Union Terminal Warehouse, East Union Street

by Tim Gilmore, 5/31/2014

The shark—made of bicycle headlights, a football facemask, and repurposed metal—wears a nametag in his steel-trap jaws that reads, “Hello! My Name Is: Nibbles.”

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He reminds me simultaneously of Finding Nemo and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” since, after all, “There will be time, / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Hurley, Dana, and I have climbed concrete steps beside a cargo elevator. We’re somewhere inside a long sleek warehouse that’s curved slightly toward downtown and away from the St. Johns River since it was built in 1913.

Hurley Winkler, as smart and quirky and sweet as her name would indicate if she were a character in a novel, manages production for Swamp Radio, a cultural variety show that broadcasts from Jacksonville. Dana Logan teaches U.S. and Florida History for Florida State College at Jacksonville. Dana’s eyes swell when she takes in information and squint when she can’t help but ask thoughtful pointed questions.

The old Union Terminal Company Warehouse holds six stories of storage, if you include the mostly flooded basement and sub-basement. On top of the long sloping structure, its iodine-red water tower slowly fades in the brutal Florida sun.

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On the eastern side, you can stand on the loading dock where the two halves of the warehouse connect and see the gap between them widen toward the sky as the southern side slowly sinks, inches over decades, toward Hogans Creek and the Mathews Bridge Expressway.

Near the Old City Cemetery in the neighborhood of Oakland, the warehouse once attenuated itself between the Fernandina & Jacksonville and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroads and offered transferable storage between rail lines and water freight that Hogans Creek connected to the St. Johns River.

Chris Booth emerges from somewhere near a tree constructed of toilet paper, a rec room door painted like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, and a patch of wall covered in circuit boards. His short dark hair stands up with recent sweat, and he speaks an intense, rapid-fire monotone.

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Booth’s the self-described Chief Financial Officer of an organization that makes no money, the hackerspace called Jax Hax Makerspace, which leases 8,100 square feet of the nearly 400,000 square foot East Union Street warehouse.

The basic hackerspace model grew from a mid-1990s prototype in Berlin called c-base e. V. Supposedly, the ruins of a space station called c-base are buried underneath Berlin, and the hackerspace that developed above it contained mystical correlations in its computer hardware and software and robotics developments.

The c-base generates intelligence and energy from its inner Mobius Strip Generator out through several concentric c-rings where “c” stands for “culture” or “com” or “carbon” or “creactiv.”

Jax Hax seeks to concentrate Jacksonville’s needs in a way this city itself rarely does. From one room to another, there’s welding to stage company prop and costume design to electronic gaming.

Outside of Jax Hax’s space, the warehouse holds photography studios, an office furnishing supplier, and a marine mechanical shop. Booth adds, “The guy down there is a scrapper-slash-pedophile, so he lives here because he’s not allowed to live anywhere else.”

Across a sandy parking lot, police meet at the Guns N’ Hoses Boxing Gym, where they prepare year-round for their annual boxing competition with the Jacksonville Fire Department.

Whether you’re hacking computers or scrap metal, hacking is about repurposing, and the warehouse lives its own post-industrial afterlife. Once a marvel, a concrete and steel economic powerhouse, today the building sinks into the sand and the swamp like the Confederate graves across the street.

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It feels like it was here a millennium ago and will be here in another thousand years. The building’s a strange marriage of the brutal machinery of the world and the living and ever-reclaiming earth.

I think maybe the earth’s the only real hackerspace, and suddenly I’m Ralph Waldo Emerson gone steampunk: the Universal Over-soul becomes the Primordial HackerSwamp.

Dana wonders aloud about the infrastructure of Jax Hax, and Booth says it’s run by a Board of Directors, that, “Every July we come in, we just slaughter three people, we make an example of them, we get the rest of the board back up again.”

When she asks him exactly what he means, he says, “Yes, we need to make an example of people, so if you don’t step in line, you’ll be served properly, and if you’re not serving properly, then you’re gone.”

Booth says Jax Hax is a for-profit organization, so that “theoretically” people are paid salaries. “As you have officers of a company, and we are now responsible to make everyone an employee who is an officer of the company, we also give them a commensurate salary of not a damn thing because we don’t make any money here.”

In the Jax Hax classroom, there are aluminum coverings over the windows and long tables with computers. The kind of community education that happens here, Both says, will “replace colleges as they continue to fall apart,” and “show people lost arts as they disappear from our country.”

His hacker worldview extends to education. He’s already told us, “We’re kind of anti-school and college here.” Besides, he says, “Everybody I know that’s going to college right now is going for literature, or art, or English, of all things—I been speakin’ that most of my life, or not really, it’s American.”

It’s an odd feeling. I came partially to my love of writing and art and literature through my own youthful rebellion, confusion, and angst, but in this hacker classroom, I’m the Establishment.

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Surely most of us who care about creativity now find our trashed and overproduced planet implores us toward repurposing. In 1993, the poet A.R. Ammons wrote that “garbage” is “the poem of our time.”

In obsolete bays beneath the loading docks, we see stagnant mosquito-laden waters. After all, this warehouse was built deep down into the swamp in the first place.

Whatever there is “after all.”

And whenever and wherever “the first place” was…