Inner-City Song and Rhythm
THE sounds of a city are not the sounds of the suburbs.Skip to next paragraph
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I remember the first time I heard the sounds of a city. It was New York City, 1944, and I was 8 years old. My mother and father and I were in New York to see my brother receive his commission in the United States Navy. We stayed at the old Commodore Hotel and, all day and all night long, the sounds of the city rose off the pavement like heat shimmering on the horizon, poured into our hotel room. Horns. Sirens. An occasional shout.
You don't hear that much anymore, not even in New York. In 1992, buildings are air conditioned; windows are closed; sounds are muffled, distant.
But, if you've ever heard the sounds of a city, you don't forget.
Not long ago, I spent a week in the dead center of Jacksonville, Florida, where I have lived for 30 years, to get the feel of a neighborhood that's a perpetual battleground between people determined to save it and the neglect, inertia, poverty, crime that threaten to drag it under.
The neighborhood is Springfield. It is one of Jacksonville's oldest neighborhoods, and it's the largest neighborhood in Florida designated as a historic district by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Within its square mile there are 13 architectural styles: Bungalow, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Neoclassical Revival, Mediterranean Revival, Prairie, Eastlake, Collegiate Gothic, Carpenter Gothic, Mission, Egyptian Revival, Georgian Revival, and Second Empire.
It was developed around the turn of the century, began to decline in the 1940s, and plunged into serious decay in the '50s and '60s. Poverty dug in and made a nest for itself. Crime flourished. But Springfield has a stubborn beauty that won't let the city forget it and, about 15 years ago, efforts began to resurrect Springfield. Urban pioneers moved back to the neighborhood, attracted by the challenge and the handsome old houses that needed only careful tending to outshine just about anything the suburbs
had to offer. They refinished hardwood floors, stripped away decades of paint, rebuilt kitchens, installed modern plumbing, organized neighbors into mutual support groups, political activists, and anticrime patrols.
They also went at the business of winning converts to the Springfield cause like shipwrecked missionaries cast up on an island of heathens.
A year ago, some Springfield residents invited me to spend a week in their neighborhood, to help research a newspaper article.
I saw a city I never see in the neighborhood where I live. In my neighborhood, we live inside our houses with doors and windows closed, in our backyards, on our patios. We don't hear much of each other; we don't see much of each other. More often than not, we don't even know each other.
In Springfield, you can see the city, you can hear it, and you know your neighbors, good and bad.
I STEP out on my temporary front porch and I look and listen.
The fog drops across the streets and edges down the alleys like a thin theatrical curtain, a scrim. People step out of the fog as if they have stepped out of nowhere, cross a gauzy patch of thin, new daylight and disappear again, like characters crossing a stage. A school bus passes.
A mother jounces a baby stroller across uneven paving stones on the sidewalk. The baby is asleep, her head rolling with every jolt. The mother looks like she hasn't been to bed yet.
A limousine passes her, going the opposite way, windows tinted, no way to see in.
Three ragged men come out of an alley and disappear up a set of narrow stairs to an apartment above a grocery store across the street. Three big junkyard dogs penned on the second-story porch raise a ruckus, and a dog roaming a roof next door materializes out of the fog to investigate. Springfield dogs.
Cats and dogs proliferate in Springfield. People take them in, or just take up with them.
A woman walks a pit bull up the street. The two look invincible.