Jacksonville Landing: The Last Days

by Tim Gilmore, 5/26/2019

1. “Never Can Say Goodbye, Boy”

The crescent-curved walls of the Jacksonville Landing echo canned pop songs into the emptiness. The storefronts stare blindly forward, windows papered over from inside.

Appropriately, it’s Gloria Gaynor’s 1975 “Never Can Say Goodbye” that pipes through the two-story interior filled with sunlight and little else. “Don’t wanna let you go, / I never can say goodbye, boy.”

A beagle on a poster asks me if I’ve heard. “Yappy Hour is Back!” I’m invited out for “St. Puppy’s Day” and then an “Easter Paw-ty.” It’s “a happy hour for dogs to enjoy, sit back and relax, while their humans enjoy food, drink specials and entertainment.”

Nothing moves in the “food court.” A couple dozen empty restaurant counters sit waiting for service. The escalators stand still. Even Zoltar the fortune teller has vacated the premises. Hooter’s is the only business still open.

In place of Zoltar’s prophecies, Gloria Gaynor pleads from 40 years ago, “Every time I think I’ve had enough / And start headin’ for the door, / There’s a very strange vibration / Piercing me right to the core. / It says, ‘Turn around, you fool. / You know you love him more and more.’”

There’s life in one interior storefront. Inside the Wildlife Education & Conservation Project, workers shrink-wrap boxes on pallets while stuffed cervidae and bovidae—deer, elk, impala, antelope, gazelle—stand shoulder to shoulder, frozen in death and time. A taxiderm’d lion lies on his side on a wooden pallet, his paws extended before him, mouth open, eyes dull and senseless, a mockery of himself.

“They’re pushing us out,” a portly man with a walrus mustache tells me. “They’re tearing the Landing down. Party’s over. These beauties are going to a mini-storage on McDuff.” To come to this fate, after surviving the floods of Hurricane Irma in 2017 without Noah’s Ark!

In the open outside court surrounded by retail and restaurant spaces that curve toward the river, the fountain’s gone dry. The three decades children ran screaming with joy through the arcing streams in the heat of the summer are gone too. It’s 99 degrees today. There’s a wildfire on the Northside. Here there’s not even a bird. Just the blinding bland white sunlight.

From above, Gloria sings to the Landing: “I keep thinking that our problems / Soon are gonna work out, / But there’s that same unhappy feeling. / There’s that anguish, there’s that doubt. / It’s that same old dizzy hangup. / I can’t do with you or without.”

2. “Festival Marketplace”

The Rouse Company, shopping mall developers, built the Jacksonville Landing on the downtown waterfront in 1987 at the tail end of the “festival marketplace” trend that was supposed to revitalize the rotten hearts of cities in the 1970s and ’80s.

Standing in the empty Landing, it’s hard not to see the “festival marketplace” as a bait-and-switch. By the 1970s, rambling shopping malls outside town had become an emblem of how post World War II suburban expansion had drained the life from American cities. If developers built the suburbs on the deaths of cities, why shouldn’t they then sell cities on letting them build shopping malls in downtown wastelands?

3. Come See Your Fortune!

My daughters remember the toy store that carried Hello Kitty and Chococat and kept live frogs in a fish tank. We sometimes walked over the Main Street Bridge at night and came down to the Landing to eat fish tacos at Doña Maria’s.

Zoltar, a fortune telling machine like the one in the 1988 movie Big, once told me, “I can see your fortune. Come see it too, no?” When I inserted a dollar, an invisible harp trilled briefly, fake candles flickered over Zoltar’s shoulders, and he said, “I see great happiness for you, but you must remember to keep it cool too.”

No surprise then that Boston architect Ron Strauch, who designed the Landing, remembers being advised, “People in Jacksonville don’t like to be outside. They like to be in air conditioning.” Initially Strauch had envisioned a more open Landing, allowing a view from Laura Street through to the river.

original architect’s model, courtesy Hans Strauch and WJCT News

I keep expecting to find Zoltar, with his billowy yellow sleeves and gold turban, his shifty eyes and Van Dyke mustachio and goatee, peeking around columns in the deserted food court. Perhaps he’ll throw his crystal ball at me the way the Headless Horseman throws his pumpkin at Ichabod Crane. I’m sure he’s angry things didn’t turn out for the Landing as prophesied.

