North Shore: Rolliston Park

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012

Painting the house together was an early intimacy. A couple bottles of wine and a couple cans of paint. The house had been built in the early 1930s, four blocks south of the Trout River. In the front yard stood two rain trees, a longleaf pine, and a dark green elliptical cedar.

This early intimacy followed a deep recognition of respect. She, a university assistant administrator, had not bought a house in the suburban neighborhoods around the school, nor the trendy “historic” neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying. She had found a beautiful two-bedroom wood-frame house in an overlooked neighborhood where whites were in the minority, though she, Latina, belonged to a smaller minority. Independently, she bought the house on her own, exclusive of the racial paranoiac demographics of the city, found her own place where few in her socioeconomic position thought to look.

He fell in love with the brave independence of her mindfulness.

When it was platted, Tallulah, as it was then called, was far north of Jacksonville. By the 21st century, North Shore, on the south shore of the tributary, was well south of the Jacksonville city limit. North Shore fits a strange limbic place, almost a lacuna, surrounded by the Trout River to the North, the prostitutes of Main Street to the East, Interstate 95 to the West, a grotesque placelessness of inner-city trailer parks and low-rent residential motels to the South.

North Shore resounds with quiet, patient beneath its old oaks and longleaf pines, consistently brick in small house and small church and small house, but occasionally infiltrated by one of its peripheries: a gunshot, a prostitute off course, a new renter who does not know Mulberry Street is not West 32nd.

But what makes Mulberry Street not West 32nd? And how did such a confused geographical entity as an inner-city trailer park come to be? In such a city, old peripheries get swallowed up by new further-developed outskirts, and trailer parks and motels once rural, not even suburban, get squeezed further toward the heart of town by an outward-sprawling newer placelessness.

So North Shore becomes the kind of neighborhood where two Ph.D.s in Humanities might buy houses side by side, while across the street—

Across the street:

The 50 year-old man rarely left the house. He rarely bathed. He rarely was sober. He cursed children. He told children who had no dogs that if their dog didn’t stop shitting on his lawn he would shoot their dog. He broke his own back window by throwing his own dog through it. He threatened concerned parents of already threatened children with the guns he better not have to get from his bedroom. He repeatedly referred to the college professor across the street as a “crack whore.” He screamed at his girlfriend, who owned the house she let him live in, for all the neighborhood to hear that he would kill her.

Once, the window-unit air conditioner fell out of the front window and cooled the porch for an entire weekend.

Once, Julia, who owned the house, tripped over the dog, and lay in the front yard screaming, “Look what you’ve done to me now!” so that the neighbors thought she was screaming at the boyfriend.

Once, the power went out after a thunderstorm, and the old drunk hit a young drunk randomly walking down the street, and then wailed out in his front yard about his thousands of dollars of reptiles that couldn’t do without electricity.

Once, the window-unit fell onto the porch and a pit bull leapt from their front living room window and ran up and down Clinton Street until a truck smashed him dead on the road.

Once, the 50 year-old drunk crashed his grandson’s motorcycle in 30 seconds to protest a neighbor’s complaint about the grandson’s driving.

Once the grandson stood in his front yard and screamed, “Nigger!” at two kids walking down the street, who had not so much as looked at him.

For two years, above the window-unit air-conditioner that repeatedly fell onto the porch, a Confederate flag filled the window in this majority-black neighborhood.

The old black ladies who had grown up in the neighborhood and still lived there didn’t know what to make of him. He was the third boyfriend the owner of the small house had permitted to live there. The second one once knocked on the door across the street to ask for money for milk at 10 at night and asked the professor if she were Cherokee. The third one claimed to be Cherokee.

Has only Vine Deloria asked why so many poor white people claim to legitimize themselves by claiming Indian heritage?

Julia had inherited the house from her mother. The chain of boyfriends who lived there had preceded the professor’s purchase of the house across the street.

One old lady said, “Anybody who’ll sleep with her can run her house.”

Painting the house together was an early intimacy. At night, they walked past Mulberry to Woodrow Street, and Clinton Street curves to West 65th to Rolliston Street and its oblong park of old trees at Trout River Inlet. Once they had had too much to drink and went down to the inlet and danced with the ducks.

It was a beautiful time, new graduate school programs, a new house, a new Jacksonville 80 years old but of which no one they knew had known, a new romance and love, a new respect, new possibilities and choices in which the terms were not merely this or that, or even a new New, but a whole new Old that could be theirs, there.

