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The Decline and Fall of the Jacksonville Downtown

August 6, 2006: A few hours earlier today I had the pleasure of sitting in the basement of the Park Place building on Hemming Park with Ennis Davis (the inimitable Lakelander of MetroJacksonville.com fame) comparing older photos of Downtown Jacksonville with largely depressing contemporary aerial shots.

Published August 31, 2006 in Urban Issues      26 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


feature

Looking at the black and white historical photos, one is struck by the tragic barrenness of a mortally wounded heritage and the almost nuclear annihilation of Jacksonville's undeniably interesting history, and the raw feeling of holes and gaps left along the city blocks as though some uncontrolled giant thunderlizard had stomped all the buildings flat in a terrifying and berzerk rampage.

Suddenly it came to me that in a very real way we were pawing over the faded images of a city that has been blasted, broken, burned, and all but leveled by 6 decades of graft, corruption, incompetence, and unbelievable numbskullery.

Over the past few weeks, in the process of curiosity driven research, I have uncovered a numbing history of the hamstringing and strangulation of our once fair center metropolis by a steady welcoming line of unintentional butchers: First, the municipal busybodies. Then, hot on their heels, two generations of merchants and politicians united in greed and corruption, and then finally by a long but fatal convalescence in the care of the professional resuscitators and consultants who sucked the marrow out of its bones before cauterizing all the patients vulnerable parts.

Today, in a downtown that once boasted thousands of businesses, hundreds of shops, dozens of large stores, a laundry list of all the major department stores that ever imposed their cachet over the cityscapes of mid-century America, 8 major theatres, thousands of gracious homes and the base of government and financial power that served as a powerful draw for this entire part of the country, we are reduced sadly to a small rag tag band of shops and survivors living off the crumbs tossed to us by the junior clerks and middle management suit wearers who serve at the behest of an increasingly decentralized civil service.

How did this happen, the casual observer might ask.

The casual observer, depending on their temperament, would be either horrified or amused to find out that our immolation was self imposed.

We destroyed it ourselves.

Time lapse photography of our city center would show a strange and compelling reverse miracle. Beginning in 1979 and continuing to the present day, one would be treated to the spectacle of a city full of people systematically evacuating and then destroying all of the buildings, razing 60 percent of them down to the scraped earth with no motivation, and with no visible driving force.

Observe the following shots, taken from the same position. The first in the 1950s, and then the second photo snapped present day from the same location.

Main & Bay - 1950's

Same intersection - 08/28/06

 

Forysth at Laura Street - 1950's

Same intersection - 08/28/06


Before

After

Before

After

Devastating isn't it?

What would cause and entire culture of people to suddenly self destruct and raze their own city?

The answers (for there are several) are surprising.

The History of Urban "Revitalization" in Jacksonville Florida.
by Stephen Dare.






26 Comments

Jason

August 31, 2006, 08:28:54 AM
Please stop this torture!


Lets all make sure to elect those that are against the continued rape of what's left of downtown's history.

JohnnyRox

August 31, 2006, 01:03:33 PM
I knew Jax was a step behind, but seeing that we were elbow to elbow w/ so many other cities in the 50's and where we are now... Ouch! We took a huge step back... Sad stuff.

Jim Crooks

September 15, 2006, 08:20:51 PM
Having researched Jacksonville's downtown over the past 40 years in my book, Jacksonville, the Consolidation Story from Civil Rights to the Jaguars (University Press of Florida, 2004), I partially agree with Steve Dare in what has happened downtown, but also largely disagree about the causes. To my mind, the politicians are much less to blame than the average Jacksonville resident, who equipped with an automobile, deserted downtown for the suburbs to live and began shopping at the regional malls. In the 1960s, downtown was still the hub of the metro area with hotels, restaurants, theaters and department stores. All of the department stores moved to the malls and closed downtown. People who worked downtown went home and then to the malls and suburban theaters and restaurants, leaving downtown desolate. There was a racial component to the deteriorating of downtown as white shoppers preferred the mall shops to the stores where blacks also could shop. But most important was the suburban sprawl after WWII which came to a head here in the 1960s. This was a phenomonon through out urban America, and Jacksonville was part of the mix.

mtraininjax

January 14, 2007, 05:08:20 PM
These same people tore down the Sears on the Bay Street, they tore down the old Post office on Forsyth Street, they also built the old Main Public Library on top of what used to be the County Courthouse. These are the same knuckleheads that would have torn down the Main Public Library, if given a chance. Instead they were able to destroy the Rhodes Building and build a new library.

