On Sunday afternoon, we broke out our very finest thrift-store Chuck Taylors and joined a couple hundred of Jacksonville’s beautiful and/or wealthy and/or powerful people, who had all shelled out $75 to be here ($25 more for a plus-one), at the groundbreaking ceremony for Unity Plaza, a Brooklyn mixed-use development anchored by the upscale 220 Riverside apartment complex set to open this summer. If all goes to plan, by November these apartments will be surrounded by six restaurants; a 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater; a 45-foot sculpture that will reflect the park’s two overarching themes, “transformation” and “benevolence,” as Unity Plaza’s infectiously exuberant executive director, Jen Jones, describes it; and an “open-air library” open to all segments of the community — all accessible through a bike share program and JTA street cars.
The idea is to make Unity Plaza a focal point for activity, and to connect Downtown to Riverside. The plaza, Jones says, will feature eccentric special events — e.g., sumo wrestling and sushi — along with concerts and “the nation’s largest literary festival,” and serve as a vehicle to overcome the city’s “inferiority complex.”
This project marks a first-of-its-kind-here public-private partnership between the city and developer Hallmark Partners. Early in Mayor Alvin Brown’s term, the city allocated $3 million toward the plaza (paired with Hallmark’s $38 million). It’s the kind of thing cities all over the country have been doing for years in the name of urban renewal, in many cases quite successfully.
Whether Unity Plaza will live up its promised revolutionary status — “This is the time and place for Jacksonville to present its truth; that truth is the light inside us,” Hallmark CEO Alex Coley said in his speech — is a question we’ll leave for another day. (As one perhaps-jaded attendee asided to us, “This is either gonna be great or the biggest flop this city has ever seen.”)
Leaving that aside, the ceremony (which, to its credit, did not feature the suited men shoveling dirt typical of these affairs) offered a cornucopia of weird — sometimes charmingly, other times not: There was the awkward yay-Jacksonville anthem Unity commissioned from gorgeous local duo Flagship Romance (“We’re a bold new city, it’s a brand new day”), which name-checked everything from Friendship Fountain to the Riverside Arts Market; the hippie-dippy descriptions on Unity’s marketing signs, which promised to “nourish the community consciousness to ignite the divine spark alive in each of our souls”; the drumming flash mob; the raw sweet potatoes and fake diamonds and pearls (or so the pawn shop told us) they gave us on the way out.
Those last items were all tied to Coley’s speech: The diamonds and pearls related to various religious parables, calling us to “activate the inner light within you.” The tubers had to do with an old story about researchers who air-dropped sweet potatoes on an island beach. The monkeys who lived in the jungle came out to collect the potatoes, but the older ones declined to eat them because they were covered in sand. One young monkey figured out how to wash them and showed it to her mother; this practice soon spread throughout the monkey community.
“You are the change agents,” Coley told us. “So help yourself to a sweet potato.”