Walkable Commercial Districts: McDuff Avenue

January 17, 2012 15 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While much of the focus in our city is on downtown revitalization, Jacksonville's urban core and inner-ring suburbs are home to a number of long-overlooked, historic, walkable commercial districts. In our effort to promote better use of existing assets in our communities - which will facilitate sustainable growth and subsequently increase the city's tax base - Metro Jacksonville highlight's Lackawanna's McDuff Avenue.

About McDuff Avenue

The old commercial district along McDuff Avenue dates back to the early 20th century, when Lackawanna grew rapidly as a streetcar suburb for workers employed at the neighborhood's massive Seaboard Air Line Shops and Terminals.  McDuff Avenue was the western terminus of the Jacksonville Traction Company's Lackawanna Avenue (now Edison) streetcar line and main thoroughfare to the former West Jacksonville railyard.  Like the majority of urban Jacksonville's commercial districts, McDuff Avenue's popularity would decline during the mid-20th century as Jacksonville's autocentric suburbs began to grow.  McDuff's streetscape was recently upgraded as a part of the Better Jacksonville Plan.  However, the roadway project placed a higher priority on cars than pedestrians and transit users.  Thus, the road includes three 12-foot-wide lanes for cars, with the left over right-of-way divided for sidewalks and bicycle lanes with little landscaping to buffer pedestrians and cyclist from motorized traffic.

Housed in a building dating back to 1914, DJ's Record Store was started by Jerry West when he purchased 30 records in the 1960s. When one would sell, he would buy two more to replace it in his inventory. As of 2009, the store had more than 15,000 albums.

Lackawanna Avenue (Edison) was the streetcar route connecting McDuff's commercial district to downtown Jacksonville.  Jacksonville's original McDuff Electronics store opened at the intersection of McDuff and Edison in 1944.  By the time McDuff's was acquired by Fort Worth-based Tandy Corporation in 1985 the chain had grown to 235 stores.  Tandy shut down the McDuff Avenue store and the entire chain in 1997, citing a competitive retail market and a lack of hot, new electronics products to drive the market.

City Rescue Mission's Christian Recovery Institute Administrative Offices at 426 S. McDuff Avenue.  This campus is the site of the mission's LifeBuilder's program.  This program helps homeless people get off the streets and re-establish their lives through a 15-month program with classes and faith-building programs.

The intersection of McDuff and Lenox is home to the remnants of a Pic N' Save-anchored 1940s-era shopping center.  Designed a decade after the closure of the nearby streetcar line, the retail center was designed with buildings adjacent to the street and surface parking in the rear.  Today, this style of site design has been labled "New Urbanism."  

Pic N' Save was a Jacksonville-based chain of discount stores that was founded by Benjamin Setzer in 1955.  Setzer had previously operated a Springfield market, at Fifth and Silver Streets, that grew into a 40-unit grocery chain by the time it was acquired by Food Fair Stores in 1958.  The first store was located in Arlington's Town & Country shopping center and by 1969, the chain had expanded to 20 stores across Florida and Georgia.  Beset by family squabbles and intense competition from national retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Target Stores, and Home Depot, the 38-store chain filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1994.  Pic N' Save emerged from bankruptcy in March 1996 with 27 stores spread across Northeast Florida, Central Florida, and Southeast Georgia.  Nevertheless, in May 1996, the family-owned chain announced that it would shut down, putting 1,800 employees out of work.  Before its closing in 1996, McDuff Avenue's Pic N' Save was said to be the only discount store where inner city residents could purchase household goods at a reasonable price.

Lackawanna made the national news in 1964, when the New York Times reported the bombing of Donal Godfrey's home by the Ku Klux Klan.  Six at the time, Godfrey was the first black student to attend the previously all white Lackawanna Elementary School (Public School Number Ten).  Dating back to 1890, the old elementery school closed in 1993.  Today, it serves as a teacher supply depot for the Duval County School Board.  The school is located on Lenox Avenue, one block west of McDuff Avenue.


