by Tim Gilmore, 11/15/2020
The great iron exoskeleton groans overhead in the rain, listing, waiting. To walk the former Fairfax Street Wood Treaters facility, the old American Motors Export Company Building, is to wander the discarded carapace of a beast that’s left behind its toxic spirit. Crumbling motes of rust fall in the hail and the mist. Soon giant metal arms will come down on the shell of this automobile assembly plant and demolish it. Then the long hard work of reclaiming the soil and groundwater from the pollution of heavy metal toxins can finally begin. There was always here an unbearable waiting.
A haunting is a reaction to place, a kind of addiction or allergy, a particular way of relating to setting. Whether what’s haunted be a house, a graveyard, an abandoned medical institution—even indeed a mind—the haunting occupies a landscape. Out there the stories lie, itching to resurface, inherently environmental.
Here, then, abides the scene of the environmental crime. For 30 years, Wood Treaters LLC poisons the surrounding black neighborhood. The ground beneath these woodframe houses built in the 1940s, the 1960s, absorbs the chromium, the copper, the arsenic, the main constituents of the wood preservative CCA, Chromated Copper Arsenate. Fairfax Wood Treaters allows the pilings and utility poles soaked in CCA at the 12 acre property between West 14th Street and West 19th and adjacent to R.V. Daniels Elementary School and Susie E. Tolbert Elementary to drip dry for years. Storage tanks leak into the earth and storm waters.
It’s “catastrophic failure” by the Florida Departments of Environmental Protection, of Health and of Financial Services, according to House Bill 6509, filed by Florida Representative Tracie Davis of Jacksonville, a failure exposing neighbors and employees to noxious toxins on an “excessive, persistent and prolonged” basis. When Ernest Lundy works here, 1990s, he goes home around the corner at night, takes off his shoes and sees his feet glow green as Chromated Copper Arsenic itself. No one has told employees the materials are toxic and workers take no safety precautions. Lundy visits his physician for mysterious skin ailments and lesions that recur for years after his employer goes bankrupt. Then his heart starts going bad. Representative Davis’s bill would compensate former employees up to $100,000 for healthcare costs, but dies in Civil Justice Subcommittee in March 2020.
Long before Fairfax Wood Treaters, Henry Innes builds his assembly plant for American Motors Export Company here. The letters “AMEC” announce themselves from the arch above the entrance for a hundred years. Architects Mulford Marsh and Harold Saxelbye design the structure with 370 foot long clerestory windows. A century before rust and rain comes down on me, sunlight rains through the upper air.
In the summer of 1921, newspaper ads across Florida promote the Innes Touring Car, having “excited the admiration of all who have seen it. It was in the Bridge Celebration Parade and Was Occupied By JACKSONVILLE GIRLS. The triumph of years of constructive thought and energy will early eventuate in an enormous plant producing thousands and tens of thousands of THE INNES CARS.”
Full page ads exclaim, “The Company has selected Jacksonville for this gigantic plant because of its exceptional climatic conditions, its port facilities and its accessibility to the markets of the world.” The American Motors Export Company would also produce the Innes Coupe, the Innes Sedan, the Innes Roadster and the Innes Producer.
The very next month, The Detroit Free Press reports, “Capt. Henry L. Innes, for many years a resident of Detroit, died at Jacksonville, Fla., August 16, 1921, after a short illness. His death was due to blood poisoning following the extraction of a number of teeth.” Newspapers report the American Motors Export Co. a $5 million corporation formed to bring to life “products of Mr. Innes’s personal designing and experience in the automotive field.” Innes is 46 years old. AMEC has assembled six cars.
Now we’re on the line between afternoon and evening. The sunlight wanes golden. The winds have abated. The thunderstorm is over. A freight train storms past in the warm autumn of 2020, just as it does when the assembly plant stands vacant through the 1920s, when Continental Can Company operates through the ’30s, making millions of cans for nearby Jax Beer—“The Drink of Friendship”—until the Jax Brewing Company moves to New Orleans.
