Downtown Frankenstein: Robert Moses and Haydon Burns

April 14, 2012 53 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

After the Great Progressive Era of Jacksonville faded away in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1901, and the landed aristocracy that had governed it had diminished to nothing following the Great Depression, a new group forcefully took the reins of government determined to remake the city in their image. The good old boy system, helmed by Haydon Burns, was itching to make downtown modern, white, and corporate. There was a contempt for the past, both the poverty of the years between the wars, and the proud liberal heritage of the town which had allowed racial harmony, ethnic diversity, powerful women, and respected Jewish leadership to thrive in the dusk of the 19th Century. They were the new men, ruddy faced, scotch drinking, pug nosed would be industrialists of the new century, and they set upon their programme of recasting Jacksonville with gusto, and full throated enthusiasm. They didn't have to look far for a planning ethos which suited their purposes to a T.

The planner is probably the most important position in the real life workings of a city.  They have enormous power because they literally determine the future.  Good planners make life better for hundreds of thousands of people.  Bad planners can make it unbearable.  And believe it or not, there can be such a thing as morally bankrupt or evil planning that has the power to create more than just easy traffic or aesthetically pleasing intersections.  This city has had a mixture of all three over the past 80 years and we are even today reaping the stunning consequences of their motivations and the sometimes sordid goals that they hoped to achieve.  

But before we get ahead of ourselves, it is time to discuss what issues or effects of urban planning are really at stake here after all?  Just as importantly, what mistakes have we made that are still operationally causing harm to the city's growth, economy and culture?

Well first of all, the 'science' of urban planning is only about a hundred years old, the readers of Metro Jacksonville should know.  Now, certainly there have been planned cities over the millenia, dating back to Egypt, Rome and Greece, but the current practice of using planning and regulation in order to control long term development, economic activity and growth is relatively new.

Urban planning is a living science.  It is still developing and there are as many theories as there are proven solutions.

Obviously some things are self evident:  The idea that compact layout is less expensive than sprawl and low density layout is an example.  The idea that drainage has to be taken into account when building housing development is another.  But other things are not so clear cut.

The Americas (north and south) and Australia probably provide the best examples of diverse planning idea for modern cities, as many of them have been built within the past 150 years and the majority of their growth happened during the area of 'managed' planning.

We have described the state of Downtown Jacksonville as 'Downtown Frankenstein' on this site fairly often.  It's an easy metaphor that describes the mismatched pieces of abandoned plans and programs, with competing features and goals that have created a monster.  A sometimes deadly, brutal monster.  This is where we discuss the science that created the chimera.  We shall start with the mad scientist, whose powerful intellect and flawed character set the stage for our modern age.

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