JACKSONVILLE – Jacksonville is not quite what you think of when you think of Florida and you’re not from here. I always say it’s more like South Georgia than Miami, Orlando and Tampa. A long time ago, the southbound railroads terminated in Jacksonville. What lay further south was a vast wetland, and white settlers had a hard time living with the soggy terrain, malaria, alligators, snakes and the weather – not to mention formerly-enslaved rebels and industrial saboteurs who escaped bondage on plantations to join the Seminole Nation in armed resistance.
As a result, for a long time the state was the least populated in the South – which is why the state capital (Tallahassee) is located in the panhandle. Standard Oil oligarch Henry Flagler decided to finance railroads that would connect Jacksonville with the enclave of only 300 residents called Miami, after the Mayaimi nation who lived near Lake Okeechobee until they were annihilated by settlers from Spain and Britain.
Florida didn’t start to properly develop south of Jacksonville until the railroads were built, the US Army Corps of Engineers figured out how to drain the wetlands, and the air conditioner was invented. Population growth boomed in the glut of construction that occurred after World War II. But Jacksonville – proudly named after the US President known as the greatest oppressor of the Native Americans in modern history – is old. The culture and history are very different than other parts of Florida.
It’s important to note that there is a feeling in Jacksonville one doesn’t get anywhere else in Florida. It’s best exemplified by the downtown area, which is a mix of open businesses and boarded-up buildings. The streets are generally empty, which is strange for what is technically the most populated city in Florida. But these numbers are themselves a bit strange, since Jacksonville is also the largest city by landmass in the contiguous United States.
I guess there was a time, reaching back into memory, where more people seemed to be downtown. Occasionally, city “revitalization” initiatives seek to pull the population in to enjoy a day at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or perhaps have dinner along the waterfront. The hospitals and banks are headquartered here, but maybe it’s the heat – you never see a lot of people wandering around, unless it’s for a special event, like the Fourth of July.
I arrive downtown at midday, eager to beat the traffic I was told would become unbearable once the festivities started. I park outside the city center hoping that the Jacksonville Skyway, considered one of the most pointless public infrastructure expenditures in the United States, would be running. But the gates are shuttered, and a sign says they will not be opened until 5pm. No one else is on the streets, save an occasional passing car. So I decide to drive to where I knew there will be people. Hemming Park, a short walk from the Jacksonville Landing (where promoters promise fireworks and music), is never empty.
I park the car and looked both ways down the empty street, wondering if I have to feed the meter. With no signs to advise me, I ask a young man wiping down windows on the only open shop for blocks. He doesn’t know. An older man, wearing a veteran’s cap and pulling a trash bag full of cans behind him, stops to tell me he’s pretty sure I can park for free as he hasn’t seen any traffic police all day. We strike up a conversation, and I tell him I’m looking for people to give me feedback on the state of the country today. He agrees.
I ask Bill about his life in Jacksonville, how he sees things as a veteran, and he laughs and says being a veteran doesn’t have as much relevance to his situation as does his living on the streets. Jacksonville is better than elsewhere to him because it doesn’t get as cold in the winter. I ask where he sleeps and he tells me he has a place under the overpass where he’s not bothered.
Bill says he moved to Jacksonville to be closer to his son, who has since died. Since then, he says, he’s been homeless technically for about six years. “Realistically, about four and a half of that has been on the street. If you’re living in a motel, you’re still homeless.”
Isn’t that expensive? I ask. Even more expensive than being in an apartment? He tells me for “various reasons” he has been unable to secure a lease.
I ask what the Fourth of July means to him. Again he tells me he relates to it more as being homeless than anything else.
“What holidays mean to us… It means that the things we depend on – the library and the only place we can get breakfast around here – they’re closed. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean a heck of a lot to me nowadays.” He says he believes Obama “ran on a platform of fundamentally transforming America, and that’s what he’s been doing. Everything is worse.” He says a full-time employee just can’t find full-time work nowadays.
