Jacksonville, the River City, has in the St. Johns a blessing and a curse. The north-flowing river is a beautiful natural asset that ambles through the city and county, creating postcard-perfect views of Downtown and keeping the hot summer days at bay with an occasional breeze. But, the river also cuts the city in two and requires the building of bridges — five alone connecting the greater Downtown to other neighborhoods.
The need to cross the river, coupled with Jacksonville’s vast 850-square-mile size, would make it seem that auto ownership is mandatory. Thank goodness for options.
Jacksonville Transportation Authority has a city-wide bus system, and a trolley system Downtown and Riverside (and the Beaches on the weekend). My preferred method of getting into Downtown from Saint Nicholas, though, is the Skyway Express.
In its 20-year history, the Skyway has become a bit of a joke. Variously called the Homeless People Mover and Skyway to Nowhere, the elevated trains arrive every six minutes during off-peak hours at one of eight stops on the system.
I take the Skyway a few times each week and have discovered so much of it that is worthy of appreciation. When the train crosses Main Street on the Southbank, you have a great view of the skyline; starting from Kings Avenue Station, it’s the visitor’s first real sighting of the skyline and it’s breathtaking. For shutter bugs, the Skyway allows for safer photography while crossing the Acosta bridge — another great skyline view but from a different angle.
There’s something really cool about the way the Skyway line dips almost to ground level at the northern base of the Acosta before elevating again to make the run down Bay Street. It’s almost like riding a roller coaster. Small children understand this inherently, and can be counted on to raise their hands over their heads and cheer.
After Central Station, the line turns north onto Hogan and you’re in a valley of tall buildings while still elevated above the street. Tall buildings and skylines are so much a part of big cities, so riding through the “valley” reminds you that Jacksonville is a big city, just with a small-town heart.
Riding the Skyway reminds me of the light rail that carries passengers to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, or the bus from LaGuardia Airport to Spanish Harlem in New York City. What makes these trips memorable? Because you can see the landscape and cityscape. When you don’t have to drive, you can look out the window and take in the beauty of an area. You see things in a new way. You see things you otherwise miss, like the owl atop the Adams building.
Usually my trip ends at Hemming Plaza Station. There are times, more often than not, that I see shadows of Manhattan around Hemming Park. Leaving the Skyway station reminds me of Union Square, where I spent a bit of time in May. When you slow down and enjoy your walk, you can experience the monuments in a personal way. Walking South on Laura Street does it for me, too. There’s a spot, between The Magnificat and Chamblin’s Uptown, where the view of the Greenleaf & Crosby and Barnett Bank buildings catches the light and, my goodness, we are in a big city. The buildings are regal and stately and at times, it’s so beautiful I want to cry.
If you haven’t taken the Skyway in some time (or ever), I recommend. It’s 50 cents per ride and you pay at street level — so transfers, or even multiple rides across the river, require just one fare. Take a moment to enjoy crossing the river and surrender to the beauty of a sunset (or sunrise, if you’re an early bird).
Better yet, ride with a child. Children are fascinated by the Skyway. See the magic through their eyes.