by Tim Gilmore, 12/28/2019
1. Into His Own Footsteps
This afternoon, for the first time in 50 years, Richard Minor stands in the place where he learned to walk. He’s seen the eight-millimeter film footage of himself stumbling, a year old, soft and clumsy. Now he’s standing physically where he stands in that film.
The back common sweeps green and open between the back sliding-glass doors of hundreds of apartments. In its best incarnation, the ideal in which it was built in the early 1960s, these identical but handsome brick apartments foster community. Out these glass doors, lined with the long white slats of vertical blinds, two doors the ground floor and two, up top, with iron balconies, young urban professionals and attorneys with new families and Jacksonville University professors opened their private space onto a great common, a loving space communal, an optimistic commingling.
Rick’s father, Richard, Sr., who went by Dick, was two of those three categories, an attorney with a private practice downtown, a professor of astronomy and meteorology at J.U. Rick’s mother Shirley, adept at shorthand and speed reading, worked as a secretary and stenographer. An intellectual herself, she read thick novels, played the ukulele, was as big on JFK and Civil Rights as Rick’s father, and prepared the martinis every afternoon at five.
He sees his mother here, though he was four years old when the family moved out. He sees memories of his memories of that eight-millimeter film, but knows some of his memories of his first four years are his own. Shirley wears a paisley blouse “and those pants Mary Tyler Moore wore on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the early ’60s.”
Rick, with his round-framed glasses and long hair under a beanie cap, lover of Victorian novels, collector of all things Phantom of the Opera, perhaps the only person I know who looks right in both a flat cap and top hat, finishes a cigarette.
He needs to kick the habit, he says, but feels in a way like he was born to it. His mother smoked all through her pregnancy. He doesn’t hold it against her. Like the daily afternoon cocktail hour, it was a sign of the times. He has his father’s face, but his mother’s “slight” build, not his father’s “stout” frame.
His father grew up in the swing era and never understood rock n’ roll. His mother liked classical composers “with the occasional Neil Diamond type stuff.” Rick managed eventually to impress them both with the more orchestral rock music of the 1970s.
And it was 50 years ago this Christmas season that he moved, four years old, with his parents, from the French Quarter Apartments. The original architectural ideal comes embodied in old photos of his mother and their neighbors.
Women stretch out in one-piece bathing suits on extendable lawn chairs, long green-and-white vinyl stretched across foldable aluminum frames. Everyone holds a martini. Shirley dashes ash off a cigarette. Her suit’s a two-piece. Everybody’s laughing. She cradles her ukulele, her sideburns curl, her wicker-basket red-and-white bathing suit crosshatches. The white mortar surrounding each brick in the background reflects sunlight from 1969.
In one photo, maybe 1967, Rick and his father look up at the camera, faces broad, their eyes and mouths horizontal bands, father’s hand on, and as big as, his son’s chest, his mother smiling but looking away from the sunlight, as though shyly, her hair back in a broad white headband, darker and more slender than her husband and her son.
2. The Dawning
It was such an optimistic time. This whole rectangle of apartment complexes, from University to Cesery Boulevard, west to east, and Fort Caroline to Merrill Road, north to south, took root in the hopeful 1960s, supporting Jacksonville University, the other side of University Boulevard. The ’60s promised a younger, more prosperous and more educated America. The GI Bill, the Community College Movement, and Civil Rights made college education a bridge for millions of Americans to the middle class. No longer would college be a mechanism merely for wealthy white males of particular families to maintain status.
From 1935 to 1950, the two-year Jacksonville Junior College had moved three times, finally landing on the Arlington riverfront only in 1950. In 1958, small private Jacksonville University was born from JJC’s merger with Jacksonville College of Music. JU blossomed fully in the ’60s, growing its enrollment and fields of study, building dormitories and the Swisher Auditorium and Gymnasium, where Lyndon Johnson, as Kennedy’s v.p., spoke to students in 1963.
