Edge City

by Tim Gilmore, 4/12/2017

1.

A quarter century ago, I sat upon the face of the Lord. It took some doing. My fundamentalist Baptist upbringing had taught me how “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10.

Sure, Jesus should know he can only expect so much of us. We were all born evil and bound for hell. Otherwise he would never have died in place of our eternal execution. Original Sin.

Oh. I also bought t-shirts.

My purple-haired and nose-ringed friends bought jewelry.

Debbie Harry, 1978, courtesy soniceditions.com

Debbie Harry cooed and growled from the speakers.

2.

In 1974, city directories listed Edge City as a “novelty” shop. That’s true. Edge City was a head shop. Tom McCleery and Gunnel Humphreys continued it as such when they bought the business in 1976.

The story of Tom’s bidding the corporate world goodbye and Riverside activist Wayne Wood’s convincing Tom and Gunnel to buy the business has become Jacksonville legend.

Gunnel and Tom, early days, courtesy EU Jacksonville magazine

As The Florida Times-Union’s Sandy Strickland wrote when Tom died in 2016, “Forty years ago, Thomas McCleery got fed up with his job as a salesman for a steel company, stormed out of his office in the Prudential Building and trudged across the Acosta Bridge as co-workers clustered at the window.” They watched Tom cross the middle of the city, throw his tie into the St. Johns River, “and continue walking toward his Riverside home.”

Gunnel too gave up her job for Edge City. She was a graphic designer who worked for the T-U.

Four decades later, she stands behind a jewelry case, petite and bangled, her hair recently fire engine red, now electric blue (or violet?), and says, “We sold drug paraphernalia. I mean we said it was for tobacco, but everybody knew.”

But Tom and Gunnel wearied of selling bongs and pipes, black light posters and black lights. Change wasn’t radically conscious. Gunnel says she’s always faced forward, has never dwelt in the past, and lets each day bring what it will.

She and Tom liked buying clothes at boutique shows for a week at a time in New York. They started to sell furniture, art and subculture magazines nobody else carried locally, and art prints like the “demure art photography” cards with images from the turn of the 20th century that got Tom and Gunnel arrested on the ridiculous charge of selling pornography in the early 1980s.

“Nobody minded the paraphernalia,” Gunnel says. “It was like everybody smoked back then, even the church people down the street.” She motions toward Riverside Presbyterian Church and laughs.

But Victorian photography was another matter. Tom and Gunnel had little money. They paid a lawyer $500, spent no time in jail. The judge was a woman, Gunnel recalls, and seemed to think it ridiculous that exposed breasts in a Victorian photograph could be considered obscene.

Gunnel and Tom, courtesy EU Jacksonville magazine

When Tom died, Wayne Wood said rightly, “He will be remembered as the patron saint of Five Points for a long, long time to come,” for “his creative, quirky, peaceful and outgoing personality typified Riverside perhaps better than anyone ever has.”

3.

Edge City has inhabited 1017 Park Street for 43 years, and Gunnel Humphreys for 41. Pizza Italian at 1053 Park Street has operated for 41 years too, but Gunnel laughs that she and Tom were here first—by three or four months.

1017 stands in a line of seven structures that comprise the Park Arcade Building in Five Points. Built in 1928, the Park Arcade began the town square feel this section of Five Points brings to Riverside.

While today’s Five Points is, for good or ill, one of the hippest hubs in the city, it was Edge City that began Five Points’s transformation.

1970s, courtesy www.5ptsjax.com

In its earliest years, Edge City stood beside Riverside Gown Shop and across from Five Points Men’s Shop. If a 1970s head shop seemed a sign of Riverside’s decline, few neighborhood residents understood Edge City was renegade and Tom and Gunnel were pioneers.

Five Points became synonymous with urban grit and punk. Young gay artists moved into the neighborhood and renovated blighted old houses. Beside Deadhead and Dead Kennedys stickers and wanderers wearing t-shirts for The Cramps were signs that said, “Die Yuppie Scum.” Boosters held meetings discussing how to get the shirtless, mohawked, and tattooed skateboarding kids off the sidewalks and streets.

In the 1990s, academics starting talking about the “Creative Class” and wrote of the wellbeing it brought cities. City planners who’d previously wanted to flatten whole blocks of old buildings butted heads with yuppie planners who wore horn-rimmed glasses, their hair standing shocked upright, hip academics who used phrases like “creative capital,” arguing that artistic types could not only save rotting neighborhoods, but increase economic prosperity.

For decades, Edge City has danced itself through these historic currents, surfed the calls of predatory night birds across the rooflines and treetops, and while gentrification’s not yet removed the punks and queers and artists and renegades who saved this totally sui generis district from the craven wealthy nobs who wished to flatten it while their lame-brained / handicap-headed financiers played golf elsewhere in gated and dearly privileged fear, the architectangelic ghost prevails and lifts up among us, above the rooftops and through the glory of the compost of the streets, this most majestic and all-inclusive spirit of the city.

4.

Since Edge City has occupied 1017 Park for half this storefront’s existence and so fully represents the personality of today’s Five Points, it’s a little jarring to learn that 1017’s first tenant was an indoor / outdoor miniature golf course.