I ask him what he thinks the biggest problems are with the country, and the first thing he tells me is race relations. “It’s so much more of an issue now than it was when I was growing up, where I was growing up [in the North]. I’m sure it was much worse back then, but today it seems we’ve achieved two separate societies, at least at the lower end of the socioeconomic level. When you’re out here on the streets, you get a very different view of things. I’m not really sure I can explain it to you.” [he pauses] “All this stuff with mischaracterizing the police shooting quote un-quote unarmed black men. Black people have gotten the idea they’re much more put upon by society than they really are.”
He tells me another big problem is the bad economy. “We have a lot of people who don’t have anything to offer prospective employers.” He says people are expected to work with their heads, not with their hands. Machines do everything for us, or people in other countries.
I ask him what he thinks might help the economy out of its slump, and he tells me people he “trusts and respects” say he should vote for Trump’s plan to dramatically cut corporate taxes so that money “will come back from overseas.”
“But I guess if you’re out of work, the economy’s bad. And an awful lot of people are.” He says there are a lot of people at the top making tons of money, and he has nothing against it. But about people who are dependent on the government, “I got a lot against that.”
“If the government was working effectively at what it’s supposed to do, I wouldn’t want any more of it than is absolutely necessary. The government, all it does, is coerce. And I don’t like coercion.”
Bill says paying income taxes is coercion, so I ask what would a effective government look like.
“I guess it would be as it looked a hundred years ago.”
I ask him how he makes a living. He says that he eats breakfasts at a mission nearby, generally skips lunch and has dinner at another charity. “I refuse to panhandle,” he says. “I collect aluminum cans.” He says that brings in about $4 a day.
What does he think will make his life better? Bill says someone stole his ID a few months ago, so once he gets a new one, he can claim social security and the VA will help him find a permanent home.
Should everyone have a place to live? Should housing be a human right? His answer is a short “no”. He says he chooses to be in this situation – other people might not have had much of a choice, like the people walking around talking to themselves, but that homelessness and poverty wasn’t forced on him. He insists he chooses to keep living on the street.
I have to ask him why.
“Good question. I ask myself that a lot.” He tells me he met a woman he used to work with on the street one day and she asked him if he was living there by choice. “I said, well, no one would choose this initially. But you get used to it. There’s a mental inertia. You get comfortable doing what you’re used to doing,” he laughs. “As crazy as that might sound.”
I move on to Hemming Plaza, where I come upon the largest group of people – more than a dozen, at least – I’ve seen so far in downtown Jacksonville.
This is a gathering place for those who have nowhere else to go in this heat. Occasionally, people wearing red, white and blue pass through on their way to celebrations at the Landing, but for many here it’s just another day of the week. Over the years, the park has been “revitalized” with a new fountain, sculptures and a playground for children. Though much may have changed on the surface, the crowd has remained the same.
There is a group of Black Israelites preaching by the fountain, shouting out verses from the Bible, connecting them to their version of Black Nationalism. I stop to listen. They ask me where my father was from, saying I don’t look American. One of the older ones, Elijah, asks if I am from a list his group displays describing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They invite me to ask questions.
I ask what the group thinks of the Fourth of July.
“Our people were still in slavery in July of 1776 so it means nothing to us. It’s the independence of not us, it’s independence of another nation. There’s no reason for us to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“In actuality, America’s so dumb, because that was them being put in bondage as well. America didn’t ever get independence from Britain.” He says US independence was “…just some bullshit propaganda that builds our government up that we have now, which goes against the constitution the Native Americans put together. They accepted the so-called white man and said we can work together, we can deal on these terms, but the Americans took that constitution and wiped their ass with it, and formed a society based on debt and slavery. All these people in America have received no compensation for the work they’ve done.”
I ask what people could receive that would be just compensation. They insist there’s no such possibility. “By paying us back, they’re going to put themselves in their proper place, which is beneath us.” They tell me the most valuable thing they had taken away from them was the truth about their history and their place in the world. “We need to get the truth back.”
They tell me that to the people listed as the twelve tribes “…the US is a house of bondage.”
“You see all these nations finally rising up against the United States, and we’ve been talking about this for years. At the end of the day, it’ll be destruction for America. We’re waiting for that. Because – I mean, you live here – this society is not built for us. I’ve been to Canada, I’ve been to other parts of the world. We’re treated totally different than we are here in America. America’s supposed to be a holy nation based on Bible principles, but it’s the opposite.”
