Leaving home for the first time — it’s most often when a person goes off to college, gets married or makes a major life change. My new life began as the old one ended. Not with a bang but with a whimper, as they say. I had simply aged out of my community at the Beach. I began to venture out into my new city and loved the rush, pace and animation of the crowd of various people bestirring themselves from one point to another. I knew I had to be here. Finding the calm in the park within the bustling streets sparked such a yearning in me, I simply could not ignore it. Everyone back at my beach areas asked me if I’d miss the ocean, the ease, the blasé loitering around which our lives revolved. I didn’t bother answering that I was a mere 30 minutes away; rather, I simply said, “I’ll find out.”

What I have come to find out is that Riverside/Avondale and the Beaches are like parallel universes. There are similarities that I’m pleased to say surprised me. In Riverside, there are coffee shops, bookstores, cafes — much like at the Beaches. They just happened to be owned and or operated by people with serious tattoos and vibrant blue hair. Obviously, the big selling point of the Beaches is the ocean, where people spend their time chasing the daylight and catching the surf. In my new digs, we have the river. People are throwing Frisbees, trailing kites and playing chess on park benches. I admire the way everyone seemed to be eager to invite strangers into the games and onto the fields. Doesn’t feel that way on the sandy beaches anymore.

I feel that now, more than any other time in my life; I need to be a part of something big, to contribute to the place that I now call home. After all, when you’re in the heart of the city, you should hear its beat. I found myself searching the papers and circling any event where I believed I could further my knowledge of the community. What I came to realize is that this knowledge led me to meet the people who make up the heartbeat of our city, the vibrant ones who pulse along in its adventure of becoming a more culturally advanced community: the One Sparkers, the Captivators, the Artwalkers and the CoRkers. And I fell in love with them. To be welcomed in with open arms made me stop and really contemplate the significance of each individual who has made a difference in our community. In those moments, I knew that I, too, could be one of them. In the last 2 years my life has evolved from being an observer to not just a do-er but a motivator. I look back at my life at the Beach and wish I had the drive then to do what I do now- but there. Forcing change and seeking recognition as a way of promotion for my surroundings. I know it’s happening with many local efforts by the community at large and I look forward to seeing its progression.

Before I came to the downtown Jacksonville area, I never really gave strangers a second thought. Anyone who happened to look a little different from my friends and me wasn’t given a second glance or opportunity to be among us. Now I can honestly and humbly say that my justification for not branching out has been proved very wrong. And I could not be happier. “Crossing the Ditch” turned out to be the best decision I have ever made. I know the preconceived notions keep would-be urbanites away. I was one of ‘those people’ recognizing only in name the places I dare not travel. Until I did. And boy-was I wrong. While still aware of my surroundings and not laughing in the face of any danger, I venture out every day with a sense of adventure and curiosity. Can I spare an hour? If so I am out in the core just to see what I can see….to witness the evolution of what I know will be a great city of the South once again.

My advocacy for Jacksonville’s downtown began right after I moved to Riverside. I was living alone in a tiny apartment and had enough to get by but was by no means drinking champagne on a beer budget. My friend in the city invited me to gallery reception (free to the public) at various spots around the core. I went for the free food and wine and it became a normal weekly event for us. Soon, we started to recognize and in turn become recognized by the active folks banning together to promote change and progress. We were invited to more private functions and low and behold by simply going to these events and understanding the inner workings of our neighborhood our opinions mattered. Who know two poor girls in Riverside going for free cheese and wine would end up being valued advocates? Never underestimate the power of cheese.

Now my days are filled with free flowing information about all people working hard to make our city everything it can be. I never thought little ole me would be one of them. Crossing the ditch was scary but without a little fear of the unknown what is there to keep you inspired? To fulfill your craving to run and be uniquely you? For me it is constant change, something Jacksonville is doing so much of- and something I am now happily a part of.