Sin City Swan Song

by Tim Gilmore, 11/29/2019

cont’d from Sin City Elementary

Thanksgiving Day, 2019, cars and pickup trucks with tires the size of small cars line Hare Avenue. Families sit on plastic chairs at plastic picnic tables and uncles and grandmothers laugh and tell old family stories and dirty jokes. Children run circles beneath the pines.

I’m making new friends at Golden Shores, called Fox Meadows (“Luxury Living at Reasonable Rates: No Children”) seemingly centuries ago, and for decades Rivermont, nicknamed Sin City Apartments. A tall skinny black man chassés out from behind a skeletal palmetto, looks left to right, his chin tucked into his chest. A tall skinny white boy jigs out from behind a concrete-block corner, looks side to side, chin lodged in his clavicle. He likes this place because it’s safe. He says much without saying. He wants me to believe he’s tough.

Bodie wears a red ballcap, laughs and says, “I was firing off my AK-47 in my back yard one night. This here neighbor come over the next day and was all ‘what the fuck’ and I said, ‘Firecrackers,’ and he said, ‘That ain’t sound like no goddamn firecracker.’ I said, ‘Oops, my bad, sir.’”

Six months ago, B.J.’s boyfriend hung himself in her bathroom around the corner on Eaton Avenue. He was so kind to her. He held her when she cried. He loved her three children.

B.J. says there’s more suicide here in “Sin City,” the neighborhood that took its name from the apartment complex it surrounds, than anywhere else in the city. When she was a teenager on Galveston Avenue, she knew three people who killed themselves. There’s a house at the corner of Galveston and Bowlan where two people hung themselves just a few years apart.

Saundra calls B.J. “Sweetheart,” says, “I’m 62, was raised in Sin City. My best friend committed suicide on the porch of her family home. It is,” she says, “a spirit that normally attaches to families. But there’s no reason a spirit can’t be connected to a neighborhood.”

Burt says the spirit of Sin City didn’t attach itself; the spirit was here first. His grandfather grew up here in the 1920s, “and says it was ‘Sin City’ afore he was born.” When I note no neighborhood existed here then, he says that doesn’t matter.

“Sin City was always gonna be here. You can feel it. It’s in the water. In the bottom of the neighborhood, the water always backs up. It’s in the angle of the streets. We’re down in the bowl and when they built the apartments, they broke what was in the earth up into ’em. That’s the spirit this place attached itself to. Spirit was already here.”

For some Sin City residents, seizing and using their neighborhood’s nickname is like how oppressed minorities appropriate the slurs once wielded against them. When young black men say “nigger,” everyone knows that word’s now theirs. The whites who owned the word once as a weapon have lost it. And gay men talk about the “queer community,” or “queering things up,” because straight people no longer own the word they once so brutally wielded.

And so residents of Jasper, Free or India Avenue, of Acme, Bowlan or Pecan Street might call their neighborhood “Sin City,” but they resent it when outsiders presume they’re allowed to do so.

“As for the name ‘Sin City,’” Bonnie Baker Mead says, “we were given that name by higher authorities like the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. There’s no changing the name now, but what we can do is stand behind it regardless of the bad things outsiders say. We can educate them on the real neighborhood and the people that come up in here and the ones that remain. Don’t be ashamed,” she says. “It’s just the place we came from.”