Charles Dickens for Mayor

by Tim Gilmore, 10/13/2012

In October 2006, mayoral candidate Mike Weinstein announced that as part of his campaign, he would walk into the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of the city and spend the night talking to families there.

A lot of people laughed at Mike Weinstein. Maybe he was a Romantic. Probably not, since he was a politician. Maybe he was a wealthy Jew, said some fundamentalist Southern Baptists and at least one black preacher, who didn’t know what it really meant to spend the night on Moncrief Road. A whole history of black speakers who didn’t trust Jewish owners of groceries in black neighborhoods, best illustrated by Malcolm X, flashed forth for a moment and died out.

Weinstein made some very fair-minded points. He didn’t believe people who lived in secure upper-middle-class neighborhoods, gated or not, though the city’s high murder rate was their own problem. “We are, in fact, one city,” he said.

Weinstein lost to John Peyton, heir to an oil fortune, and now president of Gate Petroleum. Peyton didn’t even live in the city. He lived in its wealthiest outpost.

Forget voting for either Peyton or Weinstein. Instead, consider voting for Charles Dickens as mayor of London in 1860, and then consider what the next candidates for mayor of Jacksonville should do.

First, a caveat. Artists, as a rule, don’t make good politicians. Of course, neither do politicians. Artists are concerned with truth and beauty, and politicians are concerned with neither. Yes, Vaclav Havel became the first president of the Czech Republic after Soviet strong-armed Czechoslovakia broken into independent halves. Yes, liberal dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Union had an enormous amount of intellectual and artistic influence. But Plato’s philosopher-kings rarely weather political storms well.

Forget all that. Now for something much purer. In the same year Dickens began publishing one of his shorter novels, Great Expectations, he wrote an essay called “Night Walks.” If you read one Dickens novel, and especially if you read two, you know that he had the pulse of Victorian England and especially Victorian London. He captured the lives of the poor and the injustices committed against he poor. He wrote about homelessness, about the guilt of wealthy children, and about debtors’ prison—his father had been sentenced to the Marshalsea. Dickens encapsulated the life of his time, but his novels also changed laws. He knew his city.

“Night Walks” is an essay about Dickens’s walks across the city at night. He sometimes walked all night across London, from just before midnight until coffee vendors and breakfast-sellers in the market at Covent Garden.

He didn’t stay away from the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city either. He walked past the prostitutes and the gin-drunks and the men full of “dry rot.” This was the London just preceded the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper. He saw London as a person, a person comprising all the individuals who inhabited and haunted it.

He writes about wandering over the dreary Waterloo Bridge in the middle of the night. “But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. […] And the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.”

In the middle of the night, Dickens visited theatres, hospitals for the insane, Westminster Abbey, and countless graveyards, where he thought about “what enormous hosts of dead belong to one great old city, and how, if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin’s point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into.”

Maybe every city has its Charles Dickens. Maybe most cities don’t acknowledge their Charles Dickenses. Maybe the leaders of many cities don’t know their cities at all.

A mayor should be a psychogeographer. Maybe this city’s next mayor should learn Jacksonville like Charles Dickens learned London. That mayoral candidate should at the very least know intimately every place in This Kind of City. That candidate should be intimately familiar with every place explored in At the very least. Every small city contains uncountable worlds. A random sampling of the worlds of Jacksonville, Florida can be found this project. What does it mean to lead a city if you don’t know a city? What does it mean to know a city if you don’t know its street corners, its old houses big but mostly small, its haunted school buildings, its back alleys, its curves of rivers and creeks, its ghosted coves?

Next mayoral candidate, the scavenger hunt for your city starts here.