Overall, I think we can agree that 2018 has been a rough year. The country seems more divided than ever. Political machinations dominate the news cycle. Even some family Thanksgiving gatherings were probably one compliment-disguised-as-an-insult-away from imploding. In a year where talking heads continue to try and tell us who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s nice to see an event where the sole purpose is to bring people together to talk about our differences, but not on how those differences divide us, but how they can strengthen us. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than over a delicious meal.
For the third year now, the City of Jacksonville and the Jax Chamber of Commerce has hosted “Jacksonville’s Longest Table,” an outdoor dinner event stretching from Main St, just in front of The Landing down Independent Drive to Newnan St, almost in front of the Hyatt Regency. Jacksonville’s Longest Table took place the last Thursday of November. It’s an event meant to bring people together from all parts of Jacksonville and from all sorts of backgrounds to share a meal and get to know each other.
Here’s how it worked:
The city was set up in four regions: North, South, East, West, and Beaches, with the corresponding zip codes set up in each region. About a month before the event, the Jax Chamber allotted a certain number of tickets to be made available to each region. They also made the tickets free of charge. This was the best part of the experience. To truly get to know other people in different parts of the city, the barrier of entry has to be accessible to everyone. Having the tickets at no cost accomplishes that goal. Once at the event, regions were color coded, and then assigned seats by color. Even if you arrived as a group, you were separated in an effort to meet new people.
I sat towards the end and looking to the left; I couldn’t see the other end of the table. It was also a bit chilly that night, so portable heaters lined both sides of the table all the way down Independent Dr. Once the sun set, the glow of the heaters gave a warm reddish-orange hue to the white tables.
As we waited for dinner to be served, there were some questions written on the table and in our program to initiate conversation:
- What is one word you would use to describe how you feel about your community?
- If you could change one thing about Jacksonville, what would it be?
- Do you think Jacksonville is a welcoming city? Why or why not?
- To me, sustainability is _______?
- What divides us and how can we change it?
- Can you think of a time you caught yourself judging someone by their appearance?
- What do you love about your community?
- What does an ideal community look like to you?
Some heady stuff, to be sure, and things that are important to bridge the gaps that can divide us. Admittedly, the group of about six or so people within earshot of my voice skipped some of these questions for the most part and let our conversation grow organically. It started with the normal name and occupation questions. And since most residents of Jacksonville are transplants, it led to questions of “what brought you here.” For some it was jobs, for others, family. Others were looking for a new beginning or start of a new chapter in their lives. The woman sitting to the left of me mentioned she and her husband moved to Jax in 1995, which caused the woman sitting across from me to mention, “Oh, I was born in 1995!” which made the rest of us chuckle and made me think, “Where have the years gone?” But that’s what was great about this dinner. People from all walks of life, from parts of Jacksonville I may not have a reason to drive through, were connecting, networking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company over a shared meal.
You may notice I haven’t talked about the food much. It really wasn’t the point of the event. The food was fantastic, of course, particularly the potato salad from Mr. Potato Spread and the grilled sirloin steak and lamb from Fogo de Chao. Food wasn’t the focus, but merely the conduit of conversation. It allowed us to find common ground to expand on other things; to expand a mutual love of mid-rare steak and transitioning the conversation to how we can better support local business, which then expounds to local neighborhoods, and so on.
In a time where people can hide behind internet anonymity and keyboards and spew flames to all corners of the internet, it’s nice to know a city as large as Jacksonville is attempting to close those divides and gather people together in the name of community, connectedness, and Churrasco.