A crane lifts logs at the St. Regis paper mill in Jacksonville. Photo: Florida State Archives
This weekend my wife and I helped our older son pack up and move to Jacksonville. He’s starting a new job, occupying a new apartment, and driving a new (used) car.
It was a bittersweet trip. After we arrived, we heard about the Nazi who shot three Black people and then killed himself. In other words, it wasn’t a propitious time to move to the town everyone calls Jax, but it was too late to turn back.
On the way there, my wife was reminiscing about a visit she’d made back in the 1980s. The smell, she said, was horrible. The whole place reeked. Thank heavens those days were over.
I had forgotten about that. From the 1930s to the 1990s, a pair of paper mills, along with a handful of chemical plants, constantly blanketed parts of the city with their foul emissions. Kids growing up there used to joke that the horrible smell proved Jacksonville really was “the armpit of the universe.”
Although lots of people complained, nobody in charge wanted it to go away.
“Some of us say it smells like money,” a mayor named Hans Tanzler once joked, pointing out how many people were employed by the source of the stink. This was a popular sentiment among the ruling class in Jax. They claimed the smell was just the consequence of all those jobs, and you couldn’t have one without the other.
However, that money-making aroma also drove people away, according to Bill Delaney, a writer whose work frequently focuses on the history and culture of what’s known as Florida’s “First Coast.”
Promising youngsters would flee as soon as they were old enough to hit the road. Meanwhile, executives of potential new corporate citizens would stop off in town, take one whiff, and head for someplace that smelled cleaner.
The city acquired a national reputation for its repellent odor. One local official said the city bore “the stigma of a stinky town.”
Delaney, who grew up in Jacksonville as the son of a former mayor, said the stench always made him think of “fire and brimstone and the pits of hell.”
It wasn’t only that hellish smell that people disliked. The smoke billowing from those mills carried bad news for everyone’s health, too.
Yet for 60 years, people had to put up with it because someone made money from the status quo. And then, when certain factors fell into place, everything changed.
It’s not unlike what’s been happening these days with our stinky, pollution-fueled, toxic algae blooms, hazards to both our health and our tourist economy. A lot of us would love to see some limits on the pollution that fuels the blooms, but so far the state has let us down.
History often offers us clues from the past to solving our current problems, That’s why — in between preparing for Hurricane Idalia — I decided to find out how Jacksonville finally beat the stink.
It isn’t roses you smell
Jacksonville was once known by the rather bland name “Cow Ford.” It wound up adopting its current monicker to honor Andrew Jackson, Florida’s first territorial governor (and so far the only one to successfully ran for president).
Jacksonville was mocked regularly on the recent TV comedy “The Good Place.” The show depicted it as a lawless swamp occupied by clueless dopes who crash their Jet Skis into manatees and spray-paint flamingos. On the show, the Jax airport is named for Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the patron saint of Slim Jims.
Actually, an impressive bunch of people have called Jax home. Harriet Beecher Stowe moved down after the Civil War. It’s where James Weldon Johnson penned his most enduring poem. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, went to school there.
One of the most important events in the city’s history occurred in 1937. That’s when a Russian immigrant named Samuel Kipnis told the local chamber of commerce he planned to open the city’s first paper mill. He promised it would produce a $1 million payroll for local residents and purchase 100,000 tons of wood a year from the region’s tree farmers.
“When I become a citizen of Jacksonville, as I expect to in the near future, I will have the job of promoting goodwill for the National Container Corp. here,” Kipnis said.
He made no mention of what the smell would be like.
In 1953, a company called St. Regis opened a second paper mill a few miles north of National Container, and within a few years had expanded its operation along the St. Johns River.
Other chemical plants opened nearby, and they contributed to the nose-scorching stew, as did the city’s odiferous sewer plant, said Charles E. Closmann, who teaches environmental history at the University of North Florida.
The smell wasn’t the only objectionable thing coming out of the smokestacks, either.
In 1978, for instance, what people described as a “sticky yellow film” fell from the sky and settled on hundreds of new cars at a car dealership near the paper mills. It caused an estimated $200,000 in damage. Then, in 1980, it happened again. As a result, BMW of North America stopped shipping 15,000 cars each year through the Port of Jacksonville.
As the city grew, so did the number of complaints — as did the number of national headlines. A 1983 Associated Press story reported “It Isn’t Roses You Smell When in Jacksonville.” The story began, “In Jacksonville the problem is — well, the city stinks.”
On particularly bad days the awful odor wafted up to 30 miles inland. But most of the time, it didn’t affect the city’s wealthier enclaves, Delaney said, making it easy for the powers-that-be to ignore what was affecting the rest of the city.
“It was a legacy of the Jim Crow era,” he told me. “The poorer neighborhoods were always targeted for these kinds of things.”
In the early 1980s, a retired Navy pilot named Walter Honour became the chief of Duval County’s Bioenvironmental Services Department, and he tried to rein in the reek, Closmann said.
Political leaders didn’t like that. They “forced him out of office,” Closmann said. After his ouster, you could say the city was literally without Honour.
Jacksonville’s elected officials were so tied in with the local power structure that they wouldn’t rock the boat for some blue-collar concern, Closmann said. They clung to the foul aroma, despite the fact that it was so putrid even James Brown would have deemed it too funky.
They wouldn’t even take action after a 1982 study published by the American Cancer Society reported that, between 1970 and 1975, Duval County had the nation’s highest death rate from lung cancer.
