jacksonville moments. You have your own. Allow me two more cool things about our town. One is that we haven’t been cool very long, so we are, as that travel writer attested, secretly cool. And that makes us even cooler. “What? You don’t know about Jacksonville?!”
Maybe the coolest thing is watching, and experiencing, the new Jacksonville as it grows up, becomes more inclusive and expansive, helps creators flourish, changes leadership from narrow patrimony to diverse and participatory, and gains confidence and, dare I say it, pride.

By Frank Denton Sat, Oct 17, 2015
frank.denton@jacksonville.com