When the locals look back at the "Good Old Days", especially in regards to the nearly mythic state of Jacksonville's fabled Downtown, they generally lack any sense of specifics. Specifics like exactly when, or what made it so great, or exactly how big it was or even what people used to do back in those gilded days of Downtown wine and honey are simply unattainable in detail.
originally published Published October, 2006
Pregnant exhales and sighs are apparently the universal language of our city's heyday.
Some details emerge, of course. Nothing meaty....just impressionist outlines and silhouettes of a finer, earlier version of Jacksonville.
It is universally accepted that, at some point in the past, there was a 'Golden Age'. A time when 'all the shopping was still downtown' and 'the streets were so crowded that it was hard to walk them' and "Hemming Park was the center of everything!" No one seems to be able to accurately say WHEN, however.
Sometimes references to the Camelot era of Downtown Jacksonville are simply reduced to the wistful eye rolling of an older woman accompanied by a partial list of favorite department stores..... Furchgotts. Ivey's. Cohen's.
That there were a plethora of Department stores seems to be another universal in these faded remembrances.
Occasionally one will hear a good bit about the Wharves. The dirty, exciting, dangerous, gypsylike wharves.
And the Grand Hotels. The George Washington, The Roosevelt, The St James.
Less frequently there is loose chatter about the many live theaters and Movie Palaces of the golden era. There were great gobs of them according to tradition.
As part of the Golden Era Narrative, one is also assured that people dressed to the teeth if they had any business at all downtown. Further, one is usually left with the impression that today's slovenly approach to personal grooming would have been impossible 'back in the day' on Laura Street. Why, an untucked shirt or even a pair of jeans wouldn't even have been worn by a dirty communist back then, and one needed to be a damn sight better than a dirty communist if one hoped to be accepted by the lowliest doorman ever employed by Furchgott's.
And of course there are the photos, some of which we have sponsored here on this site. Shockingly wonderful photos whose every square inch seems to justify all of those soulful exhales.
But getting a precise history of our downtown is tricky.
There isn't a history book for some reason.
Interestingly, in all of the studies and consultancies and commissions ever perpetrated upon the taxpayers of Duval County, apparently not a single one of them invested any more than a couple of minutes ever looking into anything as sordid and uninteresting as the factual case history of the city they were charged with (or rather, charging for) rescuing.
This writer decided to get a factual basis and wander away from the conventional wisdom on the subject of Downtown Redevelopment.
The first thing he decided was necessary was to establish a Timeline.
A Timeline which tracked the early growth (for surely the city did not spring Minerva like, department stores, white-gloved patronsand all, from the head of Zeus.), the dates of the imprecisely remembered 'Golden Era' would be no less pertinent than the dissolution and decay which created the need for its redevelopment.
And so began the task of compiling facts and figures to create this timeline.
But what facts? What grubby little bits of data would comprise the backdrop of a Golden Era?
A good start would be to track the number of businesses as a whole that contributed to this Great City.
And the upscale residences in the toney neighborhoods.
For that matter, when was the greatest period of its cultural life.
When did it all start to go downhill?
Was there a trigger?
This writer found himself in the bowels of the Main Library, comparing dreadfully boring Chamber of Commerce Reports, perusing the few histories of Jacksonville that actually exist. (which by the way are hugely unhelpful. If future generations of Americans will have to rely solely on the present day stock of Jacksonville's history books, they will come away with the impression that the only things that ever happened either involved Native Americans, Civil War figures, or Deborah Gianoulis.)
Eventually a timeline did emerge. And one which surprised the author, who was off by a couple of decades in all of his presumptions.
In the process of looking up the print ads of long defunct theatre groups and ritzy department stores he came to realize a terribly useful thing about the Main Library's collection of Telephone Directories in the Florida Collection on its 4th floor.
In a very real way, the telephone books themselves tell an eloquent story about the growth of Jacksonville, particularly its business community.
Since telephones first became available, Businesses have had to have them in order to survive. In fact, the dependence on telephones by businesses goes back to the first decades of the past century.
All businesses worth mentioning have had them for a hundred years.
Common sense follows that the telephones books themselves would probably serve as a visual barometer of a city's economic health, and sure enough the telephone books on the shelves corresponded exactly with all of the hard earned facts gleaned from the many Chamber of Commerce reports over the years. In fact, using the telephone books was often much more accurate.
If you pay attention to the photos, one can see the correlation with economic trends by the thickness of the spines.
For example, in this photo which shows the boom-bust-boom years of the Roaring 20s-Great Depression-World War 2 phases of American History, you can see quite clearly that the phonebooks got fat and sassy in the middle of the easy credit years of the 20s.
They sadly thin down to half their former selves during the onslaught of the Great Depression, and then start to fatten up and start a huge growth spurt at the onset of WWII.
For the purposes of this study, something of an almost miraculous nature happens next in the telephone directory section of Jacksonville's Main Library.
If one is trying to pick the details of a history which chronicles a downtown's rise and fall, it would be nearly impossible to categorize one's data for an entire city the size of Jacksonville without a very hefty government grant and billions of years of data entry and analysis.
