by Tim Gilmore, 11/29/2019
1. “This is The Life”
Darrell Zwerling had appeared in his first movie, The Secret Life of an American Wife, the year before at age 40, though his role was uncredited. His most famous role would come five years later, beside Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, as the water commissioner in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. He’d later have minor roles in movies like Grease and Wild at Heart and an endless number of TV shows from Columbo and Kojak to the soap opera The Young and the Restless.
On August 7, 1969, Darrell Zwerling was staying at Fox Meadows Country Club Apartments in Jacksonville, while playing two parts, as an ambassador and a chef, in the 1966 Woody Allen play Don’t Drink the Water. Jackie Gleason starred in the film adaptation that year and George Ballis of the Alhambra Dinner Theater had decided to direct the play in Jacksonville and Tampa.
“Dear Lucille, Bobby & Karen,” Zwerling wrote his friends in western Long Island, New York, “Am appearing in ‘Don’t Drink the Water’ here and later this month move on to Tampa where will stay till Oct. This is the life. Swimming & Sunning all day and acting at night.”
George Ballis had become artistic director of the not yet extent Alhambra in 1967. A now iconic photograph shows Ballis and managing partner Ted Johnson smoking cigarettes and drinking tea at a table covered with a fringed cloth and candelabrum in a field of weeds and sand where their new theater would soon rise beside Beach Boulevard 10 miles south of downtown. The theater put on its first play, Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn, on December 17, 1967.
Zwerling sent his friends a postcard of Fox Meadows. The image shows a grassy lawn surrounding a swimming pool near low motel-like buildings caked with wrought iron railings. Visitors sunbathe and sit at picnic tables beneath sun umbrellas. There’s a round “kiddy pool” to the side and seahorses painted on the concrete-block changing room behind the lifeguard. Above the pines and a few distant telephone poles, floats a blindingly bland blue Florida sky spotted with lazy cumulus clouds. City directory ads for Fox Meadows promised “Luxury Living at Reasonable Rates: No Children.”
By the end of the month, Don’t Drink the Water had moved on to St. Pete, where Mary Coolidge of The Tampa Times called it “a rollicking, merry farce about a Newark caterer accused of being a spy behind the Iron Curtain while taking pictures of military installations simply as a tourist,” a kind of Innocents Abroad depicted in “vaudeville acts thinly threaded together.”
Coolidge’s review is brutal. She says of the lead actors, a real-life married couple, Henrietta Jacobson and Julius Adler, that she’s “well worth watching,” but he’s “something a little different.” Thomas Mifflin, who plays the ambassador’s son, Coolidge says, is “much too juvenile” even for his “role as nincompoop,” for “There is a difference between a duffer and a dope.” Janie Paris as “love interest,” Coolidge finds “hard to evaluate,” since her role is “uninteresting.” Likewise Thom Portelli as Father Drobney, since “the role is stupid.” If Zwerling read Coolidge’s review, surely he felt relieved she had nothing to say about him but the roles he played. As for Ballis, she writes, “as the director,” he “has his work cut out for him.”
Mary Coolidge’s review of Ballis’s Don’t Drink the Water wasn’t as brutal as the hard times that soon fell on Fox Meadows. It became the “adults only” Rivermont Apartments in the ’70s, as “motor hotels” and cheap short-stay apartments slummed out across the working-class suburbs of every city. Rivermont’s “Adults Only” may have denoted the same thing as Fox Meadows’s “No Children,” but its connotations seemed quite different.
“Adults only” establishments listed themselves as oases where “couples” could get away and watch “closed-circuit TV,” meaning in-house porn. Rarely, in fact, attracting couples, such places brought in single men with certain proclivities, prostitution, cheap drugs and amateur pornographers who made their own house movies, with or without consent.
More “adults only” motels lined Philips Highway than any other inner suburban trail, but somewhere along the way, cops and criminals, brothers in arms, named the Rivermont “Sin City.” The name stuck, as names do, and this dense cheap concrete-block apartment complex, down in the swamp plain surrounded by modest 1950s’ and ’60s’ houses on low hills, received exaggerated and then legendary status as one of the most dangerous places in Jacksonville. It never really was. It didn’t matter. It was dangerous and sad enough. And the truth never matters, it often seems, nearly as much as what people believe.
