Breathing Life Into Downtown Jacksonville
By: Ryan Hutchins
Downtown Jacksonville could be a smorgasbord of entertainment. Anyone involved in the city or familiar with the area will tell you as much. But for some reason, the city has never reached its full potential. It’s one of the only cities in the country where you can kayak in the river one minute, but head to the beach the next.
Hemming Park in particular is one place in the city that has seen many changes over the years. The scenic gazebo has been replaced, there are not as many trees as there used to be and not as many visitors come to Hemming Park these days.
Emily Lisska, Executive Director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, has seen the change first hand over the years.
“It was our front door, our greeting place for many decades for presidential candidates. It was the big space where people could congregate,” said Lisska. “But it wasn’t necessarily a place where we would hold activities that were created locally.”
From what Lisska described, Hemming Park served as Jacksonville’s Central Park. It was the center of the city. When you arrived in Jacksonville, you would arrive at Hemming Park.
At one point during its history, that was true about Hemming. That’s where the busses would drop off people entering Jacksonville. There were abundant shops around the area, even a J.C. Penney department store. Life bloomed around Hemming Park.
Hemming Park then went through a hardship. It thrived with the homeless. It became run-down and “trashy”. Hemming Park was soon a “bad” area to be in. The shopping centers disappeared from downtown as people were moving to the suburbs instead of the city. Hemming Park wasn’t the heart of the city any longer.
Mike Field didn’t like seeing the negative reputation around Hemming Park. The Jacksonville native wanted to help pump life back into Downtown Jacksonville, namely Hemming Park.
Field is the founder of Transform Jax and Jaxson’s Night Market. Both of these are designed to bring people back into Downtown. Jaxson’s Night Market in particular, is a night market with local vendors and food trucks that gather in Hemming Park every third Thursday of the month. Field’s goal was to pump some life back into the city where he saw it was lacking.
“We started to do things that were fun and different to the city as a way to bring some life back into Jacksonville,” said Field.
The change that Hemming Park has seen is night and day. What was once a dull, drab part of town is now experiencing a cultural makeover. Kind of Jacksonville’s version of the Renaissance.
“Before… there was nothing but people hanging around yelling at you. There’s now people enjoying live music and eating lunch and that’s a really positive change,” said Field.
For the immediate future, Field hopes that his endeavors keep benefiting the city. Jaxson’s Night Market has already led to some vendors buying commercial real estate places in the downtown area. That’s what Field’s goal has been all along. In the end, he just wants to see his city reach the potential it has always been capable of.
“Long term, you’re going to see a city that is finally growing up and finally realizing a potential they’ve always had.”