Sometimes when he could not sleep for the noise and partying outside his apartment window in countercultural Five Points at the Northern end of increasingly gentrifying Riverside Avondale, he sought morning solace in the bed of her newly bought home in the peaceful, quiet, mostly black neighborhood off the stagnantly poor and higher-crime inner Northside.

Funny, in a way, she had grown up in Panama, and the businesses five or six blocks to the east on Main Street were Panama Prescription Drugs and Panama Motors, while the neighborhood to the east of Main Street was Panama Park, brochures for which, in 1912, touted “a high-class residential suburb [where] no person will be allowed to maintain a herd of cattle, hogs, sheep or mules or permit poultry to run at large.” She loved the sound in the early morning of the roosters crowing in the trees, 2003, down where Clinton curves into West 65th Street.

When the North Shore house was under contract, but she still lived in an apartment in San Marco, on the southern side of the St. Johns River from his apartment in Five Points, on the northern side of the St. Johns, the foursquare plans of their apartment buildings identical, he told her he wanted a long life with her, but it was more complicated than that because he had children, whom in fact she had not yet met.

In 2005, he planted his first garden at her North Shore house: tomatoes, green beans, peas, banana peppers, bell peppers, eggplant.

In 2008, he walked with his six year-old daughter down Rolliston Street to the inlet. The tide was way, way out. They found small crabs near the riprap. He had written poems here. The water was out past the usual mud. Holding her tiny hand, he stepped out to the furthest slab of concrete, usually underwater, and she stepped trustingly to him. There they performed a parallel. Usually they walked the higher ground behind the waterweeds that might house the crabs and snakes, but this time they stepped out onto the slippery rock vacated by receding tide, and walked all the way into the inlet from an abandoned house to an unused boat ramp, while 20 feet across the inlet, old docks rotted into the water.

This was an adventure she asked him to repeat for years.

This was an illustration of how water dilutes and absorbs the human world that he would always recall.

What they forgot when they were scared was that they had been brave.

What they forgot when they were scared was the peace of the neighborhood, tucked in at its borders, albeit permeable, by the good people who live in most neighborhoods of most cities, but nevertheless occasionally moved through by ignorant people with dangerous anger inhabiting the moments of their moving-through.

Something lives pure there in beautiful people who have not questioned that one man’s Jacksonville white skin and his wife’s Jacksonville black skin in a lovely old two-story house a block away from North Shore Park at Pearl Street and the Trout River should have created two lovely and intelligent and loving and creative daughters.

There, beneath those oak trees at the river, children play together, children the lovely lives in spite of lives who might not have learned to question the leaden stereotypes laid down on them by class and skin color and geography, perhaps, above all, geography. In the context of these waterways, good lives are lost, but far more rarely, in these waterways’ contexts, good lives are lived.

It’s hard to sell a house in North Shore, but there may be no more romantic area of Jacksonville. Perhaps someday, these houses blocks from the river will remain on the market for days, but right now, they were brave, but really not all that brave, and they lived in the houses rarely researched, but a marble-top table with wrought-iron chairs sat beneath a rain tree exploding with yellow flowers, and in the northwest bedroom, a dissertation was written, and if that’s not good enough for you, it was good enough for a Ph.D.

But on Sunday mornings, neighbors listened to the rhythms of the preaching at Greater New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, at the corners of Tallulah and Clinton Street, and the walls seemed to shake, and though James Weldon Johnson himself seemed to lead the sermons, with a percussive intake of breath at the end of every poetic line of preaching, the church itself it seemed might come down like the walls of Jericho.

Next morning there would be gin bottles in the alley behind the shed behind the house.

Next morning, little girls would ride the rope-swing in the rain trees.

They were Romantics on Clinton Street. Painting the house together was an early intimacy.

When they moved to Riverside, the air handler was stolen and copper stripped and former North Shore neighbors acted betrayed. They needn’t. The Great Recession began and the house wouldn’t sell. The professor and his daughter had walked far out, once, into the inlet at low tide, over oyster shell and bottles and old oars sunken in the mud for decades.

And once when the house was near to this brave couple, its old wonder leant them out, having had too much to drink, down toward the river beneath the old trees to dance in stupid innocence with the ducks.

In 2005, they planted sunflower seeds that grew eight feet tall.