It’s almost impossible to imagine Jacksonville without historic neighborhoods like San Marco, Riverside, Springfield, or without the many preserved buildings within the urban core.
The presence and preservation of historic neighborhoods and landmarks are among the primary ways in which a city tells its story. Without preserving those details, it risks losing its history.
And it wasn’t for the efforts of local historic preservation groups and activists, many of Jacksonville’s historic details could easily have been lost to the ages.
During and following the consolidation era, many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were struggling. Vacancies piled up as businesses and residents fled to newer, more prosperous suburbs that were now part of Jacksonville. And, despite the intention of consolidation evening the playing field for all of the city’s neighborhoods, the urban core was still neglected in favor of suburban areas – perhaps even more so than prior to consolidation.
The responsibility of fighting for these historic neighborhoods and buildings fell to the residents, which led to an explosion of preservation groups. Springfield Preservation and Revitalization (SPAR) Council, Riverside Avondale Preservation, and San Marco Preservation Society were all formed within a two-year span during the mid-‘70s. Not long after, Springfield Improvement Association & Archives, originally founded as a women’s club in 1904, also began collecting local archives and data.
SPAR Council was instrumental in having much of Springfield declared as historic property, and it also converted an old building along Main Street into its main offices. Riverside Avondale Preservation helped get Riverside and Avondale declared as historic neighborhoods and has worked to preserve the historic integrity of the areas. San Marco Preservation Society preserved the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the South Jacksonville City Hall building.
And of course, Jacksonville Historical Society, founded in 1929, has long worked to compile the city’s greatest archive of historic documents, photos, and memorabilia – and has even been responsible for preserving multiple historic properties.
The efforts of those groups, as well as the pre-existing Murray Hill Preservation Association, helped preserve these historic neighborhoods and their structures during a time when historic preservation was far from a priority at City Hall.
Unfortunately, not every historic neighborhood had an organized group protecting it. And when residents tried to speak out, the city didn’t always listen.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in LaVilla. Once a lively center of black culture referred to as the “Harlem of the South,” many of the neighborhood’s historic buildings were demolished as part of Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan. This included the overwhelming majority of the main Ashley Street corridor, the Ward Street bordellos, and even a good chunk of the original Ritz Theatre.
The demolitions were supposed to clear the way for redevelopment; the same thing was done in nearby Brooklyn. And, while Brooklyn’s vacant lots have since largely been developed, LaVilla remains full of empty grass fields where historic buildings once stood.
Perhaps to avoid suffering the same fate one day, residents from another historically black neighborhood, Durkeeville, formed the Durkeeville Historical Society to preserve its historic elements including J.P. Small Field.
Of course, in recent years, the trend of adaptive reuse has caught on as well, saving dozens of historic buildings from the chopping block. The ongoing reutilization of historic buildings further contributes to the “storytelling” element of historic preservation, allowing for a more complete image of what the city was once like as opposed to a few sparse examples of old buildings.
Today, as city officials have begun to jump on board with the idea of historic preservation, it’s more important than ever to push for protecting the integrity of historic neighborhoods. One way to do so would be creating regulations to ensure that new developments will be designed to fit in architecturally with their surroundings. Such regulations do exist, but they generally only apply to designated historic neighborhoods. Given that there are many smaller neighborhoods that haven’t received any such recognition, expanding those regulations to apply to any neighborhood with distinct historic features could help ensure that smaller historic neighborhoods don’t eventually get wiped from the map.
The historic details of Jacksonville’s neighborhoods are what tell their stories. And given the interesting stories many of those neighborhoods have to tell, preserving those details should be one of the city’s top priorities.