By Elysse DaVega
It’s a small block party on the corner of West King and South Leonard. In the crowded parking lot, the band is cranking out “Love Her Madly” by The Doors, food trucks are serving up hot meals and children are racing each other on their brand-new donated bikes.
After the countdown at 5:44 p.m., the street flares up in twinkling string lights. The crowd cheers and West King glows with excitement.
It’s the first year that the area is participating in Nights of Lights, the two month-long festival during which St. Augustine drapes its businesses, residences and its trees in over three million white Christmas lights.
Well, not all of St. Augustine — just downtown.
“We don’t get that same extravaganza that downtown does,” said Tyrone Bennett, organizer and fundraiser for the light-up event. “It’s never made any sense to me as a person living in West Augustine.”
Bennett moved to West Augustine in 2019, and he says that one of the first things he noticed was that the neighborhood isn’t included in one of the city’s most lucrative seasons of the year.
He approached the St. Augustine city commission during its Aug. 9 meeting to propose a festival in West King during Nights of Lights, aiming to bring more foot traffic to the area and its small businesses. He asked for support in hosting a large-scale celebration that would cost $50,000, but was denied.
“They said it ‘wasn’t in their budget’,” Bennett said, making air quotes.
Bennett was also told that it was too late to coordinate it with the city.
“August to November is a long window. If they had written the check, we could’ve been having a big festival tonight,” Bennett said in an interview on Nov. 20, the day that downtown St. Augustine inaugurated Nights of Lights. Due to financial delays, West King wasn’t able to do so until Dec. 4.
Mayor Tracy Upchurch says that even though the city is not a sponsor of West King’s Nights of Lights celebration this year, they’ve still lit the water facilities on the corner of West King and Palmar Streets.
“There is an expense involved in that,” Upchurch said. “This is the first time we’ve illuminated these buildings.”
Bennett says the city can do more.
Lacking financial support, the New York native decided to take a community-based fundraising approach. He partnered with Casey Carcaba of The Cheese Wheel and Carcaba’s Electrical Services to fundraise $8,000 from local businesses.
The money funded over 3,000 string lights, a local band, and tents for local businesses and organizations to set up.
“We almost didn’t do it, but I kept pushing,” Bennett said. “We can’t promise these people something and then just fall back. That just confirms what they’ve been believing all these years.”
The belief Bennett’s referring to is the fact that over the years, West King hasn’t received as much direct attention and care as the east side of St. Augustine, including historic downtown and Anastasia Island.
West King still partially operates on the septic system, which the city has been gradually working to phase out. The area doesn’t have nearly as many street lights as the rest of the city and its streets and sidewalks aren’t cleaned as often.
“It’s always been a neglected part of town,” Carcaba said. “The city focuses on where the money’s at and the money’s around San Marcos, [east] King, Cordova, everything downtown… they just keep pumping into that and neglect the rest.”
Local businesses are one of the main drivers of St. Augustine’s tourism. As an owner of two, Carcaba says that this neglect affects businesses’ ability to thrive.
“Since [West King] doesn’t get that foot traffic, you get businesses that last five or six months and then another one comes in.”
West Augustine is one of the poorest areas of St. Johns County. Meanwhile, the county has the highest median household income in all of Florida.
Bennett feels that by not promoting tourism in the area, the city is attempting to “hide” West King’s high poverty rate.
“[They’re saying] ‘We don’t want anybody coming for tourism to see that we have poverty and that we have these problems.’ That’s why there’s no tours that go that way, even though there’s historical landmarks that tour buses should go up for,” Bennett said.
He believes that some city leadership wants to embrace West King at heart. He described City Manager John Regan as very “pro-West King,” having reached out to the community before. But, he says, Regan is just one person.
West King’s quality of life would improve if the city would invest in its infrastructure and beautification, he adds — more street lights, benches, trees and bushes. Next year’s Nights of Lights celebration could even be an incentive for these investments.
Bennett emphasized, however, that if West King participates again next year, he wants it to be a collaborative effort, not separate from the city’s general festival.
“It shouldn’t have to be separate. 32084 covers all areas. If Nights of Lights starts on the 20th of November, it should start on the 20th of November for everybody.”
West King’s Nights of Lights festival will end on Jan. 25.
“We did this with $8,000,” Bennett said. “Imagine it with the power of the city and the county behind it.”