The reason obviously is that regardless of what happened within the confines of the geography of "Downtown" Duval County itself grew by leaps and bounds even while the central city sickened, flailed, and then died. How would one be able to separate at a glance how many businesses either grew or failed downtown vs. the relentless suburban growth of the past 60 years? At least with any precision?
Which leads us to our minor miracle.
For whatever reason, because of the dynamic and centralized nature of the Downtown itself, while it was booming, there was very little significant business growth outside of the downtown, and so for decades nearly ALL of the business listings have downtown addresses. That is, until the 50s.
Because the City of Jacksonville had not consolidated yet, the telephone company employed by the Library began a second phone book which covered the rest of Duval County, excluding the Beaches. They called it the Suburban Directory.
Its earliest issue came out in 1956, and the company printed a separate listing of all telephone numbers, commercial and otherwise through Consolidation all the way until 1991, miraculously leaving us with a single source from which to compare and chart the simultaneous growth patterns of both downtown and the rest of the city at the same time.
The larger story is unsurprising to anyone, so we can skip to the obvious immediately: As the suburbs began to sprawl and regional shopping malls opened, Downtown went down like a preacher's daughter.
However. Now we can determine, year by year when these changes took place and also match up the changes with the historic events which contributed to the changes themselves.
The true heyday of the downtown shopping and cultural experience was actually between the years of 1940 and 1955. Almost every year of that period, the actual number of shops that were open for business to the public increased. The last year that the actual numbers of shops increased in downtown overall was 1952, then remained at the same general level for three years, until 1955.
After that, the total numbers begin to decrease. They decrease steadily until 1967. After that, they begin decreasing much more quickly. The single biggest year of loss in numbers of downtown shops was 1984, when the downtown went from 4.6 million square feet of retail space to slightly more than one million square feet within an 18 month period. This catastrophic event was followed by a brief but significant uptick surrounding the opening of the Landing (several hundred vendors in that project alone) and then once again a slow decline until 2000.
Over the past few years, while there has been an upsurge in the number of entertainment and restaurant type business, the retail has never even partially recovered from the losses of the 70s and 80s.
Now these are the simple facts, compiled from the yearly chamber abstracts, and a simple comparison of the yearly city telephone directories all alone not terribly conclusive as to causes or effects. But let us fill in the blanks as to the things that happened in each of the change agent years:
1. 1940 was the end of the tolls on the Acosta bridge. after that year, both bridges into the downtown were free.
2. The first parking meters, while installed in 1942 (on a trial basis with a VERY divided city council and county commission debating and countersuing each other in the process) were not actually widespread downtown until 1948, and in fact were not even allowed anywhere near the courthouse or the city hall (which was actually counter to everything I had ever heard on the subject). When the first years receipt from the meters (still no fines for parking violations) rang in at over a hundred thousand-- the equivalent of 5.5 million in today's money, a dime at a time---the matter was settled. With pockets bulging and the blessing of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, parking meters were here to stay. Unnoticed by anyone at the time, within four years, the growth in the total number of shops stopped altogether.
3. In 1953 the Matthews Bridge opened to traffic and became the first toll bridge in the city in 13 years....but that was ok, because it was considered the "Bridge to Nowhere" and people generally thought it was a good idea to tax the people who were building in Arlington.
4. In 1954, the second toll bridge opened, the Fuller Warren Bridge, leaving half of the bridges free, and half with tolls. However, both the Acosta and the Main Street Bridges were drawbridges, and with all of the boat traffic in downtown spent at least as much time up as down, forcing most commuters to choose the new bridges so as not to get caught in boat generated traffic jams.
5. In 1955 --- also without notice--- the number of shops in Downtown experienced their first losses in overall total since the Great Depression. This is a significant fact to notice, because the decline occurs with the placement of three additional layers of difficulty added to the downtown experience: parking meters plus two new toll bridges. With meters only, growth stagnated proportional to the spread of the meters. But when the two bridges were added, the growth not only stopped, but reversed.
6. In 1967 the third and final toll bridge into downtown opened for traffic. The Hart Bridge. In February of the same year, a new mall opened in Arlington called "The Regency Mall". By no coincidence, the rapid decline of the number of total shops downtown began and continued until the largest number of single year closings was precipitated by the city's ill fated renovation of Hemming Park into Hemming Plaza in early 1984 till mid 1985. Jim Gilmore's highly praised renovation plans turned into a disaster for downtown as the project dragged out many months over time, ripping up all the streets of downtown's actual surviving center and closing off all street traffic to them.
The effect was shocking, as the vast majority of the shopping district around May Cohens and Hemming Plaza was starved off of street traffic and simultaneously closed in 1985.
Taken together, these timelines tell the whole story.
Toll Bridges and Parking meters effectively strangled off new growth downtown. When real competition came along in the form of Regency Mall, downtown did not respond to become more competitive. They kept the parking meters, despite the repeated marketing campaigns advertising the free parking and selection at Regency, and the Toll Bridges made any possibility of a quick trip downtown from the Southside into a joke.
Faced with the choice of convenience and great selection vs. Traffic Jams, limited parking with fines and tickets, Jacksonville's consumers made the sensible choice and began selecting the Mall instead.
By Stephen Dare