Little Big Town

I live in a town named Jacksonville, Florida. You've probably heard of it.

We have an NFL team, they're doing pretty good this year. It's actually the largest city in the country in terms of land area -- but a lot of that space is taken up by the river. Still, when you see a map of the state we're one of the bigger dots. Not as big as Miami, or Tampa, mind you -- but certainly no backwater burg.

Sometimes though, this is a really little town.

Don't get me wrong -- there are really good people here. The weather's nice, the cost of living is low, and you can always get to a beach. It's got a checkered history like any other town in the south -- but for the most part, people try to get along. I've lived here a lot of years, and I have my share of complaints about it, but when all is said and done this place has become a home of sorts -- warts and all.

But if there's one thing that I can say for Jacksonville, it's that a large part of the town's character seems to be wrapped up in an almost unwritten desire by people here to maintain a certain pace. What I mean by that is, whenever there is talk about changing the character of the culture or like, talk of adding new industries to the economy -- you can almost feel the resistance to it rising up around you.

It's not a small town mentality -- folks in this town don't want to keep new technology or modern advances out, nothing like that. But at the same time, you'll find it hard in this town to jump people ahead of where they currently are. The city seems to react best to gradual changes -- even keels that slowly climb up a gentle incline. Yeah, we want fast internet, Uber, and Starbucks -- but if you have an electric car you better make sure you plugged it in all night before you go driving around because there's hardly anywhere to charge them.

But more than that -- what you start to notice with this town after a while is that people don't seem very comfortable in this city with the idea of integrating their existences into a central experience.

When you go to NYC or Atlanta -- people in those areas can be really spread out. These are big metropolises surrounded by suburbs and outlier communities, but you never hear people from there talk about themselves as they live from somewhere else. Even if you live in an outer borough, what happens in the city happens to you.

Jacksonville's not like that. The people at the beaches keep to themselves. Folks actively make excuses about why they won't go downtown. People largely stay close to home when they go out to shop or eat. We don't have active or effective public transit, so people aren't forced to mix with each other as part of their daily routines the way they are in say New York or Chicago.

We're almost conditioned here to think in terms of neighborhoods and boundaries.

And I don't think it's by accident either. One thing that's easily traceable about this town is that for many, many generations some of the most influential people in this town have come from longstanding successful businesses -- oil, real estate, retail. And one of the ways that they've been able to maintain those successes is by largely blocking or impeding the growth of outside competitors. Something you'll notice if you drive around the town is that there are a lot of the same kinds of grocery stores, sometimes within very short distances of each other. People here like to talk a lot about "Our Publix" or "The good Target."

There's really only a few different kinds of gas stations here. Only so many homebuilders. There are lots of hotels, banks, and gyms to be found -- but the variety of brands is noticeably small. When something new does come along, it comes in a wave -- almost like someone new has been added to the "secret club." Where once were a bunch of chevron stations, now suddenly there are a bunch of 7-11s.

The reason I bring all of this up isn't really to trash the city -- although it certainly might sound that way. I bet a lot of towns are like this. But there's an odd side effect that comes along with this sort of protectionist economic thinking that seems to permeate this town --

When something new does finally come here, people get fascinated by it.

It's as if we are all cavemen sitting around in the cold when suddenly the monolith from 2001: A Space Oddessy suddenly appears and then we all start freaking out. Except that in this case, the monolith is an IKEA.

It's sort of hard to explain this to folks who live in bigger towns where you might consider your local IKEA something of an eyesore or an annoyance. But we've never had one here. And it's not like people in this town were clamoring for more cheap prefab furniture or there was some dire need for this particular business to set up shop -- it just sort of showed up one day.

Or more specifically, talk about the new IKEA they were building started to show up. It took forever to build the thing, but once they found out what that empty lot of land was going to be, people got really excited about it. The site of the store happens to be fairly close to my son's school so I would drive by the lot every morning after I dropped him off on my way to work. And I'll admit -- it was hard not to be curious.

First off the store was huge. As it slowly took shape and began to look like an actual building it was hard not to be sort of awed by just how expansive it was. We have our share of malls and shopping centers, but this was something else entirely. Even the sign they built to rise up over the nearby interstate seemed unnecessarily large.

