Downtown Frankenstein: LaVilla Style
La Villa was once known as the Little Harlem of the South . It was the home to a diverse collection of ethnic establishments, such as the Boston Chop House, a soul food joint known for its trotters swithes (pigs feet and tail) and the Hollywood Music Store. Its decline began with I-95 slicing through the heart of the communtiy, then with integration during the 1960s and failed urban renewal projects by the city, such as the Hogans Creek project and Blodgett Homes. However, the famed River City Renaissance would finally drive a stake through this once proud community's heart.
Published November 26, 2006 in History - MetroJacksonville.com
RIVER CITY RENAISSANCE - REDEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR LaVILLA-BROOKLYN - November 1994
Harrington, George & Dunn, P.C.; Landers-Atkins Planners, Inc.; Kaiser Engineers, Inc./ KE Realty; Wallace, Roberts, & Todd, Inc.; PQH Architects; Urban Media Communications; Agency Approval & Development; Sun Coast Finance; SAI Title
City of Jacksonville & the Downtown Development Authority
GOALS & OBJECTIVES:
1. Continuation and enhancement of existing uses as determined appropriate.
2. The development of a Jacksonville Regional Amateur Sports/Recreation Complex.
3. Private development to stimulate employment opportunities and economic base.
4. A program for simplified acquisition of real estate in a complex ownership pattern.
5. A program for the efficient relocation of residents and businesses as required by the redevelopment program consistent with the Federal Uniform Relocation Act and City policy as stated in the 2010 Comprehensive Plan.
6. Provide and urban design and landscape framework appropriate for this important Downtown Gateway, with emphasis on a strong visual relationship between I-95 and downtown.
7. Provide a program for improvement of environmental quality - Stormwater, Remediation, Aesthetic, Historic.
8. Provide for strong internal relationships between proposed uses and existing internal uses (the Ritz Theater District, the convention center, the skyway, etc.) and surrounding uses (FCCJ campus, State Regional Office Complex, etc.)
In its heyday, LaVilla was one of Jacksonville's most dense urban neighborhoods with a population well above 5,000. In this photo, Broad Street is the commercial street running towards the river on the left side of the image. Today, the LaVilla School of the Arts occupies a large section of this image at the bottom right and center.
This 2006 aerial shows the destruction of a once vibrant community reduced to rubble, in the name of progress and urban renewal. Although the neighborhood had declined by the early 1990s, Ed Austin's River City Renaissance put the final nail in its coffin, transforming it into a wasteland of vacant lots, surface parking lots and non pedestrian friendly suburban office complexes.
The two illustrations above were scanned from the LaVilla redevelopment plan. Although they show a revitalized community with its historic housing stock remaining, along with residents, the end result of the plan resulted in people being kicked out of the neighborhood they grew up and operated businesses in, as well as those structures being attacked Godzilla style and erased from existence.
This illustration shows what was valued in the eyes of the Redevelopment Plan's planners. You'll notice that a very few of the existing structures (regardless of physical condition) were recognized as worth saving.
ALTERNATIVE PLAN 1
shows the entire LaVilla residential section being demolished and replaced by a massive recreational park with baseball & soccer fields, basketball courts a lake and a jogging track. A massive five block section between Adams and Monroe Streets, from I-95 to Jefferson Street was to be leveled and converted into surface parking. Not exactly a pedestrian friendly idea one would equate with living or being in the urban core of a city with 800,000 residents.
ALTERNATIVE PLAN 2
shows the recreational area being reduced to half size allowing for residential mixed use space on the blocks between Davis and Broad, while saving six buildings in the process. In this plan, the surface parking along Adams and Monroe remain, while planners also introduced the idea of cul-de-sacs within the urban core. Its unfortunate, that as late as the mid 1990s, the planners and leaders of this city still considered surface parking lots and essentially access controlled subdivisions as the idea gateway to downtown from I-95.
This image shows the surface parking blocks in detail. Are we restoring an urban neighborhood or opening up a car lot? Since when did it become popular for pedestrians to stroll wide sidewalks facing parked cars instead of sidewalk cafes, retail shops, urban housing and parks?
As bad as the plan was, it still would have been better than what eventually happened. The larger sports park never was developed and land planned for mixed use housing was given for the development of a suburban designed school that closed off several city blocks, including the famed Ashley Street Entertainment District, once known as the Harlem of the South.