Every blacktop parking lot used to be something else, something bigger and grander, but alas, these buildings lost their spirit too and if the developers take control of downtown, we won't recognize it soon enough as well.

stephendare

June 24, 2007, 10:41:40 AM
and now even more demolitions are on the way

stephendare

April 22, 2008, 11:31:27 AM
Whats been demolished since we published these photos?

EP

April 22, 2008, 12:23:04 PM
I believe it happened because rational people trade off housing costs and transportation costs when selecting where to live.  In Jacksonville, during the days of cheap oil, it was inexpensive to get a piece of property in the suburbs and commute to downtown for work.  Unfortunately, the jobs followed people into the suburbs and we now have the Southside and other employment centers that are not in the downtown core.  All of this disinvestment really took a toll on the existing building stock.  New construction is cheaper and less risky than rehab, and politicians must be thinking that demolition will bring vibrancy to our downtown core faster.  I disagree, as I feel that we are in danger of losing the character that makes Jax unique.

stephendare

April 22, 2008, 01:27:31 PM
you are totally right EP.  What did you think of the photo comparisons in the story?

gatorback

April 22, 2008, 02:52:19 PM
I see they solved the parking problem. 

EP

April 22, 2008, 05:03:48 PM
you are totally right EP.  What did you think of the photo comparisons in the story?

The photo comparisons made me sick.  You can see the progression of cars becoming more important that humans.  Its starts with the destruction of retail and office space to make room for parking garages and surface lots.  To get more cars into the city as fast as possible, because all of the employees live outside of it, freeways are built that completely ruin the urban fabric.  Look at all of that spaghetti coming off of the Main St. bridge.  When did it become necessary to have 8 exits off of one bridge?  It looks like a broom. 

stephendare

May 12, 2008, 10:58:27 AM
I see they solved the parking problem. 

Yeah, they totally did that, gator....lol.

There is a further article about the partitioning and strangling of the downtown on the site today.

http://www.metrojacksonville.com/forum/index.php/topic,2236.msg21723/topicseen.html#new

as well as a thread about the conclusions that cities are coming to nearly 50 years after installing parking meters

http://www.metrojacksonville.com/forum/index.php/topic,2237.msg21730/topicseen.html#new

strider

May 12, 2008, 05:13:06 PM
My sister owns a "historic building" in Norwalk, Ohio.  When applying for help to restore the building, she was told that the cost of restoring the facade was too great and so it would not be done.  Basically, she was told the previous owners had too much money to spend and kept the building well maintained and updated.  Today, those updates are simply not the "in" fashion.  What this illustrates is simply this:  A reasonably prosperous downtown means that many of the older historic buildings either have been updated and have lost their unique character or they have been replaced.  While many have grumbled about how much has been lost in the above pictures, has anyone noticed the good?  Like the old, commercial waterfront - would you still prefer that to what we have today?   Just stop and look at our city at night sometime - best seen from the water.  It is one of the best looking night cityscapes I have seen in this country.

With progress, and that was part of what happened to downtown, simply progress, also comes both good and bad.  How many of us love the "new" city hall?  Great, historic building.  It wasn't always there, you know.  At some point, just about each and every "historic" building replaced another building of some type.  Just consider if they were not allowed to tear down some historic building when they built the empire state building or the Guggenheim museum or ...the list could get very long.  Yes, I know that Europe is filled with many, many historic buildings and that many cities seem prosperous even with saving it's hundreds of years old buildings.  But don't forget to figure in a couple of world wars.  There are plenty of empty places to build new after a war so why would they need to tear anything down?  OK, that is stretching it a bit, but you get the point.  Not every old building got saved in Europe either. And don't forget that this is the US of A.  We are "brand new" in many ways even after a few hundred years.  And we do save many, many historic buildings through out the country. It should not surprise you that a reasonably successful city would be very much comprised of every conceivable architectural style from every possible era - in fact, I for one would be very disappointed if it didn't.  Aren't any of you wondering what new building is being designed today that someone will be calling historic in fifty or a hundred years? Don’t forget that the new library will probably be on someone’s “must save” list someday.