Five Points Miniature Golf opened in 1930 and lasted about a year. How the small storefront hosted such an establishment is hard to imagine. Glenn Emery, the librarian who created a website called The Jacksonville Story, described the course as beginning inside, extending into a “private park” behind the Park Arcade Building, and incorporating links across Five Points, even to the Five Points intersection from which the district gets its name.

But Emery doesn’t list his source(s), and no one at the Jacksonville Historical Society, which has maintained a number of his original web pages since his death in 2006, seems to know the source of the golf course’s description.

After Five Points Miniature Golf went out of business, 1017 housed Watkins Dye Works, Dixie Cleaners, a branch office of Admiral Finance, and, throughout the 1960s, “Leon, Hair Stylist.”

Gunnel says, “I’ve been here all these years. So many businesses have come and gone. So many of them are just a blip,” exactly what long-established Five Points businesses once assumed Tom and Gunnel would be.

5.

“I walk to work every day. I don’t drive. I’ve never had a car. Tom and I never had air conditioning in our home,” Gunnel says.

Surely, Gunnel Humphreys is today’s Mayor of Five Points.

Gunnel’s here at Edge City every day but Tuesdays. She works the shop for three hours on Sunday. She and Tom always ate in the neighborhood, rarely crossing the river, never feeling the need to frequent a Wal-Mart or suburban shopping mall.

This neighborhood was more their city than was Jacksonville itself.

It’s true Tom and Gunnel eventually bought a Karmann Ghia, after all those years of spending no money on car payments and gas, which took them to the symphony and back.

Despite the fact they made their living in Five Points longer than anyone else, selling clothing and the occasional art print or chair, Sandy Strickland quoted Tom, “We are not materialistic people. Who needs a big box when my neighborhood supplies all my needs?”

Tom and Gunnel might have paraphrased Jane Jacobs, that matriarch of urbanism, who wrote in her 1958 essay “Downtown is for People,” that an urban environment is healthy “by virtue of its enormous collection of small elements, where people can see them, at street level.”

Jane Jacobs, courtesy The Toronto Star

Later this evening, Gunnel will dine with an old friend who owned a secondhand clothes shop called Yellow Brick Road when Tom and Gunnel first bought Edge City. The shop operated around the corner in a little brick house long ago demolished.

6.

I stood so tall, so skinny, so sprung into my height that one leg had outgrown the other and slipped a disc in my back. My father told me to stand up taller.

Basketball and football players told me I was shaped for their sports. Coaches sought me, tried me, chastised me for their own poor judgment.

A record store cleverly called “Slipped Disc” sold albums to which outsiders like me could mosh. Nobody hurt me when I was 17 in mosh pits in small clubs like the Milk Bar, though just before my mother died when I was 12, a motel bed injured my back one night. Recovery lasted weeks.

Where was that cheap motel, beside what highway, in what Southern state, on the morning of leaving when I couldn’t stand, when I fell down humiliated in the parking lot?

Wasn’t it you, Leslie? Wasn’t it you, Danita? Wasn’t it you, Tanya, with whom I fell deeply in love in my infantile almost-adulthood?

I can’t remember if we were skipping school. I just remember Jesus. Never mind him up on that cross! His visage lay perfectly spread across the seat of that chair.

What wild liberation when I sat down, my lovely friends, all girls, whom I loved and with whom I identified, surrounding me, upon the face of the Lord!

A quarter century later, Gunnel says, “We bought this wonderful furniture in L.A. And that chair! I’m from Sweden. So I didn’t know it would be a problem.”

Eventually, Gunnel gave the chair to a friend. It needed a good home.

“Every now and then,” she says, “Someone came into the store and told us we were heralding the end of the world.”

She pauses, looks down her fine elegant cheekbones, beneath the particular shimmer of the very bright blue (or is it dark magenta violet?) her hair now shines.

She remembers well that woman who ran into the store, cursed her and Tom with Biblical prophecies, smeared ashes across Jesus’s face on the seat of the chair. Later that night she caked the façade of Tom’s and Gunnel’s Five Points home with ash, smudging their windows and their door.

So ha!, so hahaha! so sadly, so deeply.

We can only laugh, creepy deeply, deep depths, descending crepths.

I was so young. Jesus’s face gave way gently, unobjecting. Thereupon I sat.

He always did say, “Resist not.”

He always did say, “Turn the other cheek.”

My sweet friends and I, we’d rub time against time. Time stood stranger than any old tree. I remember the way your shoulders smelled, so soft, tender and skeletal, skin newly grown, newly become, newly new. I’ll never forget that haunting fragrance of transition. I was young too. But already we knew we were were losing our youth.

What else could youth mean but the knowledge of losing it?

I remember I’d hoped your witnessing that turning of the bloom might preserve my love for you a hundred years in the beautiful genius I tried but failed to cultivate for you.

I am so deeply and continually sorry,

Though such loveliness and love,

Never.

Mind.

Me.

Ever.

Escalates.

And Is.

Since What Was.

Is.

(always).