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Why Jax?

Updated: Jan 1

Dec 2021 Window View: Stayed at The Hyatt for my Job Interview

January 1st marks two years to the day I pulled into Jacksonville after a twenty-two hour long drive, one-way from Michigan to start a dream job, the job I have today. I arrived to take on a position I had worked over ten years to get, a job that simply did not really exist a decade ago when I first started really pouring into my community, really pouring into any place I was a part of from the jump. Even today it’s hard to find a job with “placemaking” in the title. I got started in 2010 after reading Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class in a 400-level course on Civic Entrepreneurship (city as the classroom) and used it as a blueprint for my hometown to go from dull and grey to vibrant and lively.

Parlor City Commons Mural: Downtown Binghamton, NY

The summer of 2010 after the class was done, I rented a little art studio and transformed the space into a community art gallery on a once-abandoned Main Street with my best friend Minoo Allen. Shortly after, we were awarded an American Planning Association grant for $250 to teach our city how to paint and install a mural in downtown. The Mayor appointed me as the youngest commissioner for downtown development and allocated a whopping $40,000 to public art. In a town with 40% at or below the poverty line which was then $13,000 annually, that was A TON OF MONEY. I saw the impact first hand and kept writing grants to support hyper-local creativity as a means to revitalize my hometown, which was dying on the inside as a post-industrial, poverty-stricken wasteland. I then scaled the work and brought the model to other towns and cities.

QuarterYellow Studios Opens in Downtown Binghamton July 2010

The rest is history--once you see the power of PM, you can't unsee it.

In honor of the work-versary and a time of reflection as 2024 arrives, I want to answer the #2 question I get asked most often: Why Jax? The story is long, so if you have time please do read to the end, if you don't and ask me in the streets I can now text you the link to this very personal blog:

The very first time I laid ears on “Jacksonville” was with Patrick Fisher. Patrick spoke at a global placemaking conference I hosted in 2021 in Michigan with PlacemakingUS (national) and X (global). Patrick used to work in Jax, today he leads the way in Pittsburgh, PA, a mentor to me and a person I look up to. A man I respect alongside many others as well known in the field focused on arts advocacy, planning and funding. Patrick is a creative placemaker, too.

The word must have stuck to me. Jacksonville.

Our Old Offices were in Ed Ball at Adams/Hogan

My first day of work was January 12th after what was about a three month process from application to negotiation on my new position. I showed up to our old offices located on the corner of Adams and Hogan Street and fit right in. I was handed a list of people to meet with, the Jax River Jams binder, Haley Tinkle and a great cubicle. What more could you need? I inherited a position forged by many others like Hana Ferguson and Liz Grebe before me and was honored to carry the torch with a strong foundation of other great placemakers like the OG Jim Webb among many local greats.

Day 2 of the New Job: The Boss got COVID

And so began the work of learning Jax to best serve our city.

My first few weeks in transition from Michigan to Florida were rough; physically and emotionally. I didn't plan to leave Michigan after serving three years as their inaugural director of placemaking, and some of the resident projects were really just taking off. We had implemented over one-hundred together. The people popped-off PorchFest, Night Markets, Alley Fitness Fest, Sound & Vision Alley Art Series, International Mural Fest, Concrete Jungle Hip-Hop Concert series on the River, Curvy Girl Fitness--just to name a handful. With a better transition plan, I could have put time into succession planning. I could have helped more. During that unexpected decision, I contracted COVID during the actual move and so my move was spent quarantined with little to no contact with my people. My neighbor and mother-figure Ms. Anette and a project partner and brother-figure Derek fed me through my living room window, handing me COVID tests and breathing monitors. It was scary, I was real sick. No going away party, no goodbyes, no hugs, just a cold, what felt like heartless transition.

So why leave?

I had started to entertain the idea of leaving in response to the world changing so much during COVID--it was a struggle--Michigan was one of the strictest states in the nation. My soul was dying in zoom land. "Just one more year of zoom." After years of it, an invasive thought would not go away: the world has changed and it’s time to change with it. Not only did the world change, the field of placemaking (PM) changed too. Downtowns had changed, which is my specialty and I felt a strong, urgent responsibility to help re-imagine city centers. The nation's biggest and best cities said "downtown is dead" and I knew there was real work to do, it was not that downtowns were dead, it's that the way we think about them had died. I always kept my fingers on the pulse of the field, which included periodically searching “placemaking jobs” at least once a month to stay in the know. The day came when I searched not for the pulse but for me.

One Way Drive MICH to FLA

The box was now open and I started a global search for my next position, to find the perfect place to bring my practice and support bouncing back from the impact of COVID.

