by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
1932, local architect Roy Benjamin builds an ancient Athenian temple in the part of town where will soon cluster the first public housing projects.
Hard to recall, but it’s true, when public housing was new, he said, it was a fine thing. Never used to tell people he lived in the ghetto, but then public housing come along and he told people where he lived. Something hopeful. Two-parent families then. Nobody planned to live in public housing forever. It was a leg up. Was gonna work themselves up to their own homes. None of us knew back then what public housing would become, what “the projects” would come to mean. None of us knew “the projects” was gonna become a trap. We didn’t know that this place we was proud to be welcomed into back then was just gonna concentrate the worst of the community’s problems in the future. We didn’t even know what a lot of those future problems would mean. No, we were proud to get a chance and proud to show what we would do with it. Now, the last 10, 20 years, they done torn down most of the projects. They had become like laboratories for producing monsters. Well, not back then. Then, they was our ticket to having a home.
In the middle of Jacksonville’s two-mile nexus of public housing projects stands an ancient Greek temple. Its stone colonnades open out like an embrace, weathered by hurricane, snow, baking sun, graffiti, murder.
The structure doesn’t fit its surroundings. One palm tree beside it. A vast blank field and a playground at a medium distance. Ancient religious and political structure in the center of a stretch of public housing projects. As though two millennia older than its surroundings. As though timelessness stands up through the triviality of passing time. As though a goddess should choose to reside in this forlorn and impoverished immediately-old new world. These neighborhoods become centuries old in a couple of decades.
Nymphs dancing across the pediment. Bas-relief. Underneath them in red spray paint: “19 Bitch 25 Live Bitch CChhAAA” “I LUV My PaimJAG BaBy” “45 1200 BWB 1200”
Then 27 cyclists ride through the park and around the bandstand, 2009, on the recommendation of one bicycling urban explorer who says he doesn’t even know how he happened to discover this strangely out-of-place Parthenon, but says it’s his new favorite place in the city.
Classical Greek architectural details include trigylphs, guttae, metopes, taniae, architraves, abacus, echinus, annulets, trachelia, hypotrachelia, flutes, stylobates, Doric columns.
And no one seems able to say why it exists at all, why it was ever built. Certainly the out-of-place completely focuses and defines the place. The bandstand or temple or whatever it is defines Brentwood Park, Brentwood, the surrounding streets. The out-of-place is this place.
But there’s no known reason for the sinister energies of place to require sacrifices. At cold December dawn, 2004, construction workers come to the park to renovate the bandstand and find the dead body lying at the base of the bandstand’s steps. Detectives cannot put a name to the dead man, nor an age, nor a cause.
For about six months in 1976, an old woman with dreadlocks, neighbors think she’s a voodoo priestess, frequently stands among the columns and tells anyone who comes close enough that the New Virgin will sacrifice herself in this temple to give birth to the next Messiah. Nobody knows where she’s come from. Everyone tries to avoid her.
Dustin McLeod says this place is the only place in town he knows that’s north of downtown. He doesn’t know why he knows this place. He doesn’t remember how he found out about it. He’s a business major at the University of North Florida and lives in a dorm there, but he comes out to this place once a week. He says that when his older brother died in a car accident three years ago, when Dustin was still in high school, he lost all his faith in God. He had been raised in a strict Southern Baptist family. He says he doesn’t know why, that it’s really not rational at all, but that this weird place is the only place he can pray. He can’t go to church anymore, but every Sunday morning he drives across town to the Brentwood Park Bandstand and Comfort Station and he sits among the columns and he prays. He prays that one day, one day, somehow, he’ll get to talk to his brother Brendan again.