Downtown Frankenstein: The Thunderlizard Years

July 18, 2007 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The Thunderlizard Years. In previous articles we have discussed the rise of Jacksonville as a bustling metropolis whose heart and soul, like those of every city before the 20th Century, was located in its hot glowing center. Downtown. Big Shopping Conglomerates, glass enshrined temples of corporate industry, thousands of shops and merchants, tens of thousands of people in the streets day and night.

Bars restaurants, theaters, dance and lecture halls, parks, sundry  shops and soda bars packed and lively with the concentrated energy, artistic  expression, intellectual life, and sexual congress of a city of hundreds of  thousands.

We will not go into detail here the bright, exotic names and places of  supperclubs like the celebrated Emerald Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, nor the  thousands of local and international celebrities who made their early years  performing in them.
We will not re-illuminate the questionable and boisterous antics of the  fancy dandies who peopled the movie sets and speakeasies of Jacksonville's  avante garde Motion Picture Industry.  We will not evoke the memories of Babe  Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle (who hated each other assiduously) in a town where  Billie Holiday once broke a finger running from Revenuers.
We will not talk about the vibrant African American district in the heart  of the city on Ashley Street, the "Great Black Way", nor the multiple theatres  and concert halls that covered the starlit city like a garland of warmly lit  party lanterns that hugged the murky St. Johns River.
We will not guess what conversations were passed in the cramped bedrooms of  a thousand something rooming houses that lined the streets from Duval Street and  Hemming Park to the uppercrust of Springfield and East to the old movie centers  and industrial neighborhoods of a downtown that extended to the foot of the Hart  Bridge.
Nor will we dwell on a high society which revolved with the grace of a  minuet around the Banquet Dining Rooms of the four star hotels that surrounded  Hemming Park.
Because that downtown is long gone, collapsed and left for dead until its  very bones rotted out from underneath it, and even its physical existence has  been defaced and beaten back into the earth from which it once sprang.
In our previous essay we have dwelt on the greed and stubbornness which  created the conditions which drove businesses and residents out of the old city  center.
Parking meters, first installed in 1942---from the beginning merely an  additional source of revenue.  When harsher penalties were enforced and the  meters became universal in 1948,  we see that this one extra inconvenience to  the consumer brought a sudden end to the long and unbroken growth of new  businesses in the downtown, and the creeping rise of truly suburban alternative  merchant districts which had hitherto been non-existent.

We also touched briefly on the even more destructive effects of the  installation of toll bridges as the main travel concourse into the city  core.
It was no coincidence that downtown's greatest prosperity lay in the years  between 1940, which was the year in which the old toll bridge was made a free  crossing and 1955, the year in which tolls were reinstated.
The effect of the tolls was so egregious, both in terms of inconvenience  and traffic jams that the administration of one Jacksonville Mayor, Tommy  Hazouri, will be most notable for the fact that he abolished them to great  fanfare and acclaim.  Most people today cannot name another single  accomplishment of the Hazouri administration, but they do remember fondly the  images of the mayor personally swinging a wrecking ball to bring one down.
But from here forward, we move from the simple background of greed and  hardheaded obstinance which dampened downtown's prospects while fanning the  flames of suburban flight, and bring our attention to bear on the Age of the  Dynamiters.
This series will show, in multiple installations the ideas and plans, many  of which are still in play, which not only leveled our downtown, but created  similar havoc in multiple cities across the United States.

What the gentle reader will find most troublesome is that while one city  after another has abandoned the discredited ideas upon which the Dynamite model  of redevelopment was based, Jacksonville remains catatonically enslaved to their  influence and seems unable to embrace the common sense repudiation which has  truly revived scores of cities over the past 15 years.
Our story will begin, strangely enough, in New York City, with the very  exciting and controversial career of Robert Moses.  The Big Apple's most  notorious Visionary and Villain.
But it will then swing immediately back to our own fair city and document  the rise of the 'Downtown Redevelopment Agency' and graphically show how the  city of Jacksonville dynamited its own heritage and city center out of the  ground, blowing up all possibility of prosperity in the meantime, and replacing  it with a soviet gulag of administration and non profit property owners who have  sucked the very marrow out of its bones.
Remember the name Jack Diamond.
You will be hearing much of him soon enough.

By Stephen Dare