by Tim Gilmore, 11/15/2018
1. Washing Up From Around the World
The tall broad-shouldered young man with the Eastern European accent laughs heartily. He’s all arms, legs and sideburns. When he talks, he uses his chin to punctuate points.
“You call this district what?” I ask, eavesdropping. I want to make sure I heard him right.
He’s talking to the reticent man behind the cash register at Lim Market European Grocery, who gives him a smile and some change but little else.
“World Beach,” he says, hammering the word “world” with his chin, and laughs again. When Mirza first moved here seven or eight years ago from Mostar, where war had destroyed that beautiful 400 year old Ottoman bridge in 1993, he thought it was funny this street was called Beach Boulevard. He hadn’t realized the old strip malls stretched 13 miles to an actual ocean.
The coolers behind Mirza contain dozens of kinds of sausage. The shelves hold pickles and paprikes, Turkish coffee and mountain germander tea, wines named for “Bear’s Blood” and the fourteenth century Serbian Orthodox martyred saint Tsar Lazar.
World Beach contains no beach, but its storefronts represent at least two dozen nationalities and ethniticities, immigrants and refugees who’ve washed up here from around the world. It extends eastward along Beach Boulevard from between the partial-cloverleaf interchange with the Hart Expressway to the Commodore Point Expressway flyover. Though Pakistani groceries and Thai restaurants follow Beach Boulevard from World Beach to the beach, it’s these two miles that form the Cradle of Civilization.
2. Repurposing Old Growth Rings
Just down Beach Boulevard from the abandoned gas station that last served as a tiny farmers’ market, where a banner reading WATERMELONS 4UP still hangs over glass doors and windows and where an image of a smiling peanut fades from a window ad for buying and eating him boiled, yesterday’s suburban storefronts operate repurposed by new Americans from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America and by those Americans other Americans frequently forget are family.
World Beach signs announce Tienda Latina Dominican Food, African Hair Braiding by Sanopri, New World Asian Market, La Gran Parada Restaurant, African Market and Restaurant, Lagosca African Hair Braiding, Iglesia Roca de Salvación, Rocio’s Dominican Beauty Salon, Cuba Barber Shop, Gangnam Korean Restaurant, Shiva Robotics Academy, Petra Wholesale / Hala Bakery and El Tejano “Latin Fashion” Moda Latina.
This ring of suburbia fell to yesteryear. After World War II, new suburbs—fed by new interstate development, insurance and loan practices of racial preferment called redlining, and white fear of the darkening complexion of America’s cities—grew out from urban cores like growth rings on trees. When it was new, in the 1950s and ’60s, this tier of suburbia represented ascendancy and exclusion. Built on a premise of flight, however, each newest outward ring of suburbia was destined for rapid decline.
By the 1980s and ’90s, though these stretches of Beach Boulevard through the neighborhoods of San Souci and Spring Glen gaped with holes where commercial buildings once stood and festered wide open with abandoned parking lots, this same largescale quitclaim opened opportunities for immigrant families and entrepreneurs.
In the mix, World Beach also made space for settled Americans considered other than by mainstream white America, for businesses like Beauty Max, which caters to African American cosmetic trends, and Latin Creations, a Puerto Rican restaurant and bakery.
3. Way Station Boricua
In February, five months after Hurricane Maria, several of Beatrice Chandler’s family members back in Puerto Rico had just had electricity restored. She served up gracious portions of tostones con mojito (fried plantains in garlic sauce) and arroz y habichuelas con bistec (rice, beans, onions and sirloin).
Other family members would live without electricity for more than half a year. In August, George Washington University researchers and the government of Puerto Rico released estimates of the number of island deaths from Hurricane Maria at 2,975.
Beatrice has worked in her family’s restaurant, Latin Creations, for three years. Her parents started the restaurant seven years ago at the Beach Boulevard Flea Market, another incubator of immigrant business, down Beach by St. Johns Bluff Road.
Luis Ofray worked the counter at Latin Creations, wearing a puffy Diamond Supply Co. baseball cap. He’d been in Jacksonville with his two little boys for four months.
