Jacksonville and the Gator Bowl Experience
By Brandon Castel
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Across from our condo, on a small strip of mostly vacant storefronts, there is a little place called Pepe’s Hacienda. It is tucked back just far enough that the average passerby likely would not spot it from the main road.
That’s probably the way they like it.
Pepe’s is anything but the typical Americanized Mexican restaurant—likely because it has not been Americanized at all. It is half marketplace and half eatery where local Hispanics gather to watch anything from Spanish soap operas to American football dubbed in their own language.
The soft drinks are served in glass bottles and the food is as authentic as you will find on this side of the border (be sure to ask for the special habanero salsa). The market smelled of old Mexico, which I experienced first-hand on humanitarian trip to Culiacán a few years back.
On your way out the door, you can purchase “plenty hot” salsa, a pair of cowboy boots or your favorite piñata from the vast selection that hangs from the ceiling above.
It is truly a taste of Mexico just an hour up the road from where Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the first successful European-established city in St. Augustine back in 1565.
Home Away from Home
Despite the proximity, Jacksonville has a very different feel from St. Augustine, which was first explored by Juan Ponce de León while he was searching for the Fountain of Youth in 1513.
Unlike New Orleans or Los Angeles, Ohio State’s last two bowl trips, the city of Jacksonville has a very Midwestern feel—other than the weather and the beaches, of course.
It became a home away from home for many Ohio Sate fans, who welcomed the refuge it provided from the bitter cold winter weather that struck Ohio and much of the Midwest in the days after Christmas.
The early mornings were chilly, with the temperatures hovering around 40 degrees until the sun reached its peak in the sky around midday. The nights too were cold, even dropping below freezing temperatures after the start of the New Year, but it was hard to complain knowing what friends and family were dealing with back in Ohio.
The days were beautiful, a mix of sunshine and 60 degree weather for most of the week. The people were even more pleasant, which came as a bit of a surprise considering the economic downturn that has plagued the city of Jacksonville in recent years.
It wasn’t long ago that the city was a vibrant up-and-coming community—the perfect relocation destination for many Midwest families, including those in Columbus and the rest of Ohio. I can’t even begin to count the number of people we spoke to this week who had moved to Jacksonville from Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus and numerous other parts of the Buckeye state.
They were out in full force on game day, even if the actual game turnout was largely as disappointing as the game itself. They wore their Scarlet and Gray with pride, beaming at the mention of Urban Meyer, even as it drew scowls from irritated Florida fans, annoyed that their former coach took a job in Columbus less than a year after calling it quits in Gainesville.
A City in Need
Stationed between our condo and downtown Jacksonville stands a deteriorated hotel called the Gator Lodge. The yellow brick has faded and the parking lot was empty, save for a few cars likely belonging to employees. Neon signs flicker from just inside the building, and it’s hard to tell if it was once a flourishing inn or simply a sleazy motel because everything around it is equally as downtrodden.
Like every major city, there are good parts and bad parts of Jacksonville, which sits only 70 miles north of Florida’s campus. We did not see every part of the city and it’s surrounding area during our trip, but much of what we did see was saddening.
It is hard to tell that Jacksonville was once a place with so much promise. Much of the construction in and around the city has been halted by a crippling recession that effects millions of Americans across the country.
Vacant storefronts, abandoned buildings and boarded-up windows are the norm in many parts of the city. Certainly there are thriving areas pocketed throughout Jacksonville—including the Southwest side of town beneath Route 10—but they seemed to be surrounded by the kind of hurt and pain that has become all-too-common in today’s economy.
According to U.S News & World Report, Jacksonville was among the 10 places hit the hardest by the housing crises. It is also one of the most difficult cities in the country to find a job.
Even The Landing, Jacksonville’s renowned shopping area that sits on the bank of the beautiful St. Johns River that flows through downtown, seems like a tribute to the past.
A striking view from a distance, The Landing feels more like the county fair in a small town greatly in need of a facelift it simply cannot afford in today’s economy. It is anchored by places like Hooters, Chicago Pizza and a Mexican joint called Cinco de Mayo—good, but a far cry from the authenticity of Pepe’s.
As the poker chips raked across the table, the man in the green Gator Bowl jacket kept saying he was going to close the hospitality suite in 30 minutes. A half hour turned into an hour and eventually more than three hours of poker had gone by before he finally started to pack things up.
It was after midnight. The suite was supposed to be closed at 9 p.m., but that was the kind of hospitality we came to expect from Rick Thompson and the Gator Bowl, which exceeded most, if not all, of our expectations.
This story was starting to read like a disappointing voyage, especially after extraordinary trips to the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl the last two years. In many ways it was, at least for fans and players, who had to endure one last ugly performance by the Buckeyes before the 2011 season could finally, and mercifully, be laid to rest.
New Orleans was an exciting new experience for most of us who had never been there, and a welcomed return to Bourbon Street for those who had. Nothing can compare to the pageantry and feel of Pasadena—which truly is one of the great venues in all of sports—but there is no other place like New Orleans.
There is also nothing quite like a BCS bowl game, for the players and coaches, but also for the media members who travel across the country to spend a week covering the festivities that surround most major college bowl games.
While this year’s game was certainly a letdown; the trip was anything but. Hopefully you guys enjoyed the coverage from Jacksonville. We certainly enjoyed the trip. A big thanks to all the people we met, including Mr. Thompson and the Gator Bowl folks, the staff at Courtyards of San Jose and, of course, our compadres at Pepe’s.
Donate by Check :
1380 King Avenue
Columbus, Ohio 43212
Help us bring you more Buckeye coverage. Donate to the-Ozone.
Click here to email this the-Ozone feature to a friend...or even a foe.
(c) 2010 The O-Zone, O-Zone Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, rebroadcast,rewritten, or redistributed.