Downtown Frankenstein

September 25, 2006 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville is a city that has been blessed with every possible advantage. Not only is it situated in one of the most beautiful natural settings offered by the planet, but has every reason to be the most powerful economic power of the South.

Let us linger for a moment on the geography.  The city is diamond studded with beautiful rivers and waterfront properties, Starting with the nearly pristine sands of American Beach and running down the Floridian Coastline to the stunning pink seashell beaches which wash upon the 50 foot dunes overlooking the rare wetland beauty of PonteVedra, Jacksonville is a celebration of our species playful love of water.  Bridges of every size and description, representing every epoch of engineering cross rivers of every size; from two mile stretches over the St. Johns to small, barely noticeable wooden crossings over Fishweir Creek.

It is Floridian enough that our beaches and golf define the efforts of our tourism departments, but Georgian enough that we have a noticeable change of seasons.

It is, in all, a surpassingly lovely place to build a city.

By a stroke of fortune Jacksonville is a coastal city with a navigable port.  A port which makes it possible to do trade with the whole of Europe, Africa, and South America, and pulls wealth in from nearly every corner of the globe.  Many cities would count their blessings with only a port.  But Jacksonville's blessings do not end with a sea trading route.

It is also the nexus point where two of the most important highways of the US meet.  Interstate 95, which connects all of the major cities from Miami to New York City, and Interstate 10, which runs the long course connecting Jacksonville with west coast economic superpower, Los Angeles.

Similarly, Railway connects the city to not only those fine cities, but also freight trains run from its western boundaries straight up to Atlanta, and through that city, to the whole of the Midwest.

Natural beauty and major transportation routes to both international and national markets.  What properly constituted city could beg for a more favorable start?

Why then has Jacksonville never attained its possibilities?  Why is it that the word 'potential' has become a uniquely Jacksonville curse?

How is it that a city with the head start and natural advantages that it was given is not one of the great cities of the globe?  

Why is its central core one of the last great unrevived downtown's?

Why is it being surpassed in economic clout and power by one trick ponies like Orlando and Charlotte, North Carolina?

How did it descend from one of the retail centers of the southeast to its present unenviably state on the third tier of retail, lagging behind Indianapolis and Houston in terms of developed retail markets?

Why has the city spent billions of dollars trying to 'redevelop' its downtown seemingly with no success at all?

The answers are surprising, and require a little history, a little common sense, a good bit of analysis, and an even larger dose of courage in recognizing the basic missteps and failed policies which are the underlying causes of Jacksonville stillbirth in the ranks of the Great Cities of the Twentieth Century.

They are also microcosmically expressed in the four decade long failure of the effort to redevelop the downtown.

In the course of searching for answers on the very subject, myself and the members of the board dedicated ourselves a few weeks ago to a project which has apparently been unthinkable (possibly heretical) for at least twenty years.  We actually (hold for dramatic background music) researched and READ the lion's share of the past thirty seven years of Jacksonville's historical record.

Now friends, this was no easy undertaking.  First came the formidable hurdle of assembling the collection of documents which we determined to absorb.  This task alone took nearly a score of people working in five different arenas, working thanklessly and without a roadmap just to compile.  I can say with confidence that while our source materials (including hours and hours of oral histories and interviews) is by far the most complete assemblage on the subject, it is by no means complete.  It is however a starting point which history and the heritage of future generations of Jacksonvillians demands be expanded upon.  The lack of records on this subject is shocking, if only because of the billions of dollars which the quest has raised and buried beneath the asphalt of a scant square mile of Downtown.

With each new study and each forgotten final report, we found ourselves with a clearer picture of a project which has been the most expensive and grandest undertaking of our entire municipal history.  At times it was numbing.  It was as though we were slowly revealing beneath the deathbed sheets of downtown Jacksonville the elephantine outlines of its comatose patient.  And each new  morbid revelation made clearer that the patient in question was an unnatural amalgam of spare parts, culled from the dead bodies of massive programs which had been kilt while only half implemented.  A Frankenstein's monster if you will.

And so we are brought to this report.

Over the next couple of weeks, starting in 1940, we will discuss how Jacksonville first blossomed into a modern city, and began what should have been a continuous development as a Great City.

We shall then examine the triple taxation of businesses and residents downtown that created the fertile environment for the flight to the suburbs.

Our team will then relate the hemorrhaging of dollars and bodies from the downtown and the city's panicked response.

Then one by one, the plans and the visions of forty years of 'redevelopment' which led to the downtown "Frankenstein", some of which are both awe inspiring as well as eye-popping.

Finally we will conclude with a program of the necessary steps which the city must begin if it is to reverse those forty years of failure.

This is a hell of a study, and it will challenge the conventional wisdom which has been unable to produce a success for the previous two generations.  We intend to provoke discussion and debate as well as the unvarnished view into Jacksonville's seldom considered past.

We hope you join us for each phase of this groundbreaking study.

Stephen Dare