10 Attractions Downtown Jacksonville Should Have

Downtown Jacksonville is loaded with potential, and there are plenty of opportunities for new attractions that make the most of our unique culture and history. From fresh seafood markets to a Southern rock museum, here are 10 ideas for attractions that could and should open in Downtown Jax.

1: Fresh seafood market

A seafood market in San Francisco.

First Coast seafood is some of the best around, and Jaxsons deserve a place on their downtown waterfront where they can get it fresh and local. Sadly, Northeast Florida’s commercial shrimping and fishing industry needs a hand up. The region’s primary commercial center in Mayport Village has declined over the last several decades due to economic changes and the demolition of many docks and facilities for redevelopment projects that never panned out. While the city’s priority is - and should be - restoring Mayport to its rightful position as the epicenter of fishing in Northeast Florida, Downtown could play a role in the resurgence as well.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Until 1956, Jaxsons flocked to Downtown’s City Market and the many surrounding businesses to buy fresh catch straight off the boat, before the structure was demolished for a particularly scenic surface parking lot, which still remains today. Today, folks downtown have to venture out into seafood markets or periodic farmers market stalls in surrounding neighborhoods to get local seafood. A seafood market along with restaurant and bar space would help bring back a bit of our lost authentic food culture. Thinking even bigger, the site could include docks for boats to offload (some commercial shrimping is allowed in the St. Johns River itself), providing a second place for our recovering fleet to sell to. The Jacksonville Landing (or whatever comes next) would be a perfect, central location for bringing back Downtown Jacksonville’s working waterfront.

2: Southern rock and local music museum

Downtown Jacksonville’s Southern rock-inspired street art by Karen Kurycki.

Among the many things Jacksonville doesn’t give itself enough credit for is its vibrant musical legacy. The city is the birthplace of Southern rock, which began - or rather emanated down into our material plane from the sublime realm of the music gods - when the members of the Allman Brothers, the earliest Southern rock band, united for their first ever jam at the Gray House in Riverside in 1969. Lynyrd Skynyrd, an equally important band and the one often seen as the standard bearer of the genre, also came from Jacksonville’s Westside. Other hitmakers from the traditional Southern rock period of the 1970s like .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, and Blackfoot, as well as more recent musicians carrying on the legacy like the Tedeschi Trucks Band and JJ Grey and Mofro, also have Jacksonville roots.

Fortunately, Jacksonville’s history as the epicenter of Southern rock is starting to gain more recognition, both inside and outside the city. Southern rock and Jacksonville will be the subject of a forthcoming PBS miniseries, which will feature The Jaxson’s own Ennis Davis. As such, Jacksonville is the only worthy location for a museum celebrating the wide-ranging legacy of this genre - and it wouldn’t have to stop there. A museum could commemorate all of Jacksonville’s robust musical history, which stretches from the time of the early blues and ragtime in LaVilla to today. A museum combined with a performance venue, bar and gift shop could easily turn into an attraction. There are a number of great locations for such a place in downtown Jacksonville, either as an independent museum or a wing of another. It would be nice to have another attraction in the Laura-Hogan Street corridor - the old Snyder Memorial Methodist Church springs to mind - where it would benefit from proximity to complementing amenities like MOCA Jacksonville and the Main Library. Another option would be the Duval County Armory building, a former concert venue where the Allman Brothers and many other bands played.

3: River dolphin tours

Image courtesy of WJCT.

Who wants to see dolphins? Literally everyone. Fortunately for Jaxsons, you can see them any time: the St. Johns River is home to around 300 bottlebose dolphins. In fact, studies by the University of North Florida dolphin research program have found that about 150 of these dolphins are permanent, year-round residents of the St. Johns - that’s right, we have our own river dolphins. UNF researchers track our aquatic neighbors week to week, and have discovered that they range from Mayport upriver for 25 miles, including Downtown Jacksonville. Ecotourism, including whale, dolphin, and seal watching, is a growing business in many places (several companies offer tours across the First Coast) and Jacksonville’s river would offer a unique setting for seeing not only dolphins but many other interesting species and sites. The Jacksonville Landing, or whatever replaces it, would be the perfect place for embarking for a dolphin tour, and UNF’s research could be used to create an educational experience that doesn’t negatively affect the dolphins.

4: A restaurant celebrating the greatness of camel riders

Many cities have distinctive local dishes, and restaurants doing them justice are one of the best - no, objectively the best - ways to experience the local culture. These restaurants often become attractions of their own: in Philadelphia, there’s John’s Roast Pork and Tony Luke’s for Philly cheesesteaks; in Nashville, there’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack for, well, Nashville hot chicken; and in Rochester, there’s Nick Tahou’s, home of the garbage plate (it’s better than it sounds, or looks).

Jacksonville’s most distinctive food is the camel rider. A creation of Jacksonville’s large and vibrant Arab community, which dates back to the 1890s, the traditional camel rider includes cold cuts, sandwich fixings, and Italian dressing stuffed into a pita, often served with a cherry limeade and a side of tabouleh. Local Arab American-owned restaurants began serving camel riders in the 1960s, and these spots number in the dozens today. Rider variations like the steak in a sack, veggie rider and the shrimp rider can be found all across the city, and any self-respecting Jaxson should have a favorite spot to get one (the correct answer is Pinegrove Market and Deli).

You can get a decent rider for lunch Downtown, but unfortunately, no restaurants there serve them after work hours. This is a goddamn tragedy. It may need to wait until Downtown has a bit more nighttime foot traffic, but the next big downtown restaurant should be a late night cafe specializing in excellent riders, camel and otherwise. Seriously, restaurateurs, if you do this, The Jaxson staff will single handedly keep you in business.

5: Great Fire markers

The Great Fire memorial sculpture formerly on the Northbank Riverwalk.

This idea came from The Jaxson forums. Essentially, a pretty cool and inexpensive way to tell the story of the Great Fire of 1901, which destroyed most of Downtown and changed Jacksonville forever, would be a series of markers delineating the spread of the fire, noting things like what time the fire got to different areas, locations where notable developments happened, and commemorations for the victims. The Great Fire started in the primarily African-American neighborhood of LaVilla and spread east, destroying nearly all of the Downtown core. The Riverwalk formerly had a monument dedicated to the fire at the location where most of the victims were killed. When it’s brought back, it would be a great starting point for a cool, inclusive recounting of this historic tragedy.

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