All that said, don’t stop complaining or nothing will get saved.  And yes, it is time to return to the  “old ways” and have a pedestrian friendly downtown again.  We all know it is time because we all are lamenting the loss of the old historic buildings.  Instead, save what is really worth saving and then lets see what new and exciting “historic building of the future”  they will build next.     

Lunican

May 12, 2008, 06:03:12 PM
I guess the main difference in Jacksonville is that these buildings are not being torn down to make way for structures such as the Empire State Building or the Guggenheim museum, or any structure at all. Look at that photo, all you see is parking lots.

gatorback

May 12, 2008, 06:15:15 PM
How about a casino or two, perhaps a dog track?  the baptist would roll over. lol

theduvalprogressive

September 28, 2013, 04:11:33 PM
I think the important thing to pull from the older photos is a need to make downtown a little more open and airy. Obviously commerce helps make a downtown work, but I also believe that more open "commons" spaces creates areas that are more enjoyable for people. Why not take the parking areas and turn them into parks with trees? Why not move parking areas to the outer parts of downtown and have the JTA move more "trolley buses" through downtown?

Cheshire Cat

September 28, 2013, 04:23:53 PM
I think the important thing to pull from the older photos is a need to make downtown a little more open and airy. Obviously commerce helps make a downtown work, but I also believe that more open "commons" spaces creates areas that are more enjoyable for people. Why not take the parking areas and turn them into parks with trees? Why not move parking areas to the outer parts of downtown and have the JTA move more "trolley buses" through downtown?
I know what you are saying but if we look at areas like Hemming Park it becomes quite clear that the city has a problem maintaining what we have.  I don't know if creating more space that may readily become overgrown is the answer, but I know what you are thinking.   Put's me in mind of the public squared in Savannah, which I think enhance their historic core.

thelakelander

September 28, 2013, 05:49:02 PM
We've already made downtown more open and airy. There's underutilized green spaces, surface parking lots and vacant overgrown lots all over the place.  Moreso than green space, downtown could use a few more actual buildings.

ronchamblin

September 28, 2013, 08:39:26 PM
Nothing happens until residents move into the core.

Nothing happens until businesses move into the core. 
 
The current less than favorable conditions in the core... the stagnation in the core.... will not burst by itself to vibrancy and infill.  Observe the stagnation over decades.  Only when the short sighted political mediocrities we’ve voted into office force or encourage the taxpayer base to fund incentives to encourage residents and businesses into the core, will we see significant strides toward full vibrancy and infill.  Once a certain threshold of core population and activity has been achieved, we will see residents, businesses, and visitors "competing" to enter the core.

Apparently none of the short sighted political mediocrities have found it within their vision and ability to convey to their constituents that a vibrant city core will benefit the suburban population too. 

The mediocrities we’ve had for decades in our conservative establishment continue to feed upon the comforts of religion and the good old boy culture.  Comfort and complacency precludes one’s searching the far distances for challenges and much needed goals.  Too many of our mediocrities in office have no vision toward worthy goals for the core... and therefore perform no action to it.  Observe ..... stagnation over decades.  Shameful.     
 

thelakelander

September 28, 2013, 09:33:35 PM
One thing most downtown advocates and officials continue to overlook is that residents are already in the core. Upwards of an additional 80,000 or so outside of the 4,000 specifically staying in downtown.  We need to do a much better job of connecting them to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to create the type of urban synergy that stimulates market rate business and additional residential infill opportunities.  With that in mind, I do believe we need to get more aggressive with our incentive offerings.  Not just for downtown but for core walkable neighborhoods like New Town, Springfield and the Eastside.  Something dramatic like paying to move to certain areas (Detroit and Cincinnati do this) or a core wide 10-year tax abatement program (Philly did this) is worth considering, IMO.

jcjohnpaint

September 28, 2013, 10:33:10 PM
I believe Cleveland has a 15 year tax abatement program. 

ronchamblin

September 29, 2013, 01:42:11 AM
Nothing happens until residents move into the core.

