Becoming Jacksonville

by | Dec 30, 2021

At the beginning of its bicentennial year Jacksonville ought to be an easier place to describe than it is. By population and area, Jacksonville is Florida’s largest city. Its population is more than twice that of its nearest competitor, Miami, and in size, Jacksonville is many times larger than any other city in Florida. Indeed, our city is the third largest in the U.S. With statistics like those, one might expect Jacksonville to be the bellwether of the Sunshine State, sort of its emblem city. But in fact, it is different from any other urban center in Florida.

Remarkably, our peer Florida cities are all younger than Jacksonville, but they each have grown their way into clear identities. Miami, once an isolated riverbank village, has turned into America’s gateway to the Caribbean, steeped in tropical glamor. Orlando, once a sleepy citrus farming town, has reinvented itself as an international destination for escape through fantasies presented in multiple theme parks. Tampa has so thoroughly draped itself with legends of fake pirates that its NFL team naturally calls itself the Buccaneers.

For 199 years – longer than any of Florida’s other large cities have been around – Jacksonville has persisted and outgrown them all. A river mightier than any in Florida runs through it, but even so, the river does not entirely define the city. So too do the ocean beaches and natural areas such as the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, among the most beautiful and authentically changeless natural stretches of America’s Atlantic shoreline. So does the Navy, and the seaport. Jacksonville is a collection of places and neighborhoods, each contributing its own uniquely authentic identity to the whole. Some of its neighborhoods face problems unlike those anywhere else, and others seem bathed in good fortune. But they all contribute to our municipal persona. The place where you live or work in this big, complicated place is a living part of its past and its future.

Jacksonville is authentic. That differentiates it from popular images of many other places across Florida, which seem invented or contrived. Jacksonville’s identity will change over its next 200 years, just as it has over the past 200. Can it, and should it retain its distinctive authenticity? If so, how? One sure way is to be mindful of our past, in all its nuance and complexities. That includes historic preservation, wherever it makes sense and helps to preserve and share Jacksonville’s stories. All Jacksonians have a voice in that, which is among our great opportunities as we enter upon 2022, the year of the Bicentennial.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society

What’s your story? Click here to share how your family came to Jacksonville.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Krancer, Kram Kran Photo)

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