“I never knew so much despair,” Luis told me, Beatrice translating. “I never thought I’d see everything I knew destroyed.”
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in late September 2017, Luis watched floodwaters inundate his apartment building. Having no electricity for days, then weeks, he watched whole walls of his building collapse. Mosquitoes multiplied, biting him and his boys, one son a year old, the other only four months old. Luckily, Luis had an uncle in Jacksonville.
Puerto Ricans across Jacksonville come to Latin Creations for chicken, pork, plantains and rice, food that stirs memories of home. In the hurricane’s wake, they dropped off donations to send back to the island. At Dean Road in World Beach, food shrank vast distances and geography, connecting strangers in friendship and family.
“People say this food reminds them of home,” Beatrice told me. “They say, ‘It makes me so happy.’”
Maria Vazquez, Beatrice’s mother, told me of a retired uncle in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who watched his home buckle in the standing water but had to wait for weeks for floods to recede to regain electricity before he could attend to the structural damage. She related stories of people waiting in line all day at grocery stores before being told there was no more bread, no more water, no more ice.
Jacksonville’s Puerto Rican community was already growing rapidly, but after the hurricane, Latin Creations became a cultural barometer and a way station. Beatrice watched people bring in their grandparents, their young children and nieces and nephews and cousins. A cartoon coquí, the tiny frog that symbolizes Puerto Rico, appeared on a Puerto Rican flag on the back wall.
When the Jacksonville Electric Authority sent crews to Puerto Rico to help restore electricity, Boricua Jax felt proud.
But months after President Trump threw paper towels at Puerto Rican crowds and pronounced the island territory more successful at hurricane recovery than New Orleans after Katrina, nearly 40 percent of Puerto Rico still had no electricity. The death toll would rise through the spring and summer. A Morning Consult poll conducted just after Maria’s landfall found that only 46 percent of Americans knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. A number of observers from both sides of the political spectrum wondered if perhaps the president didn’t initially know that Puerto Ricans are American.
By August, like many businesses that incubated at World Beach before them, Latin Creations moved to a larger location in a newer strip mall on St. Johns Bluff.
Luis Ofray says he doesn’t know where he and his children will be in the future, but he’s grateful Latin Creations has given him work and community. “I don’t know if I can go back or when,” he says. “I just have to think about now, and for now, I’m here.”
4. “That Great Strong Land of Love”
Not necessarily knowing it, the thousands of immigrants and Blacksonville citizens and Puertorriqueños who’ve built businesses and lives in World Beach worked, loved and strove their way into the 1936 Langston Hughes poem that called its readers to “Let America Be America Again,” against the repeated qualifier of the second-class citizen: “America never was America to me.”
New American immigrants so often seize opportunities that established citizens fear or consider beneath them. On older Beach Boulevard, they rented cheap spaces in derelict strip malls. They started bodegas and Haitian botanicas and tandoori kitchens. They worked 96 hours a week. They saved for their children’s educations. When they could, they often moved to larger locations with higher rents down University Boulevard and St. Johns Bluff Road.
In their 12 hour days, Langston’s poem worked and pushed onward: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— / Let it be that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme / That any man be crushed by one above.” These immigrants, like all the immigrants before them, made Langston’s injunction so.
“O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free,” the land that belongs to all “whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain” make America. “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”
5. From Jacksonville’s First McDonald’s to Stuffed Grape Leaves and Baklava; Or: Compost, Community & Dried Hibiscus Blooms (with Raccoons)
I step inside the drive-through, onto the original pseudo-brick tiles. This nondescript glass-fronted commercial building represents what Beach Boulevard offered the suburb of Spring Glenn in the 1950s and what it offers early in the 21st century. The drive-through sally-ports between eras.
