Lost Jacksonville: State and Union Streets

Published February 11, 2016 in Transportation - MetroJacksonville.com

After the end of the Civil War, a series of African-American neighborhoods were established along the outskirts of Jacksonville. Initially populated by former slaves, this collection of neighborhoods, which included LaVilla, Sugar Hill, and Hanson Town were situated roughly between today's Beaver Street and Hogan Creek. Another, Oakland, was located to the east, on the other side of Hogan Creek's southward turn to the St. Johns River.  As the street grid developed, State and Union Streets formed a direct link between these communities and newer African-American neighborhoods west of town, such as New Town and Durkeeville.

By the end of the roaring 1920s, land along State and Union Streets had largely been developed as dense rows of frame residential structures. At the time, commercial development serving these neighborhoods lined north-south corridors linked by State and Union, such as Florida Avenue, Main, Broad and Davis Streets. Ashley Street, two blocks south, also served as a major commercial, dining and entertainment strip for the city's early African-American districts.

Planning to forever change the character of State and Union Streets began at the end of World War II, as Jacksonville leaders believed that new highways were the only solution to downtown's traffic congestion. In collaboration with the Public Roads Administration, a Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce highway committee launched a survey for what would become the Jacksonville Expressway system in 1945. By 1947, 18 miles of expressways, two bridges spanning the St. Johns River, one bridge across the Trout River and 14 miles of arterial highway connections had been proposed.  Seen as a critical link between the proposed Mathews Bridge and the Jacksonville Expressway (I-95), State and Union was radically modified and expanded.  Viewed as a strip of blight between downtown and Springfield, city leaders also utilized the transformation of State and Union Streets as urban renewal.

Six decades later, mid-20th century leader's plan to eliminate the communities along these corridors have been successful. Outside of a few religious facilities, commercial structures and a corner of the Ritz Theater's facade, the early 20th century communities of LaVilla, Sugar Hill and Hanson Town no longer exist along the corridor. While the Eastside remains, the elevated Union Street Expressway severed it from the rest of downtown. In addition, the conversion of these former residential tree lined streets into an 8-lane highway has effectively severed the connectivity that once existed between downtown and Springfield. Today, State and Union pair up to serve as a vital east-west link for a city with +850,000 residents.

While these streets have largely been ignored by most downtown revitalization advocates, their high traffic counts possibly make them the best location for market-rate commercial development to take place in the Northbank. Here's a look back at the State and Union Streets that no longer exist.

East Union Street in 1928 from the 1929 City Plan of Jacksonville: http://digitalcommons.unf.edu/simonsflorida/9/. Source: George W. Simons, Jr Planning Collection at UNF Digital Commons.

Looking south at the intersection of State and Davis Streets in LaVilla in 1941. The abandoned streetcar tracks of the Colored Man's Railroad can be seen in the foreground. (State Archives of Florida)

Aerial of State and Union Street corridors photographed on February 24, 1939. (State Archives of Florida)

Looking north towards Sugar Hill at the intersection of State and Davis Streets in LaVilla in 1941. (State Archives of Florida)

Blodgett Homes Photographed on October 12, 1942. Completed in 1942, the 654-unit public housing complex had become ridden with crime by the 1980s. In 1990, 394 families were relocated and the public housing complex was demolished. Today, the site is home to the 159-unit Blodgett Villas complex and the state office complex. (State Archives of Florida)

Looking east on Union Street at Pearl Street on January 17, 1948. (State Archives of Florida)

Looking west on Union Street at Pearl Street on January 17, 1948. (State Archives of Florida)

Intersection of State and Hogan Streets on October 13, 1949. (State Archives of Florida)

The Afro-American Life Insurance Company at 101 East Union Street. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville.

Gateway Motors near Main and State in the 1950s. Gateway was replaced with the Heart of Jacksonville hotel (Parkview Inn) a few years after this image was taken. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

This August 1958 aerial of the Cathedral District captures a widened Union Street with historic mixed-use building stock still in place. (State Archives of Florida)

The Heart of Jacksonville Motor Hotel at Main and State Streets during the 1960s. (State Archives of Florida)

Julia and Orange Streets during the 1970s. (present day FSJC Downtown campus)

FHP motormen escorting President George Walker Bush's motorcade for a Victory rally for the Presidential election at Alltel Stadium on October 23, 2004. (State Archives of Florida)

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2016-feb-lost-jacksonville-state-and-union-streets

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