I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida but more specifically Atlantic Beach. Atlantic Beach is a cozy nook with a small town charm; however, I did not go to school where I grew up. Instead, I went to school downtown. My 11-year-old self still remembers hopping on the non-air-conditioned bus during those sticky, humid Floridian mornings and the goodbye waves to my dad as I sat on the brown peeling leather seats that my legs immediately stuck to as we pulled out of Fletcher Middle School’s parking lot en route to James Weldon Johnson Middle School. I always knew we were close to school when I smelled the coffee grounds while traveling over the Mathews Bridge.
Going to school downtown while living at the beach was an experience I am forever grateful for because it shed light onto the intense racial inequality that exists within my city. It opened my eyes on a daily basis. Who would have thought that almost twenty years later I would be living less than a mile from my old middle school in Jacksonville’s downtown? Unfortunately, my time downtown did not last long. Here’s why.
Our downtown has a serious issue of people who are physically and mentally hurting arriving at the GreyHound Bus Station. People arrive from all over the country where passengers disembark without anyplace to go. If you have ever been to LA and seen Skid Row, you would feel like we are not too far off from that after a drive through LaVilla. What breaks my heart is that we accept this as normal. I am here to tell you - it is not.
Sometimes in the morning when I was living downtown, I would get up and go for a run down the streets around the new courthouse and Jenkins BBQ (my favorite), by the Clara White Mission House and the old houses that look like they were built in the 1800s, through FSCJ’s campus to the outskirts of Springfield past the Cathedral to the Jaguar stadium and WJCT’s station and loop back to Bay Street and up Laura before ending at the Barnett Building. To switch it up every once in a while, I would run along the river to Riverside and back again. On these runs, I witnessed some things that I could no’t believe with my own eyes.
I share this with you because Americans have a habit of looking down on other countries and other people without realizing that our backyard is not very clean itself and many people in our local communities are suffering and in need of one another. Here are some of the things that I witnessed:
- I witnessed a man just released from the hospital with soiled scrubs walk barefoot like a zombie through downtown for several days on end.
- I witnessed another man carrying a machete style knife as he slept outside of my building. One of his lungs had collapsed and he would scream out to anyone who passed for some type of human connection. He still roams downtown trying to connect with others to this day. People refer to him as the beatbox man.
- I witnessed a woman singing to herself on the corner for hours, her face sunburnt from the hot Florida sun. She went missing last year and I have not seen her since. I will never forget meeting the Barnett Building cleaning crew who shared with me that one time this woman had fallen and they helped pick her up. When they did, the woman told them she had not been acknowledged or touched in years, and she was so grateful for their kindness. That made me cry.
- I witnessed another woman who would sprawl out in the gutter with all her belongings beg for cigarettes on the weekends.
- I witnessed a man crippled by drug use standing outside of Jimmy John’s begging for money every single day.
- I witnessed a man named Elijah physically attack men if he felt like they were threatening any women(whether they were or not).
- One night I looked outside after I heard screaming and saw several drug dealers pull out a gun on a couple who claimed they had ripped them off. The look on the couple’s faces when they saw a gun pointed at their faces is something I will never forget.
- At night, I heard the screams and fighting throughout the streets. One of my neighbors told me as soon as the sun goes down everything changes. All I knew was that once I was inside for the night, I was not going back out there until daybreak.
- I woke up one morning to find my car broken into and I often witnessed others have their cars burglarized.
- I learned to always have my doors locked and to do rolling stops. I actually learned this in Baltimore but felt like I applied it more often in my hometown than I did anywhere else I have ever lived.
- I learned to avoid the intersection where 7-11 is located because heaven only knows what could and was going down there. One time my mom was driving early in the morning and while parked at this intersection, she had a woman come up with just her underwear on and try to open her car door.
- I made mental notes of who hung around the Riverwalk when I went for runs and which areas had blind spots so no one would see me run one way and surprise me on the way back.
- I saw a family packing up their car in the morning who had just slept in the same car the night before. They were hustling to get up and get out before the relentless downtown parking police ticketed them.
- I saw the morning crew starting to line up outside of the library ready to open at ten am so they could hang there for the day.
I share this with you because I believe that we should be leading with our hearts more than ever. We should not be turning away from that which breaks our hearts but turning toward. Because from the bottom of my heart, I do not believe that anyone or anything is a lost cause. Jesus showed us that redemption is possible for all of us on this planet.
One morning, I visited my friend Nathan at the amazing community garden he built in Springfield. I was sharing with him what I was experiencing and he mentioned a book he was reading about testing conducted on hamsters. The testing concluded that when hamsters are isolated, they lean on any type of drug for connection but when they are together and can be connected to one another, they do not need any drug.
That really resonated with me because it made me think that maybe that is what is going on in downtown Jacksonville. A lot of people who do not feel seen, heard or like there is a future for them so it becomes an apocalyptic stomping grounds for the mentally ill with no reprieve in sight. They are an eyesore for the politicians of Jacksonville and a heartbreaker for the empathic ones. I feel called to say something not only because it makes my heart break but because of my own belief system. I used to think that my greatest accolades in life would be based on what I did and accomplished. Now, I believe it is based on how I made others feel and how I am able to offer my skill set to let someone else know they are not alone while giving a voice to those who do not have one.
As for a way forward, I realized that I would not be able to help others without helping myself which is why I had to remove myself from living downtown full-time to calm my own nervous system and feel safe to move about without fear of being watched, tracked or harmed. I do not believe that anyone would have hurt me intentionally downtown but unfortunately, I do not trust people who are taking drugs to not hurt me and I do not feel physically or mentally strong enough to protect myself.
That is why I chose to continue to build Anact and partner with others who see the same things I see and have the bandwidth and the ability to do something about it. I am attracted to anyone who believes in shedding light on those who don’t have a voice in our local and global community. I’m researching and reading up on the use of psychedelics (in controlled environments) to help those dealing with their own neuroses to face their trauma, quiet the ego and release it so they can get to the root cause of the wounding.
My hat goes off to downtown warriors such as Folio, Wolf & Cub, Bellwether, Sulzbacher and more who have either carved out spaces to run businesses in these areas or are directly helping those in need. Y’all are the realest.
In light of surviving year one of a pandemic, I pray that our community will continue to have more compassion for one another and to honor each other’s human experiences regardless of what we have gone through, what we are suffering from (because we all suffer), how much money we make, what we have done in the past, whether we live in a home or not, or what we have to “offer” in this world.
I pray for the people listed above as well as for everyone in my life and on this planet everyday. I hope that in sharing my experience living downtown from what I witnessed and continue to witness brought you on that journey with me and inspired you to take action in some way. Because if not you, then who?