No, Really, Jacksonville's a Pretty Good Place

It is a city split in half by a winding river which flows the wrong way, crowned by an unusual series of colorful bridges. Nearby, the mythical Fountain of Youth flows in St. Augustine, and the Rush Hours each day last from noon to 3 p.m. as Mr. Limbaugh spews forth to a legion of local dittoheads on the airwaves.

As Baltimore's shock starts to fade over the astonishing selection by the National Football League to award a team to Jacksonville, rather than Baltimore or other competing cities, many in Charm City are asking "Jackson-who?"


Amazingly, some are lining up to take potshots at the north Florida city considered by many to be Georgia's second capital. It is harsh, and the cuts are deep.

They are blaming the victor.


The city, with a metropolitan area population of 944,000, is my hometown, a place affectionately known for its rotten-egg paper mill stench, Spanish moss drapes and an incomplete downtown light rail system that goes back and forth only two blocks.

This is a city that, until Tuesday, had a massive sports inferiority complex that was soothed briefly in the early 1970s when Artis Gilmore carried Jacksonville University to the Final Four and when Notre Dame had an off year and accepted a bid to play in the Gator Bowl classic.

It now appears that, like it or not, my city has moved from cow town to wow town.

It will be known as a metropolitan version of "Rocky," the city that this summer ripped apart its bid for an NFL team in angst over a lease dispute, only to rally and win the coveted 30th franchise on Tuesday while politicians and businessmen from Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis reacted as if they had been hit with a stun gun.

I realize that we're talking about football here, not brain surgery. (Then again, the average Jaxsonians would much rather have their child grow up to be the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators than a surgeon at Johns Hopkins.)

But the raging reaction over Jacksonville's NFL anointment seems to have evoked a newer and meaner gridiron mentality. Most of the losers (and even the victors in Charlotte) are at the line of scrimmage, first-and-10 in Jax bashing.

Here's a sampling of the haughtiness from various newspapers, including this one:

* "The roaches in Jacksonville are so big they have gun racks"


* "Jacksonville is to Florida as a trailer park is to the Plaza"

* "Awarding Jacksonville an NFL franchise is like World War III breaking out and Norway winning."

* "Jacksonville is one of the worst cities in the United States. It's a Georgia city in north Florida. Take the best of Florida and the best of Georgia, and Jacksonville has little of either."

* "Jacksonville makes Charlotte look like Paris."

* "We didn't lose out to Sylvester Stallone. We lost to Pee-wee Herman"

Sources in Jax report that such talk makes the Bubbas and Bubbettes fit to be tied. The men are checking their gun racks and the women are sharpening their (fake) nails and teasing up their hair getting ready for an all-out defense of the city's honor. After all, in Jacksonville life is an extension of the Florida panhandle -- known as the Redneck Riviera -- and country-fried pride runs deep.


But what the pundits don't realize is that Jacksonville is really a stronger football town than Baltimore. It just is. Consider the way the 7-year-old squads of Pop Warner cheerleaders bopped on the sidelines of a Jaguar pep rally at the Gator Bowl Wednesday evening to the rap song, "Whoop There It Is." At the "Whoop" part, they lifted up their skirts to reveal the "WHOOP" word emblazoned on their behinds. You won't find that in Baltimore. You just won't.

Furthermore, life in the "First Coast" is surrounded by live oak trees, palmetto fields and sand dunes (when they haven't been mowed down for a Jiffy Lube or Winn Dixie). It is home to Lou Bono's world class hickory smoked barbecue and Cedar River Seafood. There is daily availability of smoked mullet, fried okra and boiled peanuts, and you can buy a drink "to go" at the local liquor store drive thru, ordered just like an apple pie at McDonald's.

The city is divided into four distinct areas: the Southside, Northside, Westside and Eastside. You are known by which bank of the St. John's River you live on. And the river is also a source of civic pride because it joins the Nile as one of the world's few rivers that flow north. The beaches are clean and often deserted. They used to be notorious in Florida because you could drive and park your car on the sand -- until one too many sunbathers was run over.

Most Jaxsonians pledge allegiances to one of the other Florida "pro" teams -- the Gators or the Seminoles (OK, maybe a few Bulldogs from nearby Jawja). There are very few Miami Hurricane fans around. It is the kind of endearing town where the owner of the Gator Bowl Inn, a small hotel with a watering hole that is an early version of a sports bar, sends a glittered spray of flowers to a funeral home in memory of a loyal customer.

When I read epithets from pundits in Charlotte under the headline, "Jacksonville, Roach Heaven," I know that columnists like the Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen have not left their redneck city long enough to truly visit my hometown.

Lighten up, guys. It's only a football game.


Melody Simmons is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.