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, May Day Parades, graffiti, summer night movies, the making of a mayor, murder.
The structure doesn’t fit its surroundings. One palm tree beside it. A vast blank field and a playground at short distance. Ancient religious and political structure in the center of a stretch of public housing. 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 decades.
When the future mayor was a little boy who lived in the all-white projects across the street from the all-black neighborhood where friends lived, he stayed out after dark on summer nights and wished those night to go on and on forever. In the middle of the year, days stretched out and promised children they’d live forever, 10 year olds roller skating across the Parthenon, the world at war so far away, 1943, nothing but the moment seemed real and all-encompassing and everlasting. Every extra few minutes of daylight promised perennial childhood innocence, so no one would ever die.
Friday and Saturday nights, Jake and his friends watched movies in the park, shown against the ancient Greek building they never questioned transported to the poorest part of Jacksonville. They toured the world through Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart, American expat, struggles with helping his former lover, Ingrid Berman, escape Nazis in French-colonized Morocco, and The Song of Bernadette, based on Franz Werfel’s novel of the girl from Lourdes who sees a vision of the Virgin Mary. They funneled their imaginations of war through the top box-office wartime comedy This Is the Army, starring future president Ronald Reagan, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, based on the great antiwar Ernest Hemingway novel.
Not long before he died in early 2020, Jacksonville’s most popular mayor of the 20th century, Jake Godbold, told his longtime friend and biographer Mike Tolbert how he’d been elected king as a child for the annual May Day Parade through Brentwood Park with much pomp and circumstance in that transplanted ancient temple. They lived in the nearby Brentwood projects, but Jake hadn’t yet understood what it meant that his family was poor. After all, everyone else he encountered was poor too, no contrast.
“My mother had to go to a thrift store,” he said, “and get a little black jacket that she had to work on so I could wear it. It was the first time I had a sports coat. Mother put it on me and told me how good it looked, and she said not to let anybody say anything about that jacket.” In his 2019 biography Jake!, Tolbert writes, “Jakes says he didn’t understand then what his mother meant,” then quotes him, “But I do now.” She didn’t want him to be ashamed of where he’d come from.
Above the bandstand columns, nymphs dancing across the pediment. Bas-relief. Underneath them in red spray paint: “19 Bitch 25 Live Bitch CChhAAA” and “I LUV My PaimJAG BaBy” and “45 1200 BWB 1200.” What these statements mean I’m not meant to know. Nor most likely are you.
Then 27 cyclists ride through the park and around the bandstand, 2009, on the recommendation of one cycling urban explorer who says he doesn’t even know how he happened to discover this strangely out-of-place Parthenon, but it’s his new favorite place in the city.
Classical Greek architectural details on this site include trigylphs, guttae, metopes, taniae, architraves, abacus, echinus, annulets, trachelia, hypotrachelia, flutes, stylobates, Doric columns.
But no one seems able to say why this temple 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, whatever that means, 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. She met a very few curious people at Nefertiti Books once or twice. Nobody knows where she’s come from. Others try to avoid her.
Dustin McLeod says he knows no other place north of Downtown. He doesn’t know why he knows this place, doesn’t remember how he found it out. He’s a business major at the University of North Florida and lives in a dorm there, but 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’d been raised in a strict Southern Baptist family. He says he doesn’t know why, says 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.