Exploring the Westbrook Commercial District

March 26, 2014 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A few weeks ago, our Forgotten Jacksonville series exposed the beauty of Westside's Westbrook Park. Today, we explore a few blocks Southwest of the park: The Westbrook Commercial District.

A view of the entrance of the Lovett's Food Store at 614 North McDuff Avenue in 1947. Lovett Food stores were owned and operated by the Winn & Lovett Grocery Company. In 1925, Idaho-native William Davis purchased Rockmoor Grocery in Miami. He later purchased the Lively Stores (1931) and the Winn & Lovett stores (1939), a name his sons used as their company name. In 1944, the Winn & Lovett Company headquartered in Jacksonville. In 1955, they merged with Dixie Home Store to form Winn-Dixie Supermarkets. Image courtesy of Robert Fisher Collection and the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/167336

Jacksonville is a city with a diverse collection of neighborhoods and business districts.  The diversity is really evident within the limits of the 30 square mile boundaries of the pre-consolidated city and especially the Westside.

The railroad and the Great Fire of 1901 played a significant role in the rapid development of the Westside during the early 20th century. With the massive Seaboard Air Line Shops and Terminals as an employment anchor and a streetcar line connecting it to downtown, Lackawanna boomed to life during the first decade of the 1900s. Responding to this growth on what was literally the edge of town, Westbrook was platted in 1911, on the other side of the tracks from the railyard. A compact community by design, the 20-block development included a linear park following the path of Three-Mile Branch, forming its north and east edges. Paralleling the railroad to the south, industrial uses formed the neighborhood's south border, while McDuff Avenue served as the west border.

Long before the Westbrook plat, the Old Spanish Trail, then known as Enterprise Street, and now Beaver Street, served as the major conduit between Jacksonville and Florida's Panhandle. Naturally, as Westbrook developed from a rural community into an urban neighborhood, the properties straddling the thoroughfare became heavily commercial district. Just a quarter mile walk north of the Jacksonville Traction Company's streetcar line terminus in Lackawanna, there was also easy and reliable connectivity to downtown.

With growth and development in the area benefiting from the Florida Land Boom, some of the earliest commercial buildings in Westbrook began to rise during the 1920s. By World war II, a full blown retail district, complete with its own movie theatre, comparable in scale to Riverside's Five Points and Murray Hill's First Block, developed along Beaver Street between McDuff Avenue and Sprague Street.

Yet, unlike those districts which catered primarily to large residential populations, Westbrook's district also served as a centralized commercial zone for nearby industries employing thousands of Jaxsons. As time progressed, this commercial district was negatively impacted by the construction of I-10, siphoning through traffic on Beaver Street, and the closure and relocation of nearby industries.

Time and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have not been good to this district. To facilitate traffic movement, Beaver Street is an undivided four-lane road with narrow sidewalks sandwiched by several commercial buildings that were constructed during an era when just as many people walked as those who drove. As a result, most businesses today have entries that are either on the side or in the rear of their properties.  The blank wall of aging former storefronts facing Beaver then combine to give a visual impression of blight and abandonment.  Furthermore, to accommodate the automobile, several buildings in the district have been razed over the years to serve as parking for the neighboring uses that remain.

Yet, despite all the obstacles this commercial district has faced over the years, it still blossoms with an abundance of local and family owned businesses. Next year, FDOT will have a chance to right many unintentional wrongs, with the reconstruction of Beaver Street through this commercial district. Current plans will add 6-foot sidewalks and an extra foot in width to each of the existing four travel lanes. The reconstruction project is expected to cost $13.25 million.  Roughly, $650,000 will be used to acquire needed right-of-way along the constrained roadway. Construction is scheduled to begin in October 2015. With this in mind, we invite our readers to take a visual tour of this commercial district and the history behind it.

The McDuff Street Railroad crossing in 1948. The rear of Lovett's Food Store can be seen on the right. Image courtesy of Spottswood Collection and the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/52963

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