Downtown Frankenstein! Rewind

March 27, 2007 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Blight. Transportation. Race Riots and Civil Rights. Recreation. Regional Thinking. Cars. In order to begin our series on the wholesale destruction of the historic downtown, it is important to understand the reasoning and ideas which made it possible. After all, it really wouldn't make sense to assume that the city leadership just willy nilly went out with the explosives and started blowing up buildings. There had to be some guiding principles or reasons.

As it happens, our downtown was leveled by a set of ideas just as much as it was by the ineptitude and lack of vision of the men with the dynamite or the muscle and diesel powered brawn of the men who operated the bulldozers. It may come as some comfort to know that the ideas themselves were grand as well as grandiose, and that we were not alone in choosing what would ultimately turn out to be the wrong set of answers.

Consider for a moment the world view of the men and women in Jacksonville in mid 60s through the mid 70s, consider the problems of that era and consider the solutions which they chose.

For the purposes of narrative, we can begin the Dynamite chapter with the careers of two titanic men from opposite ends of the country.

Robert Moses , the noted city planner who is considered the father of Modern New York City and Mayor Haydon Burns , the father of Modern Jacksonville during its heydey.

We will start with the local.

Jacksonville was facing and thinking about the same issues as every other regional municipality during the mid century.

Gigantic forces unleashed by our industrial power and wealth were transforming the way people lived in cities across the entire world, but in the United States, those forces were exerting themselves just as we really began seriously constructing the framework of our major cities.

The most powerful amongst those forces, obviously, was an odd little contraption which revolutionized the way people lived in every arena of life.  The car.  An internal combustion engine used to turn wheels which transported little portable rooms.

The cities of Europe were constructed with the idea that people would be mostly walking everywhere, or at best, riding a horse and carriage. All merchandising and markets and shops, butchers, etc were located in the center of the city so that everyone could use them with the maximum efficiency.  Imagine having to walk to all of the suburbs in order to do all the business one has to do during a week.  The wisdom of this type of development is too obvious to spend any further time discussing.

Older American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and Charleston were constructed with those same realities, but began much of their greater construction in the age of trains, trams, trolleys, and coaches.  As a consequence, our streets were from the beginning, wider and broader than their European counterparts, but we still mostly followed the center city = trading center designs.

At almost the same time, a few seemingly simple improvements and ideas began transforming architecture and construction.  Reinforced steel girders and tempered steel made it possible for the first time in history to construct 'sky scrapers' which could stand freely, but stand taller than 10 stories (the construction limit of the millenia)  Smaller buildings began to be replaced by the taller edifices which we presently associate with cities, and suddenly people started living in a density which had never been possible before and created a hive mentality and feeling in our great cities.

This is the beginning of the heydey of the American Cities, the cause of its greatest cultural achievements as well as its most shocking injustices and tragedies.

For every mass movement in art and culture and cross disciplinary sciences, there was a corresponding low point of tenement infestation, crime and depravity, all of which arose out of the sheer density possible in the cities once they began building Up instead of Out.

The social engineers of the first 60 years of the 20th century concerned themselves with the conundrums of these problems and blessings.

But then came the car.

And the car brought with it a few afterthoughts whose solutions ended up being very big, hairy, expensive problems all their own,

Lets list them here, shall we?

1.  Cars need smooth surfaces in order to run at their best.
2.  Unlike trains, trams, trolleys and the like, cars may be driven anywhere and give their operators complete freedom to go and come anywhere they choose on their own schedules.
3.  Cars take up more space than 'mass transit' ....50 cars take up more space than a trolley carrying 50 people and unused cars must be stored somewhere.

This logical little list of car related issues ended up having huge implications.  

Especially for cities.

It would be breathtaking to simply state that all the roads suddenly had to be resurfaced.  The sheer size of the project to create a system of roads that cars could travel on basically meant that all previous surfaces had to be junked.  Brick Streets, which created the lovely (and easily repaired) thoroufares of our historic cities were immediately paved over with black ooze that smelled like the devil's ass crack and poisoned everything it touched.  The public money expended on converting streets over to carworthy roads is unmetered.

As more people began to afford and use cars themselves, a curious new need became paramount in the cities themselves: Parking.

Two simultaneous trends happened that were at diametrical cross purposes with each other.

As the buildings got taller, there were more people per block needing access to the buildings themselves.

As more people purchased cars, the mass transit systems were systematically abandoned and the streets themselves were wildly insufficient to store the cars whose numbers were growing exponentially.

Jacksonville's city center was built prior to the car boom.

People walked, rode horseback, or took trolleys and boats in order to get back and forth in the city that was already in full swing by 1920.

And here is the rub.  Because no one ever anticipated the rise of the car, the entire street grid was already filled with commercial buildings and businesses.

In other words, there was no place to store the unused cars while their owners were doing their business.  No parking garages, and no parking lots.

By the time of WW2, the parking of cars in downtown Jacksonville had already led to major conflicts and a huge scandal of corruption within the city government.  There was so much bitterness and acrimony over the business of 'ticket fixing' that the new mayor Acosta had been able to successfully use the parking ticket fixing scandal in his campaign for mayor.  Our present day prohibitions against the practice date back to this period.

As detailed earlier, at the urging of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, a revenue collection scheme was introduced into downtown that was to become one of the major peices of Jacksonville's attempts to solve the problems of insufficient parking for cars in the densely built downtown:  The nefarious parking meters.

Although they were originally only installed for the purpose of collecting cash from a necessary commodity, they quickly became the primary driver of circulating all traffic downtown.

Tickets were issued to people who stored their car too long downtown.  Fines increased, and finally the competition for space downtown became so intense that cars were towed away in order to make more room for all of the people who wanted to get downtown.

Of course, one would think that the penalties involved with bringing a car downtown would be enough to discourage people from using cars at all, and create a mass need for public transit, but one would be wrong.

By the time the parking situation got out of control, the trolleys had already been torn up and the private bus companies had been driven out of business.

And of course, the final effect of the car had begun to set in.


The car made the traditional limitations of city growth pretty much obsolete.

Cities no longer had to be compact in order to be walkable.  People could live a days walking distance from the trade center and still have a convenient lifestyle because of the speed of the car.

So the first 'suburban' developments had the extra effect of adding even more cars into the mix because they displaced the numbers of people who would previously have lived within walking distance of the commercial districts.

So what was to be done?  How best to deal with this overweening problem of cars?

You can't build a parking lot without tearing down a shop, and no one wanted to volunteer their business for the cause.

There are only so many times you can force people to turnover parking spaces.  At the height of the parking crunch, people were expected to turn over the spaces 7 times per day, and there STILL wasn't enough parking downtown to please everyone.

More troubling, people were moving out of the city and into the county, where they could shop in mandarin and the beaches for some of their needs (primarily food and services) instead of staying in the city core.

What would you do?