Where would I go to serve? In living overseas on two occasions and my reputation around the world in the field, I revisited my dream to go back. I was born and raised in New York State, my moms side of the family is from the Bronx and my dad's Pennsylvania, but had no plan of returning since those places were strict like Michigan. In re-assessing my dream, European countries strict like Michigan with additional restrictions on travel were also on the no list. It was time to update my dreams. I decided to focus on the continental US and find ways to stay global. I looked at two states that stuck out for anti-zoom life, Florida and Texas. I knew if I was going to move, there were alot of great things about my life I wanted to be sure to maintain as I ventured on to add the new, much needed missing pieces. For the dream job, I needed to be part of a dream team, I needed stability, more resources to scale the work, a strong board of directors, and a laundry list of other work conditions for the perfect match; which is what I was looking for.

The Site for Sip & Stroll, An Event I would Start Helping With

It was the Fall of 2021.

The search resulted in a keen eye for a “Senior Director of Placemaking & Events” position in NE Florida. As I was putting in applications and relying on my colleagues around the world to help pick the best place--Jax called me back after initially emailing Kat Hardwick to express interest. At the same time Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Austin were each hiring positions, cities I could see myself in. I held off my interview in D.C. to focus on Jax; which stuck out the most.

A Mural & Park Project The Org I would Work Just Completed

Firstly, I loved the job title. It said alot about the organization’s knowledge of placemaking. It screamed that the city was smart, “events and placemaking” were both in the title and so it signaled that they knew there was a difference. It showed that they distinguished the two which most cities do not understand. Not knowing the difference was a red flag to me. Events and placemaking are very different.

I’m about to nerd out on words--back to the why.

#2 Short-Term Rentals

I drove across the United State in my little RAV4 packed to the gills with a few belongings and pulled right up to the storage facility on Myrtle Ave to store what I loved until I found a place that was more than a rented room. I stayed in airbnbs throughout Springfield for the first few months and tried hard to find a place. Jax was in a housing crisis (arguably still is); the housing stock was low and I could not compete in a long line of renters that showed up to viewings with cash and advance rental payments. Knowing nothing about how great it is to actually live downtown, at first I sensed downtown lacked a neighborhood feel. I still focused on finding a place downtown so I could do my job best and work to add to the neighborhood feel. I have always believed that to best serve a place you need to live in the place. I moved across the country to serve Downtown Jax and so it was probably best that I live there. Moving around from short-term rental to short-term rental, I started to really need to find a stable place.

My First Place Unit #303

My first apartment was a studio above The Volstead and I lived there for over a year. I was anxiously waiting for a spot at Churchwell Lofts and so when the call came recently, I just had to take it after a failed house-hunting process. I want to own a home so bad here but I can not compete with the market, 8% interest rates, and people buying site-unseen above the listed price often times in cash. Today I work out of our new HQ on Duval Street, the perfectly named street, one that makes me smile every day I walk to work from the three hundred block of Bay Street.

Jax is my first non-grant funded placemaking position, a little stab at stability and bigger impact. Thinking long-term (strategic) placemaking is a world of difference than being contracted to practice in a city for six months or x years (short-term/tactical urbanism). In Michigan I had to fundraise my salary and then fundraise placemaking dollars, which led to real burn out. I needed to make sure my new position was set up for success and so after I got the offer, I called my mentors, colleagues and other experts in the field to make sure it would be a good fit to serve the business improvement district (BID). I needed to stress-test that Jax was a good place for my style of placemaking, that the environment was conducive to a long-term role and so we looked at city government, assessed public spaces, the downtown district, surrounding neighborhoods, how funding was allocated, what kind of arts funding was available, if there were music venues, local talent, and more.

We got alot of green flags, that outweighed the red flags.

Activation from my First Months in Jax

In terms of public space, Jax left an impression having the largest urban park system in the nation; 80,000 acres of parks, including 405 City Parks, 7 State Parks, 2 National park sites and an Arboretum. The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve alone covers 46,000 acres. Check. Additionally, the organization I would work for had invested in placemaking for almost ten years. My current boss interviewed on it. I could see it in his investments: murals, Cork Screw park, parklets, Lights on Laura, sidewalk seating and activations like an art market and river front concert series among many other great sense-of-place projects. At the time the board president was also President of the Florida Theatre, which indicated that the organization valued the arts. I quickly learned that the company I now work for, Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI), is a great organization. DVI has been investing in the urban core for twenty years and a great team to join. Check. Plus, the Jessie Ball duPont Center had a VP of Placemaking position. All green flags.

