The Jaxson

Jacksonville by Neighborhood => Downtown => Topic started by: thelakelander on August 05, 2020, 09:03:35 PM

Title: LaVilla: Rebirth after abandonment
Post by: thelakelander on August 05, 2020, 09:03:35 PM
Came across this article from Newbank digital archives about the revitalization of LaVilla in 1996. Good historical read about the community and individuals from its past:

Rebirth after abandonment

September 15, 1996 | Florida Times-Union, The (Jacksonville, FL)
Author: Cynthia Parks | Page: C-1 | Section: INSIGHT

LaVilla, an old neighborhood in downtown Jacksonville, is undergoing its latest transformation -- this one, perhaps, its most wrenching. The city is spending $25 million on redevelopment, demolishing 179 houses, hoping to turn the area into a ripe venue for recreation, commerce and the arts.

In May 1995, Times-Union staff photographer Bob Self began documenting the demise of LaVilla. In spring 1996, former Times-Union staff writer Cynthia Parks joined Self on the project. Their study of LaVilla -- past and present -- begins today.

A century ago, LaVilla was a lively polyglot neighborhood where, on a single noonday, you could smell the brine of kosher pickles, garlicky roasting lamb, turnip greens with fatback and ripening fruit under a buzz of flies.

Its populations have moved in and out as fortunes changed with time.

In the late 1800s, Greeks came. Like purple martin scouts, they sent word home: "Come to Jacksonville!"

Greeks responded in waves, settling where housing was cheap and work close by -- downtown, in LaVilla. Railroads made tracks into town. Wharves lined the river. Ships loaded lumber and oranges.

Greeks set up fruit stands under umbrellas, shined shoes practically on the sidewalks, started hole-in-the-wall restaurants on Adams, Bridge Street (now Broad), Lee, West Bay.

Some entering through Ellis Island accepted simplified, Americanized names. In 1896, George Bracatzas left Argos, Greece. By 1898, in his Atlanta Quick Lunch on West Bay Street, he was George Brown.

First the Greeks worshiped in a house near the railroad depot. Then they bought a synagogue from the Jews.

When their cup of success ran over, they moved out of LaVilla to Dellwood Avenue and to Riverside.

The Jewish community followed a similar pattern. They left Eastern Europe and came here through East Coast ports of entry, even Galveston, Texas.

The ones who made it to LaVilla were poor and Orthodox. To meet the body's need, they dealt in junk, such as the Wolfsons, or they started bakeries and kosher butcher shops, such as the Safers, the Beckers and the Hammermans on Broad Street. (Worman's Bakery and Delicatessen still is a fixture on Broad.)

For the greater need -- their souls, their community -- they formed two congregations: Ahavath Chesed, which was Orthodox before it was Reform, and B'Nai Israel at the center of the Jewish population, at Duval and Jefferson streets.

Nearby, at 712 W. Duval St., they built the Young Men's Hebrew Association as a social gathering spot. For political discussion, they built The Workmen's Circle with walls stout enough to stand the heat of socialistic debate about the czar and revolution.

When their people died, the grieving left little stones on the grave markers in Old City Cemetery.

When their people prospered, they moved to Springfield in the late 1920s, taking their synagogue with them.

Other immigrants flung their spice into the melting pot of LaVilla.

But through it all, and before it all, were African-Americans.

Some first saw LaVilla as slaves, and some became Union soldiers.

During the Civil War, slave owners tried to move their chattel inland to Lake City and Ichetucknee Springs, but slaves knew that Union gunboats on the St. Johns River meant freedom. They left the corn on the stalk, headed for the river and joined the occupying Union Army.

The first black regiment was trained and disciplined by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, abolitionist and Unitarian preacher. In the third occupation of Jacksonville in 1863, the Union troops built a fort in LaVilla to guard the railroad, and they named it after Higginson.

Many of the colonel's volunteers were from Northeast Florida. Higginson wrote: "They had more to fight for than the whites . . . They fought with ropes around their necks."

Pvt. Thomas Long was part of the force. "If we hadn't become sojers . . . it would have been flung in faces, `Your fader never fought for he own freedom' . . . Neber can say dat to dis African race no more."

Long was discharged and settled in Jacksonville. So did Hanson, Hamilton, Middleton, Holzendorf.

By 1870, LaVilla -- an incorporated town -- had a population of 1,100, and 77 percent was black.

The mayor was Francis L'Engle, so dyed-in-the-wool a Confederate that he was ready to emigrate to Brazil rather than be ruled under Stars and Stripes.

But L'Engle seized the chance to cut railroad ties for a new industry. He leased quarteracre lots to black freedmen for 99 years, and a town was under way.

Along with whites, black residents of LaVilla collected taxes, made laws, molded a community.

Until 1887.

At that time, LaVilla was annexed by its bigtime neighbor, Jacksonville. Black power was reduced to one representative on the City Council. Restrictive Jim Crow laws, enacted in the late 19th century, sealed their progress.