Residents of “Woodland Acres,” as the neighborhood’s known from its elementary school, or Oakwood Villa Estates, feel strongly about these streets bordered by Arlington Road to the west, Arlington Expressway to the north, Southside Boulevard to the east and Atlantic Boulevard to the south, being called “Sin City.”
Jan Dominy’s lived here two or three years. She’s annoyed when WJAX-TV’s Action News shows flashing cop car lights on “any ratchet” in Jax and calls it “Sin City,” and says, “It makes me wonder how many of you actually know shit about my ’hood. Do you stop, shop, eat or live here?”
Longtime neighbor Paul Sanderson mocks the myth of Sin City, saying, “I always joked about someone writing a book ’cause I used to know a lot of cops who weren’t even from Jacksonville that were told about the ’hood during training.” He laughs. “They all heard tales of drunk shirtless rednecks fighting in the streets.”
Some Jacksonville residents who don’t know sprawling northeastern Arlington from rural northside Oceanway refer to all Arlington as “Sin City.” Sometimes those people are journalists or TV news reporters.
“If you ain’t from here,” Jan says, “fuck what you heard. It’s all bad ’hoods in Duval County. Yes, Mandarin too, you boojie fucks.”
If you don’t know “boojie” is slang from bourgeois, you might also not know “ratchet” is Southern slang for “ghetto,” by way of Louisiana trailer park pronunciation of “wretched,” nor that “the ’hood,” found even in parts of upper-middle-class Mandarin to the south, can be largely “redneck,” not just black.
“You cain’t live in Sin City two years,” Joe Walls says, “and say it ain’t ratchet.” He grew up here in the ’80s and says, “You couldn’t pay me shit to move back.”
If you don’t know Sin City, you might picture dense urban streets bustling with crime and fornication and forbidden substances. But this neighborhood consists mostly of 1960s and ’70s concrete-block ranch-style houses, house trailers parked and sunken into the earth for decades and scattered apartment complexes.
The neighborhood sits on low hills surrounding a central descending plain. And along that plain, originally a low-lying swamp, which partially explains its residents’ complaints about poor drainage and sewage backup, sit several long and low concrete buildings holding more than 300 rooms. These are the fabled Sin City Apartments. A faded and chipped sign out front shows a map of them looking like a spreadsheet wilted across the wetlands.
They were built in the early 1960s as Fox Meadows and dared call themselves “country club apartments.” Longtime neighbor Bonnie Baker Mead remembers when Fox Meadows became Rivermont, when “those iron decorative columns at the entryway had a little sign above that said, ‘Adults Only, No Children Allowed.’”
What that sign meant depends on which neighborhood storyteller recalls the history, though everyone defends their own story equally.
Three or four women remember “open door parties” in various apartments in the 1960s and ’70s. One woman says she always got stoned, walking from open door to open door, says there were always old “coots” reaching “for us young chicks.”
Bonnie remembers when the Outlaws Motorcycle Club had a strong presence in the neighborhood. Other residents, too young to remember but having heard from parents and aunts, say “adults only” meant these apartments rented to couples who weren’t married and therefore “lived in sin.” The rarity of an apartment complex renting to unmarried couples garnered the place its infamous name.
It’s midnight when I walk this sunken complex. Having only heard the name “Sin City,” without visiting, you might picture the New York that Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle drives through all night every night in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver.
“Listen, you fuckers,” Travis narrates, “you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Travis says, “All the animals come out at night” and hopes, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
Travis Bickle would feel deeply and apocalyptically disappointed with Golden Shores, formerly Willow Lakes, formerly Rivermont, originally Fox Meadows.
I walk these long outdoor corridors, wrought iron floral shapes blurring by in tracers. I stand where someone took a picture of that Fox Meadows swimming pool 60 years ago. The pool lies now beneath the dirt and the grass. The sunbathers are nowhere to be seen, six decades later and late at night, but a tall white man wearing only pajama pants lumbers drunkenly, following his belly before him, over the buried pool.
Ann Clark says her father “was born and raised on Eaton Avenue in 1924,” and told her how the neighborhood got its name from the Hare Avenue apartments, “a place of prostitution and gambling. The original owner went to prison for it.” And if anyone wonders, yes, she says, “I did me some partying there also.”
Don Cortez, remembering when he was a kid, says, “We used to go swimming at the Fox Meadows Apartments when we would camp out in the woods nearby late at night. We would sneak in quietly. When we were getting ready to leave, we would all jump, cannonball style, into the pool at the same time.”
cont’d Sin City Elementary