The paved surface lots along Adams and Monroe never came, but dirt lots created by the demolition of the LaVilla's rich building stock filled the void. The remaining land ended up being a part of a massive land grab for suburban office developments that incorporate surface parking lots, as well as turn their backs to the street. Unfortunately, to this day, we still await the construction of new housing in a downtown residential neighborhood that once had a population of over 5,000.
This image from 1996, is an example of how buildings which housed significant historical events that shaped our city were eliminated from existence in the name of progress. Today, ten years later, this particular site is used as surface parking. Not only was the "Covington Building" one of the few pre-fire mercantile structures remaining in downtown at the time, it was also a rare (now lost) link to our role in the Spanish-American War.
Today, many assume that only Shotgun houses existed in LaVilla. However, this image (taken in 1996) illustrates that the community had a diverse housing stock. Many of the structures torn down for no other reason that public shortsightedness are the same types that make Riverside and Springfield desirable places to live and invest today.
LOST LAVILLA ARCHITECTURAL TREASURES
Some of the structures featured below were demolished prior to the River City Renaissance, but they are included to give readers a visual image of what was once a vibrant and architecturally rich urban community.
A. HOUSTON STREET BORDELLOS
During Jacksonville's early years, Ward Street (now known as Houston Street) served as the city's "red-light district". Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to their architectural significance and colorful past, they were demolished in 1979.
B. GENOVAR'S HALL
This structure is the only one (of the five images shown above) that still exists today, although a failed restoration project has left it in shambles. Originally known as the "Finkelstein Building", it became the epicenter of the Ashley Street District (The Great Black Way) in the 1920s. During this time, the upper floors served as a hotel that accommodated visiting entertainers like Louis Armstrong. The first level bar and the "Rail of Hope" also served as a launching pad for R. C. Robinson, a LaVilla resident who would later become known as Ray Charles.
C. WITSCHEN BUILDING
This structure was located on Davis Street, directly across from the Ritz. During the jazz era, this section of Davis was a thriving business district with many buildings similar to the Witschen combining to form the commercial district. This structure has been demolished and transformed into a rarely used pocket park on the corner of Davis and State Streets.
D. FIRESTONE TIRE & RUBBER COMPANY
This service center and warehouse was located in the LaVilla warehouse district on the SW corner of Lee and Adams. Today, the site is a vacant lot still owned by the city and used for parking.
E. 925-927 WEST BAY STREET
This structure was located near the NE corner of Bay and Lee Streets and designed by Rutledge Holmes, a local architect who committed suicide after the stock market crash of 1929. Today, the site is a paved and gated surface parking lot.
F. THE STRAND THEATRE
This ornate vauderville and movie house for African Americans was located at the corner of Ashley and Jefferson Streets. Today this building's former site is now a surface parking lot for the LaVilla School of Arts.
G. CRANE COMPANY BUILDING
This industrial building was located across the street from the Jacksonville Terminal (Prime Osborn) on the NW corner of Lee and Bay Streets. It was recognized by local preservationist for its decorative brickwork. Today the site is owned by the city of Jacksonville and used as a dirt parking lot.
H. ATLANTIC & EAST COAST TERMINAL WAREHOUSES
This massive warehouse structure was located on the SW corner of Jefferson and Forsyth Streets. The facility, similar to many in other cities that have been converted into public markets, was demolished in 1979. Today, Interline Brands and its surface parking lots occupy the site.
I. CONGREGATION B'NAI ISRAEL SYNAGOGUE
From the late 1800s through the 1920s, the section of LaVilla around Duval and Church Streets served as a home to a sizable Jewish population. This facility, along with the Young Men's Hebre Association (Maceo Elk's Lodge) was constructed to serve the community. Once located on the NW corner of Jefferson and Duval Streets, this beautiful building was demolished in 1975.
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - THE RIVERWALKS - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/239/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - THE 1987 PLAN - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/237/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - THE SKYWAY - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/232/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - THE 1971 PLAN - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/230/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - CREATING A TIMELINE THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHS - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/227/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - CREATING A TIMELINE FOR DOWNTOWN- http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/226/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - REMEMBERING THE PAST - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/219/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - THE BEGINNING - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/220/5/
DOWNTOWN FRANKENSTEIN - CITY OF THE FUTURE - http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/214/5/
This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2006-nov-downtown-frankenstein-lavilla-style