Home » Is America’s Largest City Also Its Most Misunderstood?

Is America’s Largest City Also Its Most Misunderstood?

She may have made Queen Victoria weep, written the best-selling book of the 19th century, and been told by Lincoln she was the woman “that started this great war,” but my favorite thing about —survives. The Great Depression would wipe out the studio, but it was just one tiny piece of Jacksonville’s incredibly rich role in Black, and therefor American, cultural history.

The neighborhood of LaVilla doesn’t look like much these days. It’s identical to any number of city neighborhoods nationwide ravaged by freeways and neglect—as well as the 1901 Jacksonville fire, the third worst city conflagration in U.S. history. Except LaVilla was once the center of Black life in Jacksonville, and thus, depending who you ask, at the center of Black life in America at the turn of the century. Ray Charles, Ma Rainey, and Zora Neale Hurston all spent formative years here. James Weldon Johnson and his brother wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem) while Johnson was a principal In town. LaVilla was referred to as “the Harlem of the South.” While Jacksonville has ample room to grow to lean into its rich Black history, a good place to get your bearings is at the Ritz Theater & Museum. Built on the site of the old Ritz Theater where Ray Charles got his start, it has a little museum inside which includes an animatronic show on Johnson’s life and displays about the community’s history.

Music history runs deep here generally. Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed in Jacksonville. So, too, was the Allman Brothers Band. The Florida Theater, where Elvis debuted his infamous lip curl, still puts on shows.

Sublime Nature

My second day in Jacksonville, though, wasn’t focused on what once was, but rather something incredible the city has within its limits—sublime nature.

Whether because of politics or class, there’s a temptation not to fully appreciate the spectacular beauty of Florida. If you were in any other country and driving the A1A onto Talbot Island you’d declare it one of the most picturesque things you’d ever seen. The beaches are a pristine white on the ocean side of the bridge and on the other precarious islands of marsh grass and cypress dot the land like spots on a cow. I’d picked up food at Community Loaves, a bakery so good I went back multiple times. There’s something to be said for a town that has a bakery as good as any major city and you can just roll up with no line. Loaded with carbs, I picked up my bike at Kayak Amelia and cruised along Big Talbot Island, one of a number of these barrier islands that make up the “North Florida Keys.” While it was simply nice to get out and into this unique landscape, wandering amongst the blasted tree trunk ruins on Boneyard Beach is a must.

The blasted remains of trees that festoon the beaches on Talbot Island.

William O’Connor

Drenched in sweat and with more than a few bug bites, I stopped on my way back to town at Huguenot Memorial Park, a Cape Cod-looking fish hook-shaped peninsula on the northern side of the mouth of the St. Johns. I parked in a lot by a cove with clear water and squishy sand likely rich in shellfish. As I squelched my way along its shore, SUVs and trucks rolled by, since the main beach here is one you can drive right onto (my rental car, alas, would not have been up to the task). I stripped down, put my stuff into a pile hoping it wouldn’t get run over, and jumped into the waves. Bobbing about, I looked back at the lovely beach lined for hundreds of yards with giant cars. Anywhere else it might have been jarring, but here in northern Florida it looked just right.

A perfect slice of pie served In the simplest of surroundings at Pie Heaven.

William O’Connor

Like most former industrial cities, Jacksonville is going through a hard-fought revitalization of its urban core. But one neighborhood you shouldn’t miss while you’re in town is just north of downtown: Springfield. It’s home to some of the city’s most charming blocks of historic house as well as restaurants and coffee shops where you’re guaranteed to run into the young and adventurous taking part in that revitalization. While in the neighborhood, fill up at 1748 Bakehouse with comforting soups and sandwiches. They had, no lie, the best pumpernickel bread I’ve ever tasted. Speaking of best things I’ve ever tasted. The bakery rated number one pie shop in Florida, Mixed Fillings, was closed the week I was there. Luckily, Jacksonville also has the bakery that came in third in the state, Pie Heaven, where I got my fix of key lime pie and restrained myself from taking one home.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is long gone, but there’s still plenty to see should you decide to stop here. Perhaps you’ve already done St. Augustine and you want something a little more colorful, a place still on its way to becoming something. Or perhaps you’re in town for business and need a good place to eat where you can walk in neighborhoods lined with live oak. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve discovered you actually are keen to finally learn why rich people care so much about porcelain from Germany.