In 1943, Howard Feed Mills takes over the facility. In that 1948 photograph by Jack Spottswood, the 50,000 gallon water tower, standing 75 feet tall, and the Mission style arch over the front entrance declare the new name. Men wear fedoras and women tea-length dresses, all staring at one another, waiting, while boys stand front and center attending calves. What’s everyone waiting for?
Lawrence Webb Howard, would-be developer of the stillborn Mediterranean-style subdivision called Granada just south of Downtown in the 1920s, has better luck with poultry and livestock feed. On April 4, 1926, The Florida Times-Union advertises Granada with a picture of his brother George Howard’s two story home, arched windows stepping alongside the interior stairs, red clay tile roof, at 4004 San Jose Boulevard. Lawrence Howard builds the nearby house at 3911 Cordova Avenue for himself and his family, but replaces his brother in the larger home when the Great Depression comes.
Granada meets the same fate as AMEC. Whereas American Motors Export Company builds six cars, Granada goes bust after three houses. The Depression creeps along, brutal and ineluctable. Granada stands a ghost town, except for the Howards, for most of a decade, lots undeveloped, ornamental street lights aglow, roads paved but empty and expectant. Lonely. For what are they waiting?
Up at the former AMEC Building, however, business thrives. Howard adds “a feed mill and molasses tank farm,” as Ennis Davis writes in his 2012 book Reclaiming Jacksonville: Stories Behind the River City’s Historic Landmarks, using the assembly plant for “storage of hay, grain and feed. The company’s main product, Veri-Best” feeds “cows, poultry and horses.” Howard’s son James helps run the company until 1976, but envisions himself in real estate. He doesn’t know what he’s been waiting for. In 1978, Howard Feed Mills closes up shop.
For the first decade of Fairfax Wood Treaters’ existence on the site, toxic preservatives flow in rainwater from the fields and old hulking structures into the yards of houses on Pullman Court and the unpaved West 14th Street dead end and onto the grounds of two elementary schools. Starting in 1990, contaminated storm water discharges into a retention pond that empties through an overflow pipe right into Moncrief Creek. The old men keep fishing along Moncrief and the Trout River as they have for a hundred years. Nobody mentions the toxic waters to young black mothers and elderly grandfathers. For what are they waiting?
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency declares Fairfax Wood Treaters a superfund site, one of several deeply polluted locations across inner Jacksonville with cleanup costs only the federal government will assume. The wreck of the original Marsh and Saxelbye structure stands menacing along Fairfax Street, groaning in the wind, cracking and crying in the rain. A red sportscar sluices through its shadows, the sun coruscating hexagonally through the rusted roof girders. The AMEC Building’s demolished in 2014.
Now a bright green grass covers this ground. As though nothing ever happened here. Or, more likely, as if everywhere, everything has happened. For all the old structures are gone now. For what were they waiting? Bulldozers remove 60,000 tons of soil and sediment from these 12 acres, from more than 50 surrounding homes, from two elementary schools and playgrounds. Workers excavate and remove chemical storage tanks and pipes. Hoses displace 150,000 gallons of contaminated water.
These 12 acres wait like a hole in the center of the neighborhood. In the middle of these grasses, the songs of stridulating field crickets fill the night air. It’s the great blind ongoing. Things somehow, not knowing what they do, know what to do. Ants built new metropolises. Earthworms filter the earth. A red-shouldered hawk perches on a power line. Small legs squirm in its beak. Things know what to do, but they don’t know what they do.
That’s how the hauntings proceed. That’s how the earth reclaims the world. Though Henry Innes dies from blood poisoning following tooth extractions. Though the streetlights shine in the ghost town of Granada. Though nobody, not the Florida Departments of Health, of Environmental Protection, not the City of Jacksonville, not Wood Treaters LLC, tells the families who call Durkeeville home they’ve been poisoning them for 30 years.