In the 1st Quarter: Placemaking US Toured Fla Together (Sherryl Murient, Ethan Kent, Ryan Smolar)

I then considered the pros/cons of living in the state of Florida. The list of things that excited me about moving to the Sunshine state, was that some of the fields foremost thought leaders and nations best practitioners of PM live in Florida; Peter Kageyama and Richard Florida. Plus, Sherryl Muriente practices out of West Palm Beach, serving in an even more rare title and what is among the newest investments in the field, “Public Realm Director.” A position she had long before cities, such as the great New York, invested in the role. Sherryl pioneered creative placemaking and contributed to the theory of urban acupuncture and ‘archeology of local knowledge.’ I was proud at the prospect of bringing my practice to Florida because of these great minds. Florida was also one of the first States in the US to create a “Director of Placemaking” position. Around 2014, Orlando hired one and it rocked the field. PM was legitimized in a new way, put on the map if you will and it was in part thanks to Florida. Check.

Orlando added more to the list of green flags. The city led the nation in two other areas of placemaking; nighttime economy and Main Streets. Orlando spearheaded an incredible model for main streets and is among a small handful of cities in the US forging the nighttime economy. I was also excited about living in Florida, a state of great places. Strong, cultural cities and a thriving economy. The state that the famous Art Basel takes place each year; a gathering of the globe around both fine art and street art; which are my super niches. I already loved St. Pete for its role in the nationally acclaimed, invite only SHINE Mural Festival, The Museum of Graffiti in Miami, and Esh’s graffiti fest in Tampa. These were gatherings I had attended long before ever imaging living back in Florida, as a sub-specialist in the field of street art and past art-dealer. I say move back to Florida because my dad moved us to the Keys as kids and my older sister Junelle attended kindergarten in South Florida, so I have always leaned on that past, deep connection.

Overall, I was excited at the idea of being back in the South, back close to New Orleans where I earned my Master’s Degree and developed my first love for living in the South; the flora and fauna, the food, the hospitality and way of life, the sun, the people. I was excited to be close to great American cities I had yet to step foot in—Atlanta, Charlotte, Savannah.

Back to Jax.

I also had to analyze what was not going well in Jax since accepting the job meant my passion for PM and global role in the field would be in the thick of it. It’s hard to write on this now living here. In being crass, I do not want to come off as talking shit about Jax nor would I want to risk offending my amazing colleagues or those who have been working in the space for decades. Ultimately, my two years here ain’t shit, but identifying red flags was a real part of the decision-making process.

One red flag: there are some PM organizations that had a very bad experience with Jax as well as national placemaking funders I spoke to about the city who cited a lack of organization and cooperation among entities. For example, during an open call for funding seeing more than one application come out of a city indicates a lack of coordination and communication, which simply put, Jax was showing. There seemed to be a storied past of misused funds as well. The red flag was that as a national grant writer who wanted to write for Jax, I had to understand that challenges would be faced in the work. Truly, no shade to Jax, this is a part of any city and not unique to Jax. Jax's problems are the same problems placemakers and urbanists around the world talk about, workshop and work together to change.

Another red flag to understand: in terms of Urban Planning, there is a list of what not-to-do and Jax has hit them. Bulldozing historic sites, replacing with promises and sometimes what feels like nothing. Building highways through minority communities creating a literal divide and contributing to environmental injustices. The poster cover for urban sprawl and critical lack of public transportation infrastructure, Jax lacks the three C’s:

“Successful urban revitalization projects of all scopes and sizes rely on a simple three-pronged principle: the clustering of complementing uses within a compact setting. It's a tried and true formula for bringing life to urban streets that doesn't rely on massive new developments.” - The Jackson Mag

The list goes on but I will stop there since Jax showed more green than red and because I am now part of the solution and not interested in contributing to the problem(s). I went on looking for more green flags. Ennis Davis is a national placemaking gem, urbanist, author and transportation systems genius --among many titles. His passion and investment in Jax was a green flag. The Emerald Trail, the investment in public spaces—the future transformation of the old Landing, Art Park across from RAM, Lift Every Voice and Sing Park; among other investments in public space are all green flags.

I paid close attention on my first visit during the job interview and my experience stepping foot in the Bold New City of the South and noticed many things that showed Jax cared. There were murals painted all over, art on the abutments under the skyway--which I knew as a person who has spearheaded mural projects and festivals that the people took alot of time and effort—both hard to permit and hard to paint--and it showed care and commitment. Additionally, there were brass plaques in the sidewalks that also showed great care, someone spent time to make that happen. I also appreciated the wide sidewalks in downtown as my colleagues have spent years widening sidewalks to create better public space. I learned about the controversial LERP and DUUUVAL chant, both signaled a true passion for place and I needed a city that cared. Check.