I leave them for the Landing, as people must have started arriving by now. The weather is deadly, at least 96 degrees, and the humidity is so heavy it feels like I’m walking through a hot fog. No sign of rain, so the fireworks must still be on for tonight. I’ll be far away by then — the crowd that will show up to drink, listen to Christian Rock and watch fireworks aren’t my focus today.
The Jacksonville Landing was built in the late 80’s, and was once a vibrant center full of shops and restaurants. Now, it seems as though most of the kiosks stand empty, though the bars are still in business. Very few people are walking around, but everyone keeps telling me the crowd will descend later. A bartender readying drink mixes tells me she expects to make between $300 and $500 tonight. “It is a bit lighter since I was a kid,” she admits. Every year, a little bit less. Maybe they’re going elsewhere to celebrate the holiday, she speculates.
The Founders Hall Food Court stands at about 60% capacity, with food stalls vacant – “For Lease” signs in the windows. Profile silhouettes of the “founders” of Jacksonville feature mainly rich white men, though Abraham Lincoln Lewis, James Weldon Johnson and Eartha M. M. White have been tacked on at the end, an addendum and nod to the 21st century.
The workers there are nervous about speaking with me, though it doesn’t seem very busy. They keep their eyes on a manager making the rounds in plainclothes. I’m later told by other workers elsewhere in the Landing that the owner of some of these food stalls is paying his employees below minimum wage. The people sitting around in the food court seem more interested in using the electrical outlets and reading books than eating, so I move along.
Downstairs, I meet a worker wearing a hat that says LOVE in big rhinestones. “I know it’s our Independence Day, but to me it just means I’m going to be working,” she tells me. “So this is really no different.”
Marsha tells me she was born and raised in Jacksonville and has been working at her kiosk in the Landing for around 8 years. She’s paid $9 an hour for 25 or 30 hours of work per week.
I ask her what she thinks a good wage would be. She thinks $15 an hour is a good idea, “…but I don’t think it’s going to happen here. In New York, maybe, yeah, it’s fast-paced up there. Not here. But it would be nice.”
I ask her where she feels the direction of the country is headed.
She tells me it’s not going well. It could be better. “That’s why I wear this hat, it gets a lot of feedback.”
I ask what could make things better, and her answer surprises me in its directness. “We could get rid of all the guns.”
“Everybody has their own opinion,” she says. “I mean it’s good, but we all have to get along in some kind of way.”
Did you see the news? she asks me. Four shootings on Friday, all around Jacksonville. “It’s so sad. That’s what I don’t like. If people could get along, it would be great. I try and be happy and friendly, and say ‘Hi!’ to everybody, because I want them to know this is a place of peace, and I don’t want anything like that to happen here.
“I was in Orlando, and I had my children with me, so I wasn’t thinking about going to any clubs, but usually I like to have a good time – see different people, see different cultures, that sort of thing. But what if I were in that club? I woke up that morning, and I saw 50 people dead on the news.”
“I know there’s nothing they can really do about these guns here, but even if they have to bribe people…” She seems exasperated. She tells me a baby was killed by a stray bullet a few months ago. “The bullet wasn’t even meant for him. Didn’t even get to live a life.” She tells me a gun is a “coward’s move”.
“We need a ceasefire,” she says.
It’s five o’clock, and the band is warming up as I leave the Landing. I head back to the park to sit in the heat to take some notes before I leave to avoid the crowd that everyone keeps telling me will be there any minute. Just five blocks away, the streets are still dead quiet.
Larry is sitting down a ways on the concrete ledge, propping up what’s left of his legs on a wheelchair and talking quietly to himself. He’s watching me write in my notebook out of the corner of his eye. He lights a cigarette and turns to me. “Are you a writer or something?”
“Sort of,” I say.
“Do you write poetry? What do you write?”
I explain the project to him and introduce myself, moving to sit closer. A woman walks up with a cooler, introducing herself and asking if we have accepted Jesus Christ as our lord and savior. She pushes a witness pamphlet entitled “The Tie-Breaking Vote” into our hands, and tells Larry that he better find a shelter quick before he finds himself in one of those concentration camps Alex Jones is always talking about on the radio. She writes “ALEX JONES” and “INFOWARS” on the back of her witnessing pamphlet and encourages us to go look him up. She offers Larry a bottle of water.