Even so, as the date of the grand opening started to close in -- I wasn't really all that invested. I didn't feel the need to buy much new furniture or whatever, so aside from the curiosity of experiencing something I had never seen before -- there wasn't much pull to go.

But maaan, was I alone in that thinking.

A few days before the opening I was driving by it on my way to work and noticed a lot of cops near the parking lot entrances. And road signs started cropping up talking about parking passes and reservation numbers. Over the next few days you started noticing that there was a line of tents near the door. People camped out for the opening.

Apparently there was some sort of raffle or giveaway for the first few customers in the door, so I guess it paid to stake your claim -- but these tents were there like a week or so before the doors opened. People were literally tailgating this thing.

A few of my musician buddies started talking about how they had been called to play the opening as a paying gig. And as the day got closer and closer, you started to see an actual line. For an IKEA. When it finally did open up there were all these Facebook posts from people tagging themselves there. It was a thing to do that weekend. And for like a week or so after.

And I know this makes us sound like rubes. But it's a thing around here. A new store opens, and people go just to see what it's like. I remember when they opened the (only) Apple store here -- people took their kids to it like it was a zoo. They redid one of the grocery stores in my neighborhood to modernize it, and there were crews from the local nightly news reporting on it.

On the one hand, it's kind of embarrassing. We live in the internet age. This isn't some M. Night Shyamalan movie -- we're a modern city with running water and indoor goddamn plumbing. The fact that a potential social hang could center around the fact that we finally got WaWas and Red Robin here makes it sound like all Trump had to do to win this district was to jiggle a shiny set of keys in front of us.

And maybe that is a big part of it -- this desire to be able to offer clear evidence of your city's modernity.

Because to be completely honest with you -- when I started seeing these recognizable names on signs by the roadside, there was this sort of sense relief that maybe, finally this town had decided to take the leap and join the rest of the world.

Sure we'd be joining that world in becoming jaded and dismissive of how crappy these omnipresent national chain stores are -- but at least we wouldn't living in the same city where people honestly wonder why everyone keeps calling Outback Steakhouse a crappy place to eat.

I finally visitied that IKEA last weekend.

My son and I walked around the store, made jokes at the weird names they gave everything and wondered why it took such a big warehouse just to show off that many tiny couches. It was a fun distraction, but once we were out of there nothing felt really all that different. Sure there was cool stuff in there (who couldn't use a few more bookshelves) -- but most of it seemed like it was aimed at college dorm living or for people who were just starting out in their first apartment.

Almost like if you wanted to truly embrace the value of their stuff, you'd have to buy a whole bunch of it and let it all coordinate together. Kinda rewire your thinking from the ways you furnished and organized your living spaces -- get rid of all this bulky junk you have now. Maybe that's the business strategy -- everything individually seems pretty affordable, but it's only really effective if you buy a ton of it.

Which we didn't do.

In the end, I experienced IKEA the way I suspect a lot of people in this town did. As a tourist. Gawking at everything like a country mouse wandering around Times Square in Manhattan wondering how all the big city mice can stand all this noise and flashing lights -- only to find out that all the people who do live in that town think it's an eyesore and wouldn't be caught dead there unless they absolutely had to.

It was all at once an exciting experience and a harsh mirror back on just how small this town really is.

I bet it closes within a year.

[Now Playing:  J Dilla "Workinonit" ]


polkatronixx said…
Don't be too hard on Jacksonville. People do that about IKEA everywhere. In London, there was a stabbing and a bit of a riot:

I don't think Jacksonville's IKEA is going anywhere.

But I do think Jax has an issue with identity. I think of it as a collection of neighborhoods or something - probably due to the size of the city and the complete lack of a developed 'urban core' (downtown) or whatever. I hate the whole DUVAL! thing. I'm not from "Duval" - I'm from Jacksonville.
Hex said…
That's kind of my impression too, neighborhoods without a central identity. There are divides of class as well -- but I feel like I've been other places where there's still something that pulls people together regardless.

Also, the turn of phrase "a bit of a riot" (perhaps unintentionally) sounds like a lot of fun. I'd like to be invited to that, lol.