Director of Events and Programming,
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning
The arts have always played an essential role in your life; as a child growing up, and still today in your roles of parent and advocate. Tell us a bit of your backstory.
I grew up in a home where music, art and literature were a central focus. My mother was a writer, artist and musician who sang and played guitar in clubs in Atlanta when I was small. My father was a record collector and I have his Dave Brubeck, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Simon and Garfunkel albums in my vinyl collection today. I studied piano, sang in choral groups, performed in community theater, and worked in a variety of visual arts media through high school. Family circumstances led to me moving out and becoming financially independent at sixteen. I had planned to study architecture in college, but instead ended up working in banking in Savannah. There, I became involved in historic preservation and had some interesting experiences related to the earliest days of the Savannah College of Art and Design. My time in Savannah definitely set the stage for later work as an arts advocate. I moved to Jacksonville and attended law school at UF. My then husband was a working musician: I managed his band, and opened Blue Moon Music, a guitar shop and music school in Five Points. I started collecting pieces by local artists including Lee Harvey, Jay Shoots, Thomas Hager and Laurie Coppedge. My four children started music lessons when they were very young; all have some interest and experience in visual art and theater. Three attended LaVilla School of the Arts and two are Douglas Anderson grads.
In 2010, you purchased a house in Springfield. This was long before you became a spokesperson for the neighborhood. Give us a glimpse into the journey from practicing attorney to director of SPAR.
I moved to Springfield primarily for financial reasons, not because I felt any calling to become a community organizer. The neighborhood always interested me. When I came to Jacksonville in the late ‘80s it was full of abandoned architectural gems that you could buy for $5,000. Seductive, but scary, and I wasn’t brave enough to be an urban pioneer. Two decades later I found a fully restored house in Springfield that could double as my law office and cost less than one third of the price of my San Marco home. Friends warned me about the dangers of urban living and advised me to buy a gun. I quickly found that their fears were unfounded: within a month I knew more Springfield neighbors than I had known after five years in San Marco and felt safer and more comfortable than anywhere I lived before. I soon joined the Urban Core CPAC, helped create the Springfield disc golf course, and fell in love with the potential of Klutho Park. My future in community development was cemented when I chaired the steering committee for Groundwork Jacksonville. That experience, and work with JCCI, taught me that making a difference meant more than financial success. PorchFest was the final straw for my legal career — that event led to my becoming executive director of SPAR. That job started in 2014 as a ten hour per week part-time position and ended with me spending about eighty hours a week on Springfield.
The idea to bring a PorchFest style event to Springfield initially came about because you had a passion for your neighborhood and you were tired of hearing people talk about it as if it weren’t a safe place. Today, four annual PorchFests later, do you think you’ve successfully shifted people’s perceptions of the area as a result?
First, the VERY hard work of those urban pioneers who came to Springfield when I was still afraid to invest in the neighborhood is what started shifting both the reality and perceptions of the historic district. However, in 2014 Springfield was definitely still viewed as “less than” San Marco and Riverside/Avondale by many — less safe, less desirable. Springfield certainly had some unique challenges, but it also had its own unique charm. We needed to spread the word about all of the good things in Springfield. Springfield has the best collection of porches in Jacksonville, and residents love to welcome guests to their porches. PorchFest — which was based on a model created in Ithaca, New York — was the perfect way to showcase Springfield. Tens of thousands of people have visited Springfield because of PorchFest; Springfield has received tremendous positive media attention because of PorchFest; many families have moved to Springfield after spending a day at PorchFest and businesses have opened or prospered because of PorchFest. And Springfield is now frequently cited as an example of how a place can be transformed by art and culture and as critical to the future vitality of downtown Jacksonville. So yes, I would say that it has been a success.