By now, many of us are familiar with how the historic Black neighborhood of LaVilla was torn apart – literally, in many instances – by the 1990s River City Renaissance plan.
That plan involved the city acquiring blocks worth of property, often through eminent domain or bargain-rate buyouts, and tearing down dozens of historic structures that were significant to the neighborhood’s rich cultural past. Those properties were then consolidated, with plans to convey them to various developers to spur development.
The demolitions left behind very few historic buildings in LaVilla. Its once plentiful shotgun-style houses were reduced to just a handful of remnants.
One of those few surviving structures was Genovar’s Hall, a three-story structure built in the mid-1890s at the corner of Ashley and Jefferson streets. The building was once home to one of LaVilla’s hottest jazz clubs, where musicians like Ray Charles, Louie Armstrong, and Billie Holiday once played.
In the late ‘90s, the Nu Beta Sigma chapter of the historically Black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma entered an agreement with the city to rehabilitate and redevelop the Genovar’s Hall building into a restaurant and museum. Around the same time, three of the neighborhood’s remaining shotgun houses – which had been acquired during the River City Renaissance era – were relocated from Lee Street onto a lot next to Genovar’s Hall along Jefferson Street, with plans for them to be restored at some point.
These two decisions served as the genesis for a project that came to be known as the LaVilla Experience. Plans for the project were laid out in a piece of legislation by then-councilman Reggie Fullwood that was ultimately withdrawn. An entire block encompassed by Ashley, Broad, Church, and Jefferson streets would become a monument to LaVilla’s history featuring Genovar’s Hall, the shotgun houses, the Brewster Hospital building, and a park dedicated to James Weldon Johnson. This project, like Genovar’s Hall, was to be led by the Nu Beta Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma in partnership with the city.
The arrangement was not ideal, as it could never make up for the history and culture that was permanently destroyed in the ‘90s and would instead create a false presentation of what LaVilla was once like. It also involved handing over a large amount of funding to a private organization that had never previously handled a similar project.
But the project would at least provide a centralized memorial to the LaVilla of the past and potentially spur historic-minded development within the surrounding blocks.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the project to be derailed. When the city applied to move the Brewster Hospital to the LaVilla Experience block, it was rejected, as National Register of Historic Places guidelines recommend against moving buildings into consolidated blocks. The building was moved to a different lot and later restored.
Problems also quickly arose with the redevelopment of Genovar’s Hall. The Nu Beta Sigma chapter was able to demolish damaged portions of the building and reinforce its interior beams, but despite just under $900,000 in city funds, it made very little progress beyond those first steps as the project quickly proved to be more complicated than expected. Once the fraternity ran out of money for the project, Genovar’s Hall was left to sit with its bottom floor largely exposed to the elements.
The fraternity ultimately gave the property back to the city and cut ties with the project. Fullwood, who had facilitated the fraternity’s arrangement with the city, went on to become a member of the Florida House of Representatives before being indicted on unrelated wire fraud charges in 2016.
The city began rehabilitation efforts of its own, replacing the building’s roof and rendering it a two-story structure. Plans to redevelop it into office space and a museum ultimately fell through, and the project fell dormant – as did the LaVilla Experience plans. The park honoring James Weldon Johnson was ultimately developed elsewhere.
In the meantime, Genovar’s Hall and the shotgun houses have been left to deteriorate. And the longer they sit there, the harder it becomes to potentially rehab and redevelop them later.
But it’s still not too late to salvage the LaVilla Experience.
The majority of the lot remains undeveloped; part of it serves as parking for Clara White Mission. It would be fairly simple to turn a small portion of this undeveloped land into a park that honors other aspects of LaVilla’s history – perhaps displays about its jazz scene and other famous former residents, along with art that honors the history and culture of the neighborhood. Signage could also direct visitors to other remaining historic structures like the Ritz Theatre.
And, though it would take a major investment from the city or another private developer, Genovar’s Hall and the shotgun houses could be restored to include small museums that further honor LaVilla’s history. Clara White Mission has already expressed interest in renovating Genovar’s Hall and even building miniature houses for homeless veterans next door to it which, along with a small park, would potentially complete the block’s development.
With the help of city grants, those houses could potentially be designed to fit with the aesthetic of the shotgun houses across the lot, further tying them into the LaVilla Experience while providing a much-needed resource.
Altogether, the lot could become something similar to the original LaVilla Experience plan, salvaging what’s left of historic LaVilla and establishing a historical centerpiece for the neighborhood as it rebuilds.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to say whether any of this will ever happen. In recent years, the city has been content with letting the existing structures continue to rot away. It would require passionate advocacy from community members and leaders to create an arrangement wherein the city could complete such a project without running out of funds while still properly honoring the history of the area.
Such an arrangement, of course, would still be less than ideal. It still wouldn’t bring the old LaVilla back. But it would certainly be better than losing even more of its history.