On Monday, July 6, 1987, The St. Petersburg Times reported skeptically, “Jacksonville’s Landing Has Predictable Start.” The story began, “The hoopla, the upbeat pronouncements and the overflow crowds all have been predictable as Jacksonville’s new pride, the $37.5-million Jacksonville Landing, heads toward its third week of operation.”

original architect’s rendering, courtesy Hans Strauch and WJCT News

The story called the Landing “the newest of the Rouse Co.’s flashy ‘festival marketplaces’—souped-up shopping malls that are sometimes hailed as medicine for ailing downtowns.” The Times warned that similar Rouse projects had opened to the same fanfare, but emptied out shortly thereafter, with retailers unable to attract business.

4. Redlining the American Dream

But shopping malls were a symptom, not the cause, of the decline of American cities.

Federal legislation in the 1950s and ’60s led to a new national interstate system and ensured cheap mortgage insurance in new suburbs. Banks and insurance companies “redlined” whole areas of cities as serious financial risks because the houses were older, the residents were poorer, and even the upper-middle-class residents were darker. While new suburban subdivisions often had whites-only deed restrictions, the federal government paid cities to raze poor black neighborhoods and sequester their residents into public housing projects. White fear of the Civil Rights Movement and “integration” led sociologists to call the urban exodus “white flight.”

part of a redlining map of Philadelphia, courtesy Plan Philly

The choices became stark. It was often impossible to buy a house in the city, where expenses kept increasing, but the suburbs were brand new and cheap. The tax bases of cities plummeted. Desegregation plans fired black teachers in formerly black schools and sank the burden of integrating schools not on teachers and staff but on six and seven year old students.

Finally, to live in the city became shameful. Moving to the suburbs in the middle and later 20th century became the ultimate expression of the “American Dream.” Now “moving on up” meant moving further out. America had murdered its cities.

Along the way, shopping malls replaced the stores and restaurants alongside city streets. In the cities, people often lived and worked and played and worshipped and shopped in the very same streets, but the suburbs compartmentalized life. Houses didn’t mix with stores and restaurants. New shopping malls concentrated stores in single large buildings with little more sense of place than airports. Their arcades and walkways replaced the streets of traditional neighborhoods. Corporate franchise stores replaced independently owned businesses. Even the malls themselves belonged to private corporations instead of the public.

The very phrase “shopping mall” replaced the older concept of the mall, an open public area where citizens could meet on equal footing. The National Mall in Washington, D.C. was (and is) a landscaped park dedicated to the coming together of the American people in the open. By contrast, the enclosed Orange Park Mall, a shopping center eventually containing 110 stores, opened in the Jacksonville suburbs in 1975, further sucking the lifeblood from an already decrepit downtown.

6. The Soul of the Landing

Her name is Kate. She wears the company uniform. She’s sad the Landing is closing, but she has other prospects.

A former Hooters waitress and trainer described what it’s like to wear the uniform in Cosmopolitan magazine in 2015. The bright orange shorts, which the company calls “chicken wings,” should stick to the waitress’s curves, reaching just far enough to form “the smile” between her legs. Tank tops feature the company’s logo, the owl whose eyes form the ohs in the word “Hooters,” the word as billboard for the waitress’s breasts. The eyes became the ohs become the breasts. Like nesting dolls. Or copies of copies. It’s “hooters” all the way down.

I don’t ask Kate if she’s familiar with the Cosmo story. I don’t ask how the restaurant manager performs the required uniform inspections. When she was a little girl, her father brought her to the Landing to watch fireworks and eat wings before the occasional Minor League baseball game. They always ate at Hooters.

“It’s sad because I kind of feel like Hooters is the soul of the Landing,” she says. “That’s probably why we’re still open.” You can’t have a corpse with the soul still in it.

“The Landing is all about having a good time. It’s about football and beer and, well,” she says, “Hooters.” I don’t know if she means the restaurant, “Hooters” capitalized, or barely covered breasts. “If you think about it,” she says, “that’s what Jacksonville is.” I want to argue, but don’t.

Jacksonville Jaguars’ inaugural banner and inflated football, 1995, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

I ask her for her favorite memory of the Landing. She squints and says, “A woman went into labor in the bathroom one time. Oh, and we thought a guy died in there. Not the same bathroom. He drank too much Jack Daniel’s while he was line dancing over at Maverick’s and came in here and had a stroke.”

7. “Downtown is for People”

So when the Rouse Company proposed a “festival marketplace” in Downtown Jacksonville in the late 1980s, political leaders preached a new urban revitalization. The Rouse Company had built some of America’s first enclosed shopping malls. James Rouse knew what he was doing. He’d guaranteed loans for the Federal Housing Administration, helping the federal government starve the city of Baltimore of the housing it directed to new suburbs.