The other side of post-World War II suburban expansion, apart from “white flight” and redlining and racist urban planning policies in city cores, was this youthful optimism. Yes, it was a bitter time: the Vietnam War escalated and assassinations punctuated the decade—JFK, Malcolm X and, within months of each other, MLK and RFK—but it was also the decade of America’s longest uninterrupted economic expansion and it ended with the first Moonwalk. New things were possible. If you walk JU’s campus today, you can still feel it—the lighter architectural designs, the open spaces, greenery as much a part of design as brick; glass too.
But the suburbs have expanded and this part of Arlington is now an inner ring of yesterday’s suburbia. The people it was built for no longer live here. The residents of these apartment complexes, sandwiched between the university and the slightly older residential neighborhood, Arlington Manor, built in the 1940s and ’50s, are poorer, less educated, generally darker. They don’t live in the atmosphere of optimism that gave birth to the architecture and that the apartments’ early residents inhabited.
Here, the Eagle Pointe Apartments touch the Miramar Apartments touch the Caroline Village Apartments cross Bourbon Alley South and touch the French Courtyard Apartments across from the former French Quarter Apartments, now called University Townhomes. Around the corner are Hurley Manor Apartments, both I and II, The Legends Apartments and University Place Apartments.
You can still spot the ’60s design details. Walls of breezeways between buildings are built of architectural “breeze blocks” or “pattern blocks” or “screen blocks”—cinderblocks built on shapes of flowers or stars or cloverleaves or pinwheels. Apartment names appear in Art Deco cursive with squiggles of half-moons glommed onto windows. Columns of pattern blocks stand painted in (near) primary colors like Eames chairs or Piet Mondrian color maps.
When they and their residents were new and green and young and everything 1960s, it seemed the beginning of the “Age of Aquarius,” as that 1967 song from the musical Hair says: “When the moon is in the Seventh House / And Jupiter aligns with Mars / Then peace will guide the planets / And love will steer the stars. / This is the dawning / of the Age of Aquarius.” If you’re aware enough to note the details of that former optimism now, you see it, from the other side of the hill, as nostalgia.
3. Surely, Shirley
Five months after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, the Minors moved out of the French Quarter Apartments. Today, Rick manages the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in an old Christian Science church at the southern edge of his urban neighborhood, Springfield. Just before his mother died of cancer in 2006, he told her he wasn’t sure about his career move. He’d come from a corporate position making a lot more money, taken a job in a glorious but leaky old building with no staff and a smaller salary.
She told him she was so happy for him. In his previous career, he’d been the proverbial “cog in the machine.” His new position—where he hosted exhibits of original documents from Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and, Rick’s absolute favorite, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and booked musicians and hung Jerrod Brown’s paintings inspired by the Aurora Monster Model art kits of the 1960s—seemed bespoke. If ever a job seemed tailored for a specific individual, this was it.
Late, 1960s, Rick stands on a corner, a prickly and dark leaved holly bush behind him like emergent wings, old T-birds and Plymouths parked over his other shoulder. The door frames in the arches back then were painted red.
Late 2019, he stands tall and thin, built like his mother, dark red flannel shirt, long hair in a beanie, round-framed glasses, and to his right, instead of a holly bush, a sign that says, “University Townhomes. Now Leasing.”
An ice cream truck chortles through the back lanes and rounds a corner, the mad piano-roll jingling of “Turkey in the Straw”—“Do Your Ears Hang Low? / Do they wobble to and fro? / Can you tie ’em in a knot? / Can you tie ’em in a bow?” Now comes the bait-and-switch plot-twist. This truck sells not snow cones, fudge bars and push-up pops, but boiled peanuts. It’s a boiled peanut truck.
We’re in the South after all. Even if 1960s Arlington was to be a new world. It surely was. Where Shirley plays the ukele. Where Rick learns to walk. And be curious about and interested in everything the world has to offer. And the future promises peace and prosperity, equality and equanimity, a more educated and united United States. When peace will guide the planets. And love will steer the stars.