The Way Home
In this season of holiday homecomings, we highlight the stories of four Northeast Floridians who left, only to come back
Other than St. Augustine, which exists on
a plane all by itself, the Northeast area has long been the ugly duckling of Florida's regions, a wallflower neglected in the shadows behind glamorous, multicultural South Florida; dazzling, animated Central Florida; and the bipolar Gulf Coast, which alternates among serenity, wildness and bureaucracy. The region's largest city, Jacksonville, is so overlooked that a few years ago, the best slogan the marketing geniuses could come up with was "Come to Jacksonville." As far as our sister regions (and more than a few of our local residents) are concerned, Northeast Florida may as well be — shudder — South Georgia.
While the rest of Florida has been stocking up on retirees and mouse ears, and Georgia has maintained its dominion over all things redneck, Jacksonville has cultivated an environment of innovation, entrepreneurship and opportunity, and become younger, richer and more metropolitan.
We are, by all metrics, headed in the right direction.
The winds of change that are blowing through the country have taken a circuitous route through and back to Jacksonville. Flocks of Generation Xers and Millennials who left here in search of, well, something else are finding their way back to an increasingly diverse region, a region that is growing up and changing along with them.
These are a few of their stories.
When Blythe Duckworth moved to Jacksonville for a fellowship with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in 2007, the Cincinnati native thought of Northeast Florida as a pit stop on her way to becoming an attorney. But, as she sat taking the LSAT with scores of other law school hopefuls a few years later, Duckworth had an epiphany: The bar wasn't for her. She put her pencil down, walked out of the room, joined the Peace Corps and never looked back.
"Those decisions don't come easily, but I have to follow my heart," she says.
A year later, in March 2010, Duckworth left Jacksonville to embark on a fulfilling, rewarding, frustrating and occasionally dangerous assignment in the Ukraine. "When I left, I never thought I would come back," she says.
During her 27 months working with a nonprofit to increase homelessness awareness and create a women's shelter, however, Duckworth began to appreciate what she'd left behind. She saw how living under tyranny and then chaos in the former Soviet state could change a culture's tone, conditioning people to be suspicious, resistant and fearful.
"It was a challenge because of our cultural perspectives," Duckworth says. "These [Ukrainian] women are survivors."
While in the Peace Corps, Duckworth also met and fell in love with Dennys Zayets, a Ukrainian and longtime resident of Italy. After her service ended, the couple spent 10 months in Italy before moving to Jacksonville earlier this year.
"I decided to come back to Jacksonville because this is where my network is," she says. In June, they were wed beneath the shade of the Treaty Oak on the Southbank.
Today, the versatile 28-year-old and her husband consider Jacksonville home. Duckworth has a consulting contract with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, helping the nonprofit develop a social media strategy. She can often be found sporting a Grace scarf by Rethreaded, drinking coffee at Riverside's Bold Bean or catching a movie with Zayets at Sun-Ray Cinema in 5 Points.
"Having been a foreigner for so long, I really value community — and that's what I have here," Duckworth says.
Ida Metzger is living her American dream in a city she has grown to love. The 41-year-old New Jersey native moved to Jacksonville in 2000 to be closer to her parents, who'd relocated here so her father could work for CSX. But soon she was off again, moving first to Tampa and then on to Lakeland with her then-husband.
"I left Jacksonville thinking I was going to have this married life," Metzger says. These things don't always work out the way we imagine, however.
Freshly single in 2008, Metzger met Daniel Day, a single father of a young daughter. Before the couple could start a life together, the economy collapsed and both lost their jobs. With her parents' help, they finally settled in Jacksonville.
Metzger completed her bachelor's degree as the economy hit bottom, then began the slow climb that continues today. As she and Day contemplated their next move, they started asking themselves, "Why are we working so hard for someone else?"
After attending their first Art Walk in 2010, the couple decided to meld her 20-plus years of retail experience with his knowledge of yoga and alternative lifestyle products. Their store, Diversions, was born.
What began as a table at Art Walk soon became space in Brenda Kato's gallery. When the gallery closed, Metzger, adrift again, found herself looking in the window of a shop at 201 N. Laura St. and getting a tingly feeling. In October 2012, the couple put everything they had into opening a storefront Downtown.
"It's been nice seeing the transformation," she says. "Downtown is not what you think it is." It's not just a place people come to work or for occasional events, she says. It's a community that includes full-time residents, as well as a solid core of shops, business and other attractions. And it's growing all the time.
Today, just over a year later, the store is thriving and the couple, now engaged, have become firmly entrenched Downtown. Beneath a sign that reads, "Stress is not the problem, it's the lack of recovery," local merchants and Downtown ambassadors often stop in for a chat, to pick up some Healer Tea or ask advice. Diversions isn't just their livelihood; it's their lifestyle.
Liz Murphy Thomas, a professor of web design at Florida State College at Jacksonville, grew up in Daytona Beach and attended the University of Florida before moving to Baltimore for grad school in 2001. It was there that Thomas began to appreciate what she'd left behind.
"I started to understand why people would get so excited when they would come on vacation to Florida — the friendliness, the landscape itself, just being near the ocean," says Thomas, 34.
Though she started planning her return almost immediately, it was several years, jobs and states before she found her way home. Finally, in August 2012, she and her husband, Damon, moved from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., to the Southside. Right away, the city welcomed them with open arms.
"Everyone was really friendly," she says. "I don't know if it's Floridians or what. It's almost like falling into friendships, much easier than in other places."
Last spring, Thomas — whose photography is featured in various collections, including the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach — was contacted by a museum in Poland to serve as the American curator of an exhibit on street art and street artists. The request brought to mind the artwork she'd recently seen at One Spark, in particular Yarn Bomb Jax.
"I contacted the group and they agreed to let me film, to do the curatorial piece," she says.
After a couple of meetings, she became less of an observer and more of an active participant. Today she's an officer with the group, whose work is on display through Dec. 31 at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens' second annual ZOOLights event.
When she's not teaching, knitting or photographing the Florida most tourists never see, Thomas and her husband are happily sampling the flavors of Jacksonville at area concerts, in the stands at Jaguars games or at Northeast Florida Veg Fest, First Coast Music
Fest and Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, where they have memberships.
"There's so many things, you can't do everything," she says. "It's the best problem ever."
"I remember the big deal was when Ponte Vedra got a McDonald's when I was in high school."
Jacksonville bears little resemblance to the town where Dr. Nitesh Paryani, 31, grew up. The Bolles School graduate attended Princeton University, then moved to Washington, D.C., where an unfulfilling job as a management consultant made him change direction. "I decided I was allergic to making money, so I went to med school instead," he says.
In 2010 Paryani, now a radiation oncologist, returned to complete his medical training at Mayo Clinic and found himself in a whole new city.
"When I left in 2001, the Town Center was an undeveloped plot of land," he says. "The idea of working for a bank or financial institution in Jacksonville didn't exist when I was a kid. I think that's great. We're becoming a place where there's more opportunity for young people."
In 2010, Paryani met Mara Cvejic, a pediatric neurologist. They'll marry in March.
"She was not expecting to [stay here] when she moved here from Wisconsin, but she's grown to like the place," he says.
Jacksonville offers more benefits for Paryani than being able to spend time with his parents, bike to the beach or go to Jags games. He is contributing to a family legacy begun in 1957 by his late grandfather, Dr. B.T. Paryani, a radiation oncologist who helped oversee the creation of the Edna & Charles Williams Cancer Center at Baptist Medical Center.
"I would say we're one of the best cities in the country for health care," he says. "We have the best of the best here." o