What commercial endeavor marks the inner tree rings of post-World War II suburbia like the fast-food restaurant? Jacksonville begat the first Insta-Burger King (soon to drop the “insta-”) in 1953, a few blocks down World Beach where Stan’s Sandwich Shop now sells steaks-in-sacks near El Reconcito de Lima Peruvian Restaurant and Fresh Naan Indian Bakery. McDonald’s first served Jacksonville “tempting cheeseburgers” for 19 cents and “triple thick shakes” for 20 cents here on Beach Boulevard in 1959. Two doors down, Dog ’N Suds served “Coney dogs” and root beer floats.
In the 1990s, the Owais family used Jacksonville’s first McDonald’s as a small grocery and as Petra Wholesale for its main business, Hala Café and Bakery at 4323 University. This McDonald’s has moldered, empty, since the Owais family consolidated its functions at the expanded café several years ago.
In the mid-1990s, Hala Café was the first place I ever ate falafel, stuffed grape leaves, kibbehs and baklava. Ansar Owais is the third-generation Jordanian American owner of the café, which his grandfather Zohair Mardini opened and named for his daughter in 1974. I didn’t know Ansar in September 2001, but I knew his family’s food.
On September 12th, fearing Americans would lash out with misplaced anger at innocent Middle Easteners, I sent a letter to Asad Owais, Ansar’s father, Hala Café’s owner at the time. I’d never been politically active and the unjustified American invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush was still two years out. The Iraq War had yet to end my patriotic naïveté. I don’t remember just what I wrote, but I wanted the Owaises to know I loved the sharing of our identity as Americans.
All these years later, I wander this old McDonald’s and find a desk with open file drawers in a back corner and rainwater clogging kitchen drains. A small framed photo of a dozen Jordanian children smiling up at a camera leans on a ledge inside the drive-through.
Behind the commercial building run broken concrete paths choked by weeds and wild herbs, by dog fennel and toxic pokeweed and chamber-bitter and cudweed. A courtyard opens up on three abandoned houses set back in palmettos, invisible to drivers on Beach Boulevard.
Two of the houses date from the early 1950s, from a few years before the McDonald’s, while the oldest house and furthest receded, its rafters exposed beneath eaves, its screen long rotted from the front porch, was built in 1931.
Who could have imagined that in hiking Jacksonville’s urban dendrochronology, sipping a palm husk of chamber-bitter tea, I’d find city labyrinths beneath mountains in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, the last vestiges of Silk Road caravan palaces in Turkey, the Door of No Return in the House of Slaves on Gorée Island, Senegal, and the deepest penetralia of the Rose City of Petra cut straight through the earth?
Then there’s Ansar Owais with a big smile, a trim beard and a Florida Gators t-shirt, holding two long green Italian squashes, each longer than his arms. He sells me dried figs, rosewater, pitted sour cherries, and a jar of dried hibiscus flowers. He prefers hibiscus tea cold. It’s easy to overdo it, for hibiscus is Turkish Delight compared to my chamber-bitter tea.
He remembers when the family rented out the houses behind the wholesale building 20 years ago. The last inhabitant of the oldest house was a wrinkled old man who sat on the porch and drank beer all day. Wherever his funds came from, he’d bring his rent check to the drive-through window while Ansar and others made bread inside. The courtyard would fill with street-smart raccoons every night. They knew what was what.
The carpeted porch of the old house reduces to the frass of insects and sweet-smelling leaf mold and mycelium. The blades of a ceiling fan droop like a wilted crown, like a melted star, like a flower that grows toward the earth and not the sun. I like this spidery geotrope. Its gravity grants me optimism. I receive a revelation. It goes like this:
Since that great urbanist Jane Jacobs called a healthy city “an enormous collection of small elements,” since a healthy urban space is an ecosystem, since “community” and “compost” begin with the same prefix that means “together,” the richly diverse goulash and mishmash of an international accident like World Beach offers only the best and most nutritious soil to grow the future of the city, the Cradle of Civilization ongoing.
Ansar recommends infusing hibiscus flowers in champagne. I can think of nothing more appropriate. I’ll stir them in tapered champagne flutes. I’ll sip them with these urban and urbane raccoons. I’ll rejoice in this great strong land of love, home, family international, here at the center of the world.