The sales pitch to desperate cities was simple. Look at your rotting empty downtown. Look at the thousands of teenagers and young adults flooding suburban shopping malls on Saturdays. Let’s put a shopping mall downtown.

You might compare it to the desire of the Sackler family—whose company Purdue Pharma made them massively rich and started the American Opioid Epidemic through sales of OxyContin—to add to their wealth by marketing new drugs to treat addiction.

Rouse said the “festival marketplace” resembled traditional European markets. They overlooked the fact that cities thrive on diversity, not the monoculture of the shopping mall. In her 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People,” the great urbanist Jane Jacobs explained how diversity nourishes an urban landscape, calling the healthy city “an enormous collection of small elements.”

Not only was a shopping mall the opposite of what made vibrant urban neighborhoods great, but putting a shopping mall in Downtown Jacksonville helped perpetuate the abandonment of the city’s beautiful collection of historic architecture that filled the blocks around the Landing. New restaurants, bars and shops would take root in the Landing before they’d resurrect century-old limestone, steel and marble.

It’s true Downtown was seedy and rickety and run-down. It’s true the Landing brought an initial infusion of retail. Still, for 30 years, management scrambled to come up with new tricks to attract visitors. Early on, they limited retail hours, because the shops emptied with twilight, and brought in bars. The bars worked best when there was a football game downtown.

image courtesy dawgnation.com

Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods started coming back to life, slowly at first, just as the “festival marketplace” trend trailed off, and the Jacksonville Landing, which never fulfilled its promise, became sadder and emptier year after year.

8. “People Are Strange”

Presidential candidates packed the Landing every time they came. When Bob Dole spoke here in 1996, campaigning against President Clinton, a small contingent of the barely larger local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People stood between Secret Service agents with signs saying, “Never Apologize for Being White.” They’d have gotten more traction 20 years later.

Trump at the Landing, courtesy WJCT News

Now Gloria Gaynor’s disco is gone and The Police are singing, “If you love somebody, set them free.”

I doubt Zoltar foresaw the mass shooting in August of last year, when David Katz killed two people, injured 10 others, then shot and killed himself here at a video game tournament.

An iridescent grackle hops onto an empty whiskey barrel beside a window whose lettering tells me, “Jack Lives Here,” but even Jack Daniel, who’s always still around when the party’s over, has departed. Neon Jägermeister signs fail to light. Honky tonk has tanked. A plastic sign featuring a faded closeup of a Philly cheesesteak stands taller than me. It looks like a Chernobyl survivor. The taxiderm’d lion rolls rigid and roars without a sound.

No star will glitter atop a 56 foot tall Norwegian spruce in the center of the open court at Christmastime this year.

It’s hard already to remember Ostrich Landing, the video arcade, where toddlers played Whack-a-gator while their parents “flew” bomber jet simulators. I don’t remember the dance club named for Paris Hilton that opened and closed in 2006 at all.

Never, however, will I forget my younger daughter’s studiously concentrating on a melting ice cream cone in the summer heat (She was maybe 10 years old.) while my older daughter danced in a strange LaVilla School of the Arts ensemble to The Doors’ song, “People Are Strange.” She wasn’t the one had to dance in a straitjacket.

I have a poem on a wall inside. So do Jax poets Andres Rojas, Fred Dale, Yvette Adams and Johnny Masiulewicz. We wrote the poems for artist Nicole Holderbaum’s mural project “The Landing Walls,” each poem to accompany a different artist’s mural.

Mine stands next to Ingrid Yuzly Maturin’s glorious depiction of a girl with dark-framed glasses, hoop earrings, flowers in her hair and on her shoulder, and a radiant smile.

image courtesy yuzly.com

“In these halls, after hours, in the dark,” I wrote, “when the structure of the building shifts imperceptibly, when something creaks, when corners lurch and currents charge, deep in inaccessible spaces behind spaces folded into the landing, she smiles still.”

Looking to the lovely face, taller than me, in Ingrid’s mural, I wrote, “All I have is words. I do not have her lips. I’ve no access to her hair. The particular parabola of her eyebrow is not mine. That light lusters through her eyes and is her light only, though it’s part of the light of all light. I’m grateful to bear witness.”

I wonder if, when the walls come crashing down this summer, our poems and murals will still adorn them. I hope so. I’d like to think my poem will be buried with the rubble of the Landing. I wonder where they’ll dump the debris. Perhaps the broken walls will sink off the coast as artificial reefs. Perhaps my poem will be buried at sea to help provide new ecosystems for tiny fishes, stony corals, lobsters and turtles, sponges and seahorses. That’s a pretty good use of a poem and not a bad end to the story.