But then, in 1985, came a pivotal moment for Jacksonville, Closmann said. One of the instigators was a fellow named Reagan.
No, not that one.
Why put up with that?
These days when television stations do what they call investigative reporting, it’s often some minor consumer protection issue that needs to be straightened out. But back in the post-Watergate era, local TV did some serious investigations.
In the 1980s, Harry Reagan was editorial director of Jacksonville’s WJXT-TV. He’s still around, so I called him up to ask how the station’s most famous investigative story got started.
“In the good old days of local journalism,” he said, “we would periodically look around and say, ‘I wonder why we continually have to put up with that?’”
That’s how the subject of the Big Stink came up.
“The people in Jacksonville had given up trying to get rid of it,” he recalled.
The documentary — portions of which aired nationally — featured some of the people suffering health problems from the foul emissions. One older resident told the TV audience that every time he breathed in the tainted air, “You can feel it going down in your lungs, and it’s just cutting, it seems, like, acid-like.”
The documentary also showed the scientists’ findings about the lung cancer rates and the cavalier attitude of city and corporate officials who ignored those impacts.
One interview featured a woman who had tried complaining about the smell to city officials. She said a strange man had approached her to warn that if she kept causing trouble, “something’s going to happen to you.”
From time to time, Closmann said, he has shown the old documentary in his UNF classes. The students start off making fun of the ’80s fashions and hair — a target-rich environment for mockery, as anyone who’s seen the band Flock of Seagulls could attest.
But soon his students would get caught up in the story about a real-life battle between good and evil, he told me.
“It was incredibly dramatic,” the professor said. “It was so well done.”
The fed-up public, the scientific research showing the human health effects, and the hard-hitting media reports set the stage for finally vanquishing the Bad Air Monster. But one more factor had to be filled.
The sweet smell of success
In the world of fiction, whenever some evil is afoot, a champion arises to fight for what’s right. The ever-popular Knight in Shining Armor trope dates to Medieval times (the actual era, not the Orlando restaurant) and continues today through “The Equalizer 3.”
The champion who arose to battle for clean air for Jax was one of the most unlikely to do so.
His name was Tommy Hazouri. He was an Arab-American glad-hander with an acerbic wit. He wore a toupee that couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d adopted a raccoon and let it ride on his head. When a political opponent threatened to rip it off him, he quipped that she was “the queen of mean.”
In 1987, Hazouri ran for mayor, promising to battle the people he called “the fat cats” and swap the city’s notorious stink for the sweet smell of success.
“If there’s one issue that transcends this city, rich and poor, black and white, it’s the odor issue,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “Odor is the only issue keeping us from being a world-class city,”
His was no empty campaign promise, either.
In his first eight months as mayor, Hazouri demoted the city’s ineffective pollution control chief, hired eight more employees to respond to odor complaints, pumped up his legal staff to take polluters to court and formed a sort of “stink strike force” with the state attorney.
At his prodding, the city council passed a tough new anti-odor law. The law spelled out that if five people in five households complained of a smell and an inspector could track down the source, the city could fine the offender. The penalty: up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, with civil penalties up to $10,000.
Paper mill managers complained Hazouri was unfairly singling out their industry.
“You get a bunch of people together and the place will smell with or without a pulp mill,” one told the Sentinel.
The polluters fought back in court. They said the city’s ordinance was so vague it was unconstitutional. They lost and had to clean up their act or face hefty fines.
Of course, filling the role of the champion has its drawbacks, as Luke Skywalker could tell you. The Empire usually strikes back.
In Hazouri’s case, the fat cats ensured he served only a single term as mayor. (He later won races for the school board and for city council.)
But the changes he made stuck for one simple reason, Delaney said.
“Nobody,” he said, “wanted to be the mayor who brought the stink back.”
Look for the raccoon
Some of the factors that spelled success in Jax are harder to find these days. For instance, Reagan told me that the TV reporting he sees now doesn’t really compare to what his crew was able to do in the low-tech ’80s.
“There’s just not as much good local journalism anymore,” he said.
That’s partly because the money for local newspapers and broadcast outlets has been cut waaaaay back, and there are far fewer reporters now than there used to be.
Science has taken a beating too, whether the subject is the safety of vaccines or the reality of climate change (at least we still pay attention to their hurricane predictions). Scientists aren’t the trusted figures they used to be, thanks to unscrupulous politicians who don’t want the voters listening to anyone who might point out their failings.
Meanwhile the public in Florida has been distracted by ridiculous culture war issues so they won’t notice the environmental damage done.
Nevertheless, three of the four factors are already present for dealing with our toxic algae blooms.
We’ve got scientific evidence of harm to humans as well as to marine life. There’s been plenty of hard-hitting news coverage. And you better believe the public is growing fed up with the smell, the dead fish and the repeated health warnings.
So far, what we lack is a champion.
Gov. Ron “How Soon Can I Get Back to Iowa?” DeSantis seemed to fill that role in 2019. He appointed a panel of scientists to tell him how to obliterate the blooms. But then he all but ignored their recommendations, perhaps because they would have inconvenienced his campaign donors.
Maybe, once he’s finally done playing presidential candidate, he’ll come back to Florida ready to tackle this substantive issue again. We’ll know for sure if he shows up in Tallahassee wearing a raccoon on his head.
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