Lackawanna Park.

West Jacksonville Railyard

Located near the intersection of McDuff Avenue and Beaver Street, the former West Jacksonville railyard was the major economic anchor for Lackawanna's commercial district for much of the early 20th century.  Operations ceased in 1985; contaminants were found in the ground water in 2009.  

The date of the first West Jax Yard has to be in post Civil War Florida boom. 1880's. Seaboard bought into the F&J and also the line from Union Station to Chattahoochee about 1888. The shops date from the 1890's to 1920 when the 3rd and final Union Station opened. The facility employed as many as 1,000 workers in 1909.

The diesel shops were built in the WWII years. By the end of the war, a new 165 foot turntable was in place at the steam shops. The yards were greatly increased both in the circa "teens" and again in the late "40's".  Seaboard was already pioneering their demise. The Gross Cut-Off to Callahan and Baldwin were taking more and more freight through without another sort.

The shops became the home for almost all of the SEABOARD "ALCO" (American Locomotive Works) and "BALDWIN" diesels. The last of these, Alco, quit the business starting with a sell to Worthington Corp in 1964, they built their last diesels in the early 70's. They were then folded into Studebaker-Worthington subsidiary MONTREAL loco works. But MLW, didn't get any US orders from SCL.

As a specialist in Alco and Baldwin locomotives, WEST JAX did it all. These engines had one other thing that EMD (GM), or GE diesels lacked. Pound for pound it was said they could pull the socks off an equal power locomotive from the latter builders. They could also track better, and SCL wasn't known for good track - sadly CSX still suffers from this mind set. Hundreds of miles of branchlines in your home town area were --- HORRIBLE. But an old Alco would somehow dance along the rails with the train, another locomotive would be up to the foot plates in dirt.

When Rice Yard opened in Waycross, it was really Jacksonville's yard moved to a less congested junction. That move coupled with massive post regulation abandonment's spelled the end of West Jax. Remember railyards are train, time AND money killers.

WEST JAX is now a superfund site, home of CSX security - Railroad Police, train dispatching, and the company's office train cars.

West Jacksonville Yard history by Bob Mann

Adjacent to the former West Jacksonville railyard, on the opposite side of McDuff Avenue, Strickland Avenue is home to a number of small industrial buildings dating back to the 1920s.

Constructed in 1925, for many years this warehouse was home to Florida Carbonic, a company specializing in cylinder gas and dry ice.  The company is now located in an industrial area adjacent to Lane Avenue and Interstate 10.

Strate Welding Supply Company at the intersection of McDuff and Strickland Avenues.

Strate Welding Supply Co. was founded in 1949 by Russell and Gordon Strate. Russell had worked for Air Reduction Company prior to and after his military service during World War II. Gordon (the younger brother) had been a Navy pilot during the war and served as an instructor after the end of the war. Both sought the challenge of operating their own business. With the help of Air Reduction Strate Welding Supply opened its doors in an old gasoline station on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo New York. The growth of the Company continued as the post war economy prospered. In 1951 the company was incorporated making it Strate Welding Supply Co., Inc.

During the fifties the Company worked with many of the companies in Western New York growing as the area grew. In the early sixties a second location for the Company became a reality when the R. C. Pasch Co. was acquired. Growth continued as the Company continued its service to the area and Airco changed its marketing philosophy by directing more of its efforts through its distributors. In the early seventies a branch was opened in Olean New York and a location in Lockport New York was acquired.

The eldest of the Strate Family (George) worked for Airco in one of their outlets in Jacksonville Florida. Conversations between the two brothers lead Russell to inquire about the opportunity for acquiring the Jacksonville operation. The sale was finalized in 1974.

The McDuff Avenue commercial district is located on Jacksonville's Westside, between Interstate 10 and Beaver Street.

Article by Ennis Davis.