The future of the downtown Jacksonville desert


Among one of the eight wonders of Northeast Florida to behold, the Downtown Jacksonville Desert is the most magnificent.

In its highest glory, the desert gifts Jacksonville desert-walkers with flurries of trash, vacant streets and the infamous sodden tumbleweave.

Thanks to consolidation, most consider the real Jacksonville to be the inside of their homes in the suburban areas — air-conditioned, couched and privileged — that can extend up to 20 miles from the city’s urban core.

The desert usually sleeps peacefully, but sometimes events occur in it that disrupt its barrenness.

Its biggest nemesis, Tony Allegretti, created an event that disrupts its peace the first Wednesday of every month.

But if it weren’t for these monthly events and others akin to it — June’s Food Truck Rally and May’s jazz festival — the Downtown Jacksonville Desert would remain in unbothered ecstasy.

Sure, businessmen and businesswomen travel it during the weekday, but they eagerly drive home to Jacksonville suburbs or close-by neighborhoods.

And isn’t Jacksonville thankful for those close-by neighborhoods.

Were it not for San Marco and Riverside, one would assume only stuffy business-minded individuals and their offspring who either never move out or long for a more cultured atmosphere inhabited the largest city, landwise, in the contiguous United States.

Lest we forget those who want life and culture who choose to live in the beaches area — some parts technically Jacksonville, other parts their own towns — all fingers point outward of the Wells Fargo building in terms of where to live and what’s happening in Northeast Florida.

And you’d think that’s how the powers that control the desert want it.

Of course, Allegretti, now the director of the desert’s engagement for the city’s chamber of commerce, wants to take a giant sweeper to the sand particles.

He skateboards around Hemming Plaza, and many would have one less reason to brag about Jacksonville food, were it not for his co-ownership of Burrito Gallery.

But the desert hasn’t too much about which to worry anytime soon.

Historical buildings among its sandy streets remain vacant.

The old main branch of the Jacksonville Public Library begs for some life. In the past, 20-somethings whispered ideas of transforming it into a nightclub, a farmer’s market or a hostel —   anything that could add to the city’s cool factor.

But the powers that be may want the cool factor to reside on the shelves — and in the food — of Chamblin’s Uptown. Hidden away in the Jacksonville Public Library’s genealogy collection sit years of facts that may go unseen, if visitors don’t tear through the library’s doors, like it were the Met.

And, yet, paraphrasing from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” hope for the Downtown Jacksonville Desert remains while the company is true.

The Underbelly moved from Riverside’s Five Points to a spot on Bay Street for nightly entertainment and drinks. It brought Portland’s Yacht to the First Coast in June and hosts live shows featuring personal Jacksonville favorite Antique Animals.

Olio Market gives business-lunch soup, salad and sandwiches a downtown twist.

And brewery Intuition Ale Works wants a spot downtown, but the city has yet to grant owner Ben Davis the discounted lot space he’d need to crop up a sister to its Riverside location, as the Jacksonville Business Journal reports.

At least bars such as Burro Bar and Dos Gatos keep the drink fort down, but they aren’t paired with affordable living spaces, and many customers drink into the desert to quench their parched lips.

Suggesting that all the Jacksonville businesses and entertainment hotspots move from San Marco and Riverside to downtown is, of course, ludicrous, but it will take a healthy litter of innovative ideas — a shopping center and a public school or two — to fully dust away the sands of the Downtown Jacksonville Desert.