The LaVilla neighborhood in downtown Jacksonville has a long, rich history that dates back to the Civil War era.
The neighborhood was originally incorporated as its own town following the war. The area had become something of a safe haven for newly freed Black residents because of its high concentration of Union soldiers during the war. Black residents occupied several of the town’s elected positions of power.
LaVilla lasted as its own town for only a decade or so before being annexed by, and incorporated into, the city of Jacksonville in 1887. At the time of annexation, LaVilla’s population was around 3,000. The annexation, along with state laws passed near the turn of the century, would effectively disenfranchise most of the neighborhood’s Black population.
The neighborhood grew around its status as a railroad hub. A train station was built in LaVilla in 1883 and would be expanded around the turn of the century.
And in 1919, the city’s new Union Terminal opened its doors at the same site as the first station. It was the largest of its kind in the South at the time.
The neighborhood became a hub for Black culture in Jacksonville during the segregation era. It developed a prominent nightlife scene, which grew even stronger with the 1929 opening of the Ritz Theatre. The new theater became the neighborhood’s most significant performance venue, drawing many of the country’s most sought-after Black performers – though it was just one of several lively nightlife venues in the neighborhood.
Author and activist James Weldon Johnson was born in LaVilla. Johnson is best remembered as the author of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the “Black national anthem.” A pocket park in the neighborhood features placards honoring Johnson and the song.
LaVilla was so synonymous with black culture in the region that it was even referred to by some as “the Harlem of the South.”
In part because of its proximity to the city’s busiest train station, the neighborhood also became home to a prominent red-light district. Over fifty different brothels lined what was then known as Ward Street – many of which were, interestingly enough, owned and operated by women. “The Line,” as it was called, was part of the neighborhood until the last of the bordellos closed in the ’50s.
The LaVilla neighborhood entered a decline around the start of the civil rights era. Railroad traffic had declined significantly with the growing popularity of automobiles and the arrival of the Interstate Highway System. When segregation ended, many of the area’s residents moved into the city’s other suburbs looking for jobs and better housing, no longer confined by outdated laws.
In the early 1970s, the Union Terminal shut down. It would sit vacant for around a decade.
By the ‘80s, LaVilla had become a shell of its former self, composed primarily of abandoned buildings and drug dens. When the old Union Terminal building was converted into a new city convention center, it did little to revive the surrounding area.
In the early ‘90s, then-Mayor Ed Austin sought to revitalize the LaVilla neighborhood as part of his grand River City Renaissance plan. While the RCR plan did result in the Ritz Theatre being restored and given a museum addition, it also led to many of the neighborhood’s historic structures being torn down without concrete plans to redevelop the area.
Plans to create a monument to LaVilla’s history, known as “The LaVilla Experience,” fell through and have since been abandoned.
In the past few years, LaVilla has finally begun making a well-deserved comeback. Several new affordable housing projects have popped up, bringing residential space back to the area. The new Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center opened in LaVilla recently as well, housing the city’s primary bus terminal, a revamped Skyway station, and administrative offices for JTA.
And with the city looking to replace the Prime Osborn Center with a new downtown convention center, the door may soon be open for redeveloping the Union Terminal building into a grand mixed-use space that would perfectly complement the transit hub and the area’s growing residential presence.
So despite a long stretch of misfortune, it looks like LaVilla is now headed toward a brighter future – one that will hopefully incorporate the neighborhood’s rich history.