View From Hotel Window My Very First Time in Jax

I stayed at the Hyatt off Bay Street during the interview in December of 21’, had a drink at the Volstead (where I later lived above) and ate at both Super Food (where I later first laid eyes on who I now consider the love-of-my-life) and Indochine. Kat, who I had first emailed to apply, had shared a list of things to do while I was in town and the anniversary party of Intuition Ale Works stood out. I walked over from the Hyatt on what is now my baby --Bay Street -- and stumbled upon a closed venue. That unexpected change led me to Manifest (shout out to Jim Webb, Nadia & company who I work with all the time now) sitting in front of a flight of gin and very friendly bartenders. I sat there in awe, as a gin connoisseur I was so impressed by the pink and brown gins, by the quality. I laughed inside to the thought that the gin was so special that in battling between offers I would accept the job in Jax if I was offered it. Not twenty-four hours after I interviewed, my now boss left a voicemail—we want you in Jax. I always tell this particular part of the story of Why Jax because it was so powerful to be in a place where craft and care came first.

The decision was obviously more complicated than that.

Jax had real competition and so I decided to make a list of things I really needed out of the place I aimed to settle down in. Remember, this job didn't exist ten years ago so in having to move for the work sent me to three countries and more than ten states in pursuit of this dream job and simply put—my soul was exhausted, my bones were ready to find land, my mind and hands ready to root down. I applied a make-a-list strategy from learning how to purchase the right house. You make the list of must-haves and dealbreakers and let that check-list guide you. I reflected back on all the places I had lived and made sure that the things I did not like, for example long cold winters and unaffordable homes, did not follow me but that I also added new things I had to have added to the mix, things I have always wanted like living near water that I could swim in.

Jax hit the entire list and the decision was made for me.

[] A true sense of place and pride, a strong local history

[] Swimable bodies of water close by

[] Great city scapes, great nature and landscapes

[] Located in a state with a strong economy, strong arts scene, and placemaking is not new (that it’s being invested in)

[] In a state that is proximal to other great places, easy to travel to and from

[] Diversity in people, food, culture

[] Female leadership in arts, government, non-profit and business sectors

[] Big enough for my style of PM to make real impact with alot of opportunity to grow professionally and personally

[] Needs my style of placemaking, a place that is a creative city and likes my creative style as a business improvement district professional

[] You can one day own a home, property to garden on

[] There are people your age running businesses successfully

[] Strong philanthropic landscape to support placemaking

[] Stable job, with great company leadership that understands and values creative placemaking as a key to revitalizing and building vibrant city centers

Today— exactly two years from the day I pulled into Duval Country feels amazing. I am proud to practice in Jax and manage the newly formed Department of Events & Placemaking, support DVI’s exceptional portfolio of events, expand our role in placemaking, and work with an incredible team on Duval Street in Downtown Jax.

I reflect on a collective, thirty year sigh of relief after what was a really difficult come up from when I was born with no hand of cards; not just a bad deck. I share the story publicly about being homeless youth and growing up rural-poor, exposed to the more dark sides of humanity so that no one in any position is ever made to feel that they can not. I share so that so no one I meet lets themself or their circumstances hold them back. Today, I am fueled by a deep love of public space after seeing it used as a living room and bedroom when someone has absolutely nothing. I arrive at the start of every day with a contagious lust for life that is deeply moved by a call to join in on the work.

Downtown Jax is Rich in Public Space

Our neighbors, our people will have a better life when we are better in our development, management and programming of shared social spaces. I believe in placemaking as a strategy to achieve this and that just like our buildings we need strong social architecture, we need places to gather in that are accessible, dignified and celebratory. A place that reflects the people. I am honored to call Jax home and contribute to the already great work happening here. Plus, I really appreciate where Jax is today in PM. We have three positions, and a fourth new position that is similar to Sherryl’s mentioned above. Most cities do not even have one.

We have four. That is amazing.

For the past thirteen years, I have devoted my life to organizing, promoting, advocating for (and once creating) murals, public art/street art, and strong, creative communities while forging a career as a creative placemaking specialist. I believe that all problems have solutions, but that could be my degree in math speaking. As an urbanist, I also think that there is no city problem that a room full of artists can’t solve. Great cities are great because they have great artists. But that might just be the artist in me speaking. Today I reflect on bright future for all Jaxsons. Jax is going to be America’s next greatest city, again, and it’s because of the people here.

To lighten it up and wrap it up.

I joke that I moved “sight unseen” since I had no idea where Jax was when Patrick first mentioned it. I joke that I am a billboard kid moving to Jax as a result of previous Mayor Curry installing “move to Jacksonville” ads on billboards in California citing “fresh air, no taxes, and affordable real estate.” My colleagues at national joke “congrats you are moving to Wyoming”, because they have a famous town called Jackson Hole and did not put it past me knowing I would move anywhere for the work. Today Jax is home. After getting a couple of years down at the job the next step is to really onboard a more personal life, great friendships, and make time to pursuit my other passions—baking from scratch, working Out East, co-managing a local Neo-soul hip-hop collective, making my own art (poetry, portrait photography, murals) and spending a ton of time outside co-creating with the great people of Jax. 2024 is the year not to survive, but the thrive.

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