Nothing happens until businesses move into the core. 
 
The current less than favorable conditions in the core... the stagnation in the core.... will not burst by itself to vibrancy and infill.  Observe the stagnation over decades.  Only when the short sighted political mediocrities we’ve voted into office force or encourage the taxpayer base to fund incentives to encourage residents and businesses into the core, will we see significant strides toward full vibrancy and infill.  Once a certain threshold of core population and activity has been achieved, we will see residents, businesses, and visitors "competing" to enter the core.

Apparently none of the short sighted political mediocrities have found it within their vision and ability to convey to their constituents that a vibrant city core will benefit the suburban population too. 

The mediocrities we’ve had for decades in our conservative establishment continue to feed upon the comforts of religion and the good old boy culture.  Comfort and complacency precludes one’s searching the far distances for challenges and much needed goals.  Too many of our mediocrities in office have no vision toward worthy goals for the core... and therefore perform no action to it.  Observe ..... stagnation over decades.  Shameful.   
 

One thing most downtown advocates and officials continue to overlook is that residents are already in the core. Upwards of an additional 80,000 or so outside of the 4,000 specifically staying in downtown.  We need to do a much better job of connecting them to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to create the type of urban synergy that stimulates market rate business and additional residential infill opportunities.  With that in mind, I do believe we need to get more aggressive with our incentive offerings.  Not just for downtown but for core walkable neighborhoods like New Town, Springfield and the Eastside.  Something dramatic like paying to move to certain areas (Detroit and Cincinnati do this) or a core wide 10-year tax abatement program (Philly did this) is worth considering, IMO.


The “connection” objective between the core and the adjacent growing centers makes good sense, as has been advocated by Ock and others over the years.  Connecting via interesting transit methods ... anything other than standard buses and gas powered trolley cars on rubber tires.... will make increasingly more sense as the core resident and business population increases.  Of course the transit projects requires money, as does the incentives. 

If the plans and objectives about incentives and measured transit make good sense, I expect that most concerned and enlightened citizens will agree to small and measured tax increases.  I sense that part of the area’s stagnation is due to the lack of adequate funding to accomplish the goals necessary for a first rate city -- the accomplishment of which will provide more jobs for its citizens.... especially in and around the core.

thelakelander

September 29, 2013, 07:17:25 AM
The “connection” objective between the core and the adjacent growing centers makes good sense, as has been advocated by Ock and others over the years.  Connecting via interesting transit methods ... anything other than standard buses and gas powered trolley cars on rubber tires.... will make increasingly more sense as the core resident and business population increases.  Of course the transit projects requires money, as does the incentives.

Getting your transit connectivity right will cost you a lot less than adding the amount of infill needed for DT to become vibrant on its own.  Just look at the Trio project. It will be a cool decade by the time it goes from concept to opening day.  It will also cost $40 million to construct.  Same goes for 220 Riverside. Less than 300 units and it's taken a decade to get it off the ground.  If we think infill residential is the ultimate key to adding life to downtown, then given our annual absorption rate, expect it to be a few decades before we reach that 10,000 mark, so many people like to toss out.

Also, when talking about incentives for development, there's different funding pots out there.  Many of which, don't involve physically giving away cash.

Quote
If the plans and objectives about incentives and measured transit make good sense, I expect that most concerned and enlightened citizens will agree to small and measured tax increases.

You don't need tax increases to have a more reliable transit system here.  Again, we can take advantage of funding mechanisms already in place, as well as do better with what we already have coming in.

Quote
I sense that part of the area’s stagnation is due to the lack of adequate funding to accomplish the goals necessary for a first rate city -- the accomplishment of which will provide more jobs for its citizens.... especially in and around the core.

I believe the area's stagnation is more related to us foolishly demoing most of the existing building stock.  We've literally killed the chance for urban pioneers to lead the way in downtown revitalization, like they've done with Five Points and King Street.  We've forced ourselves to rely on expensive, infill projects and the market hasn't reached the point where these things are viable without public incentives.

