Mathews (John E.) Bridge

by Tim Gilmore, 5/21/2021

Before ’84, the bridge was silver. Its metal webwork cantilevered across the St. Johns River, thrust like lace, high on concrete stanchions, sprung only halfway across in ’52, scaffolding flung down in cross-stitch, oh how it sung and soared, all intricately incomplete like a new romance!

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Talked about building that thing for years. The city was changing, city was gonna change. The automobile was becoming not only more popular but affordable. Sure those facts stalled in the Great Depression, when even future presidents hitchhiked. Then with the Second World War past, America meant optimism. Autos for everybody, build that bridge.

from The Tampa Tribune, April 27, 1952

The new Senator John E. Mathews Bridge, just one aitch please, fled the city and opened Arlington. Downtown was destined to crumble. Leave it, the Boosters said, to the Blacks; Jax leaders said, “Leave Jax.” Arlington, the city east of the city, was the future of Jacksonville.

April 1952 feature articles in various Florida newspapers explained how a new $50 million superhighway would “break” Jacksonville’s “bottleneck.” The caption for one image claimed, “Diagram of one of two No. 1 piers for huge bridge shows that it will be higher than Floridan Hotel.” City leaders soon demolished the historic Floridan.

from The Tampa Tribune, April 27, 1952

Open the bridge, high and narrow and elegant like a dancer in midair, 1953, open all Arlington like a new frontier. Build new suburbs and shopping centers, obsolete in few years, in as many years as it would take to build out the next ring of suburbs. Build out the rings of suburbs like growth rings of trees, but rot the recent rings before you sell the new ones.

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Obsolescence on obsolescence didn’t matter, since what mattered, always, always what mattered, was what was new. Eventually the new abandoned tier after tier of recently new but suddenly so old, very old, behind it, and that’s how a city destroys itself even as it builds itself outward.

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

At least in that way it’s fitting the city named the bridge for its state senator, John E. Matthews, since racist policy carried something of the same effect. Even mid-20th century, when it felt safe and comfortable, secure and smug and stable, for a white politician to base legislation on his race, his doing so threatened to make focus on his own race, which he’d seen not as a race at all—races being those not white—obsolete.

photo by Nathan Holt, courtesy historicbridges.org

In 1984, city leaders had that silver bridge painted “garnet,” team color of the United States Football League’s Jacksonville Bulls. I wore, 10 years old, three-quarters sleeve length, garnet and silver Jacksonville Bulls shirts. Word was, the Bulls would “put Jacksonville on the map.” Word was, in ’95, the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars would “put Jacksonville on the map.”

Between ’84 and ’95, inner Arlington, dotted heavily with older houses and streets once well outside Jacksonville, interspersed with “Midcentury Modern” houses designed by brilliant Jax-based architects like Robert Broward and Ted Pappas, decayed and maundered, new streets suddenly ancient and sunk through other streets oldly new.

Megas Residence, designed by architect Ted Pappas, 1968

The Town and Country Shopping Center became “inner city.” The Thunderbird Motor Hotel, opened as Jacksonville’s premier conference and entertainment center in 1969, had collapsed into a Quality Inn by ’86 and would fall fast until abandoned. Up and down Arlington Expressway, acres and acres of buildings emptied and festered until even Regency Square Mall, opened in 1967, had become, with its 1.4 million square feet of retail space, a “ghost mall.” By the year 2000, those enclosed shopping centers developed as antidotes to dying downtowns, and in turn kicking downtowns their coup de grâce, themselves gave up the ghost in inner suburbs across North America. So Regency joined more than 1,000 other North American “dead malls.”

Regency Square Mall, 1960s

But the bridge hadn’t taken flight until after the murder of the NAACP leader and his wife. Harry T. Moore had fought Senator Mathews’ “White Primary” legislation for four years now. While Mathews is frequently remembered for his “White Primary Bill,” he’d actually entered five such bills at once. As The Tampa Tribune reported on April 10, 1947, “Senator John E. Mathews, of Jacksonville, introduced his white primary program in the senate today in a series of five bills to revamp the state’s election machinery and put political control in the hands of a political party or parties.”

from The Tampa Tribune, April 11, 1947

On Christmas day, 1951, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette, just outside Orlando, killing them both, after Moore opposed Mathews’s “White Primary Bill,” which if passed would have prevented black citizens from voting in primary elections.

from The Pittsburgh Courier, January 5, 1952

In The Pittsburgh Courier’s admittedly sensationalist coverage—and why shouldn’t it be?, of January 5, 1952, the section called “In Mother’s Arms,” begins, “Mrs. Rosa A. Moore, who teaches school in Jacksonville, said that her son died in her arms while she was patting him on the forehead on the way to the Sanford Hospital where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.”

Harry T. Moore, courtesy Museum of Florida History’s Civil Rights in the Sunshine State exhibit

In fact, Harry Moore’s mother and her granddaughter Annie were in that wood frame house, “hidden from the highway by an orange grove,” when it was bombed at 10:20 pm, Christmas night, after family festivities. Said the Courier: “The explosion threw the bed in which the couple were sleeping to the ceiling, burying Moore and his wife under the mass of debris.”

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

The bridge still throws itself skyward, a flying signifier. And whatever its city decided and history dictated it signified in the past, it stands open for the communities around to make their meaning for the future.