Lost Jacksonville: State and Union Streets

February 11, 2016 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

After the end of the Civil War, a series of African-American neighborhoods were established along the outskirts of Jacksonville. Initially populated by former slaves, this collection of neighborhoods, which included LaVilla, Sugar Hill, and Hanson Town were situated roughly between today's Beaver Street and Hogan Creek. Another, Oakland, was located to the east, on the other side of Hogan Creek's southward turn to the St. Johns River.  As the street grid developed, State and Union Streets formed a direct link between these communities and newer African-American neighborhoods west of town, such as New Town and Durkeeville.

By the end of the roaring 1920s, land along State and Union Streets had largely been developed as dense rows of frame residential structures. At the time, commercial development serving these neighborhoods lined north-south corridors linked by State and Union, such as Florida Avenue, Main, Broad and Davis Streets. Ashley Street, two blocks south, also served as a major commercial, dining and entertainment strip for the city's early African-American districts.

Planning to forever change the character of State and Union Streets began at the end of World War II, as Jacksonville leaders believed that new highways were the only solution to downtown's traffic congestion. In collaboration with the Public Roads Administration, a Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce highway committee launched a survey for what would become the Jacksonville Expressway system in 1945. By 1947, 18 miles of expressways, two bridges spanning the St. Johns River, one bridge across the Trout River and 14 miles of arterial highway connections had been proposed.  Seen as a critical link between the proposed Mathews Bridge and the Jacksonville Expressway (I-95), State and Union was radically modified and expanded.  Viewed as a strip of blight between downtown and Springfield, city leaders also utilized the transformation of State and Union Streets as urban renewal.

Six decades later, mid-20th century leader's plan to eliminate the communities along these corridors have been successful. Outside of a few religious facilities, commercial structures and a corner of the Ritz Theater's facade, the early 20th century communities of LaVilla, Sugar Hill and Hanson Town no longer exist along the corridor. While the Eastside remains, the elevated Union Street Expressway severed it from the rest of downtown. In addition, the conversion of these former residential tree lined streets into an 8-lane highway has effectively severed the connectivity that once existed between downtown and Springfield. Today, State and Union pair up to serve as a vital east-west link for a city with +850,000 residents.

While these streets have largely been ignored by most downtown revitalization advocates, their high traffic counts possibly make them the best location for market-rate commercial development to take place in the Northbank. Here's a look back at the State and Union Streets that no longer exist.

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