If_I_Loved_you

September 29, 2013, 09:38:07 AM
The “connection” objective between the core and the adjacent growing centers makes good sense, as has been advocated by Ock and others over the years.  Connecting via interesting transit methods ... anything other than standard buses and gas powered trolley cars on rubber tires.... will make increasingly more sense as the core resident and business population increases.  Of course the transit projects requires money, as does the incentives.

Getting your transit connectivity right will cost you a lot less than adding the amount of infill needed for DT to become vibrant on its own.  Just look at the Trio project. It will be a cool decade by the time it goes from concept to opening day.  It will also cost $40 million to construct.  Same goes for 220 Riverside. Less than 300 units and it's taken a decade to get it off the ground.  If we think infill residential is the ultimate key to adding life to downtown, then given our annual absorption rate, expect it to be a few decades before we reach that 10,000 mark, so many people like to toss out.

Also, when talking about incentives for development, there's different funding pots out there.  Many of which, don't involve physically giving away cash.

Quote
If the plans and objectives about incentives and measured transit make good sense, I expect that most concerned and enlightened citizens will agree to small and measured tax increases.

You don't need tax increases to have a more reliable transit system here.  Again, we can take advantage of funding mechanisms already in place, as well as do better with what we already have coming in.

Quote
I sense that part of the area’s stagnation is due to the lack of adequate funding to accomplish the goals necessary for a first rate city -- the accomplishment of which will provide more jobs for its citizens.... especially in and around the core.

I believe the area's stagnation is more related to us foolishly demoing most of the existing building stock.  We've literally killed the chance for urban pioneers to lead the way in downtown revitalization, like they've done with Five Points and King Street.  We've forced ourselves to rely on expensive, infill projects and the market hasn't reached the point where these things are viable without public incentives.
Smart thought out comment! +1000

ronchamblin

September 29, 2013, 10:34:04 AM
Good comments Lake.   

All the right moves should and can be made simultaneously.  Incentives for resident/business infill so that we can creep toward the threshold of activity needed to create a strong “desire” to enter the core.... establishing creative transit connectivity ..... better use of existing funding assets, while entertaining measured tax increases if necessary.... better vision - more determined and focused decisions regarding the core...... promoting a mood of temporary sacrifice, thereby counteracting the pressure of complacency and comfort as lived by the religious/GOB conservatives (everybody.. get off your asses attitude -- kill the enemy, which is stagnation).... excepting the consequences of the horrible demos, and establishing a strong army against additional.

stephendare

December 08, 2013, 11:46:51 AM
The Decline and Fall of the Jacksonville Downtown

August 5, 2006:  A few hours earlier today I had the pleasure of sitting in the basement of the Park Place building on Hemming Park with Ennis Davis(-- the inimitable Lakelander of MetroJacksonville.com fame) comparing older photos of Downtown Jacksonville with largely depressing contemporary aerial shots. http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/194

Just reread the original article, and I realized that this was the date that Lake and I first saw the extent of the devastation that happened in jacksonville.  Its been almost 8 years of reconstructing how and why it happened.  Strange to remember that there was a starting point to an idea and a realization.

rutabaga

December 08, 2013, 04:12:14 PM
Good comments Lake.   

All the right moves should and can be made simultaneously.  Incentives for resident/business infill so that we can creep toward the threshold of activity needed to create a strong “desire” to enter the core.... establishing creative transit connectivity ..... better use of existing funding assets, while entertaining measured tax increases if necessary.... better vision - more determined and focused decisions regarding the core...... promoting a mood of temporary sacrifice, thereby counteracting the pressure of complacency and comfort as lived by the religious/GOB conservatives (everybody.. get off your asses attitude -- kill the enemy, which is stagnation).... excepting the consequences of the horrible demos, and establishing a strong army against additional.

"promoting a mood of temporary sacrifice, thereby counteracting the pressure of complacency and comfort as lived by the religious/GOB conservatives"

I take this as a little jab at religion ronchamblin?  Are you by chance related to the Bookmine stores?
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