Inner-City Song and Rhythm

THE sounds of a city are not the sounds of the suburbs.

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.

It's foggy.

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.

Just down the street, I've met a woman who keeps eight Yorkies and a shotgun. That's her security system, a security system that depends on pure spit-in-your-eye gumption instead of electronics.

A man pushing his life along in a grocery cart, dragging a worn-out mutt behind him on a length of grimy, cotton rope, stops at a trash bin and digs around. Nothing. He and the dog roll on north.

From inside the house, I hear Jennifer out in the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans. She is fixing coffee, setting the dining room table, stirring up pancake batter, brushing white cats off the kitchen island, encouraging good behavior from a willing, albeit adolescent, Dalmatian.

She is preparing to feed breakfast to a neighborhood cleanup crew. Neighbors are getting together to mow and edge, to rake, to chop weeds and prune and bag up the trash.

It's in the heart of the city, but there are times when Springfield feels like a small town.

This is one of them.

Jennifer and her husband, Dwight, looked all over Jacksonville before they settled on the big, handsome, restored Victorian house in Springfield.

They moved to Springfield from a little town in Tennessee.

Their friend, Marcy, moved to Springfield because it reminded her of visiting her grandmother in New York City.

She said she learned to live with all kinds of people there, to see the excitement, to listen to the elevated train, the sound of the Good Humor man, the sound of people in the streets.

"When I found Springfield, I was looking for that sense of home that we often don't find in the suburbs."

Their friend, Sandy, is a writer who has lived in Springfield for three years, maybe four. She says she can remember the way she moved to Springfield, not the year.

"In Springfield, you are exposed day by day to the most rugged honesty, to the most stark truth every single day of your life. Living here does not allow you to have the same rationalizations that people in other neighborhoods do, that people in their quiet neighborhoods do," she says. "As you're forced to deal with truth because you see it all day long, you've also got to deal with the truth inside of you and that changes you."

A TALL, soft-spoken black man says that sometimes the prostitutes and drug dealers approach him. He tells them no, and he tells them about Jesus. Preacher, they call him then, and they ask him to pray for them.

"I always do, I promise them that," he says.

People pour a second cup of coffee, carry it out to the sidewalk, talk awhile, and then trade empty cups for rakes, clippers, hoes.

The sun burns off the fog.

Fruit man! Fruit man! An old pickup with a wooden superstructure knocked together over the bed and a scale swinging from a crossbeam cruises down the street, stops in the middle of the block cleanup.

Bananas, grapes, tangerines, pecans, cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes are for sale. He loads up his truck at the farmers' market at daylight and works until dark, cruising what he calls the lower neighborhoods.

"You get over around the fancy side of town, they ignore you. They won't come out of their houses. Lower-income people, now, they'll come out and buy. Most people are real friendly. People tell me I'm crazy to come down here and work. I don't think so. I put in long days and I don't make a whole lot of money, but I make a living," he says.

He sells some tangerines, some onions, some mustard greens, a bunch of bananas, another dozen tangerines to the block cleanup crew.

Someone slides a thumb under the skin of a big tangerine, flips the bright orange peelings onto the heap of clippings piled up in a morning of work, and shares sweet plugs of tangerine all around.

Fruit man! Fruit man!

The call drifts back from the next block.

The sounds of the city.

The sounds of the city are not the sounds of the suburbs.

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