But Jacksonville's population burgeoned: In 1890, it was 17,000; in 1900, 28,500; in 1910, 57,500; and by 1920, 91,500.


So where, O where, did LaVilla go?

LaVilla's demise is blamed on a lot of things: its interruptions by Interstate 95 and by the State and Union east-west thoroughfare; by absentee landlords taking and not giving back; by desegregation of the '60s that made a race of people free to live where they wanted to live.

The city, having determined LaVilla to be a blighted area, has embarked upon a $25 million revitalization plan that would bring private enterprise and public facilities to the area.

Today, more than 100 buildings have been removed from the 60-block area corsetted between Interstate 95 on the west, the Union/State streets corridor on the north, Broad Street on the east and Water Street on the south.

Walk or drive LaVilla, and the emptiness has an air of expectancy. Change hangs like the dust cloud behind every truck bounding through LaVilla.

West Bay Street is a boulevard waiting for people. Automated Skyway Express overhead; Prime Osborn Convention Center in the old train depot; Federal Reserve Building, austere and secure.

West Adams, where an apartment house inhabited by pigeons sits among piles of bulldozed debris, is destined to be partnered with West Monroe Street as a corridor to I-95. Monroe's eastbound blocks exiting I-95 are spanking pristine, lined with California palms and new curbing.

Other than that, there is a cafe, a church, the city's first hospital for blacks, a handful of 19th-century houses. Farther east, signs on Monroe herald SPORTS COMPLEX.

Still, LaVilla is home to a few quiet businesses that, because of the low-rent character of the area, likely have no more mortgage payments to make.

For much of Jacksonville, LaVilla is the Ritz Theater and a pre-1885 house with the caved-in roof.

Other than that, LaVilla is a way to go through or over to somewhere else.

But the people?

Church secretary Freddie Stark at Second Missionary Baptist, across the street from the Ritz, said, "We did have members who lived in LaVilla, but they moved out. Years ago, this was their permanent home . . . whole families."

They moved to the Northwest quadrant, Kings Road and Soutel Drive.

They went to Arlington and Southside.

They went anywhere they wanted to go, released by desegration in the '60s, and by the same energies that propelled communities before them to better addresses out of the impermanence of LaVilla.


Some of the last to close a door on LaVilla were the relocated.

Three years ago, as the city started buying parcels of LaVilla, Sam Holman was chosen by the city to find homes, apartments or rooms for those displaced.

He did that for 325 family units.

Holman was raised in Brooklyn, once the part of old LaVilla south of McCoys Creek. His career has been in social services. He knew the territory, the job and the people.

Holman was the city's choice to explain relocation to folks who had lived their lives in LaVilla.

Holman could find new housing only for those whom the city had bought out. Some were left behind, "people who didn't want to leave at first, who had a secure little nest egg."

The city had only so much money set aside for buy-ups. Those who were late to decide, in some cases, missed the opportunity.

Holman said he had to answer criticism from people who had moved out of LaVilla 10 or 20 years ago, former residents who said the city bought white landowners' property first.

But Holman told them: This is not the LaVilla you knew, and white owners were not interested in keeping the land. They were the first to bail out.

The city, Holman said, had hoped to take care of all buy-ups, but "there was not enough to do some development and buy all the land."

Development -- infrastructure and other municipal expenses -- was part of the promise to lure private enterprise to invest in the area.

The relocated were given 42 months of house payments or rent before going on their own.

"I tried not to put anybody in a situation they couldn't afford after 42 months. That would have been a real disservice," Holman said. "It gave people a boost for one time to have a nice place, a break away."

They went to Paxon, to Myrtle Avenue, to 16th and 18th streets, Ribault Scenic Drive, Lake Forest, Highlands, 29th Street, 55th Street, "good solid neighborhoods."

Renters went to Cathedral Residences, Twin Towers, Centennial Towers, Campus Towers where they had central heat and air, he said.

"I'm not ashamed of where the people went," said Holman, whose family adopted one elderly lady with no family who now lives in the Franklin Arms.

But not everybody went.

There are a few who want to stay, the stand-pats, the sticktights.

And there still is a community of renters, lodgers and homeless who haven't a range of choices.

There also are drug peddlers and prostitutes huddled between Monroe north to Beaver Street.

The city calls that community blighted, and it is, but for these tentative people it is home. For now.

Tomorrow: Picking through the pieces.


Resources: This article is based on information from the following sources: The African American Heritage of Florida, edited by David R. Colburn and Jane L. Landers; Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future by Wayne W. Wood; Freedom Was as Close as the River: African Americans and the Civil War in Northeast Florida by Daniel L. Schafer; and LaVilla, Florida, 1866-1887: Reconstruction Dreams and the Formation of a Black Community by Patricia L. Kenney. Also on interview s with Schafer and Kenney; with Larry Odzak, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida studying immigrants in the South; and with Sam Proctor, Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Florida.