“No thanks, I don’t drink water.”
“What do you drink then?” she asks. He holds up a can encased in a plastic bag.
She asks him if he knows where he would go if he died tonight.
“Nowhere,” he tells her. “It would be the end of life.” She begins to argue with him and he holds up his hand, exhausted. “I don’t like to talk about religion.”
She leaves us, wheeling her cooler behind her. I ask Larry how long he’s been in Jacksonville. He says he’s been here for a few months in the hospital, but only got out two days ago. He says he’s got an appointment at the shelter nearby tomorrow to see about getting a bed and that right now, he’s sleeping in an abandoned building down the street.
Larry says he was living near the highway outside of Pensacola, sleeping next to a fire, and his bedding caught. He was medevaced to Jacksonville for treatment and physical therapy. “I was burned all up the back of me, and they had to take my legs.” He tells me that at least he qualifies for disability assistance and can see about getting his own room somewhere.
I ask him what he did for work before the fire. He tells me he was a dishwasher for $300 a week.
I ask him what he thinks of the fourth of July.
“I guess the basis of it seems ok, but I’ve seen too much difficulty in my life. There’s no due process.” He tells me he did time – two years in Texas and a year in California – for assaulting police officers. “I’m a felon. I can’t vote or own a gun or own property. I won’t be celebrating anything until I see better times.”
I ask him what he thinks could change about the US that would be worth celebrating.
“If we had real representatives, a real government and president that represented people, maybe.” He figures it could be worse – at least he got treatment at a hospital, and at least he has disability payments coming, but things are still too hard. He tells me that for all the wars going on in the world, it feels to him like he’s living through one right here in the United States.
I wish him the best of luck and decide to head back toward the car.
I duck into a shop nearby to get a drink and meet Anna, who knows how hot it is outside and offers me a fountain drink for free. She says I was in the shop earlier and bought a drink then, so this will just count as a refill. I explain what I’m doing in the area and ask her if there will be a roundup of the homeless downtown for the celebration.
She says they usually do. She tells me once she was stuck with her daughter downtown in the rain waiting for a bus under the Skyway track, and the cops came and told her they couldn’t loiter.
I ask her if homeless people ever come in to the store, as it’s close to a few popular gathering places. She looks at me and is quiet for a moment. Her face is flushed. When she first got this job, she was homeless.
Now she lives in a motel across town with her daughter for $170 a week, and has been without a lease for a year. She says her car is broken down, so she walks two and a half miles to the bus stop and then takes an hour ride to work – but only if there are no breakdowns or delays.
Some people come in, and I wait until they leave before I ask how she lost her home.
She tells me there was some trouble with the roommate and money, and that somehow the rent she paid didn’t make it to the landlord, so she was evicted. Without an address, it’s very difficult to find a job. “You’re always trespassing or loitering. It’s like it’s illegal to exist. You can’t eat, you can’t shower, you even have to ask permission to pee.”
She tells me after a long job search, she got this one almost on the spot. Anna says she should be grateful, but she only makes about $10 an hour, and it’s not enough to raise a family on.
I ask her how she feels about the fourth of July. She tells me she hasn’t celebrated it in a couple of years. She doesn’t feel like it.
“They say this is the greatest country on Earth, but I don’t believe it. Our generation was raised being told we could be anything we want to be. Wrong.”
I ask her if she thinks housing should be a human right, and she is quick to say yes. “We colonized this country, beating people over the head for the land. But unless you have money, you’re not allowed to live here.” She says with all the empty houses in the country, she thinks there should be enough to house everybody.
I ask if she’s been keeping up with the election, and she tells me everyone she knew supported Sanders.
You don’t mind that he calls himself a socialist? I ask.
Well, she tells me, he’s a democrat, or a democratic socialist, or whatever. But she doesn’t seem to care. “When your country is breaking down, why not try something else?”
Due to the vulnerable status of some of the people this project features, some names and identifying information have been changed or omitted for publication. Photos were taken with permission of the people portrayed.