The Park That Got Away

December 21, 2011 35 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ever wonder why urban Jacksonville does not have the grand public parks that help define the character of some of the largest cities in the country? Here is a story of one that got away.

The Great Depression hit Jacksonville and Florida hard. By 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged to Americans a "New Deal," things were bleak. New construction had virtually stopped and officials warned that 24,000 Jacksonville residents faced starvation.

Shortly after being elected, Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1933. The WPA was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. It also operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects during the Great Depression.

It fed children and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency, which especially benefited rural and Western areas. The budget at the outset of the WPA in 1935 was $1.4 billion a year (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP), and in total it spent $13.4 billion.

At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men (and some women), as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs. Full employment, which emerged as a national goal around 1944, was not the WPA goal. Instead, it tried to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.

The WPA operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10%-30% of the costs. In 1934, to put Jacksonville citizens back to work, the WPA offered to develop a 14-mile, 3,500-acre metropolitan park system for the City.  The urban green space would have begun at the mouth of the Ribault River, moving west until reaching Cedar Creek.  From that point, the park would have followed Cedar Creek and the Ortega River, ending where the Ortega meets the St. Johns, forming a greenbelt around urban Jacksonville.  A major part of this plan would have been to connect the Ribault and Ortega Rivers at their headwaters, thus virtually converting urban Jacksonville into an island.  In addition to this, miles of driveways, walks, bridle paths and picnic shelters were to be constructed.

WPA's park would have formed a greenbelt around urban Jacksonville.

The WPA saw this urban park system as something that would stimulate economic development throughout Jacksonville.  It was its belief that the newly created waterway would drain vast areas of the westside while also stimulating development along the park borders, which would repay the park’s capital cost investment.  This line of thinking was supported by Jacksonville financier Ed Ball, who claimed it would generate $30 million to the city annually in economic impact.  Ninah Holden Cummer promoted the development of this space as well, telling the city council that a city without a vision would perish.  To entice the city to move forward with the park plan, the WPA offered to provide $735,000 to purchase the property needed to construct the urban greenway.

However, what could have been Jacksonville’s version of San Diego’s Balboa Park or New Orleans’ City Park would not happen.  City leaders did not see the value of spending their money on 14 miles of parkland when residents could already visit the woods anytime on their own.

Source: City Not a Pushover for Parks, Florida Times-Union 1/17/90

Article by Ennis Davis.