Grand Park

by Tim Gilmore, 12/14/2018

When BossCity and Headfirst’s rap video “Let’s Go Slide” made city scuttlebutt a few years ago, it planted Grand Park firmly in North Florida’s psychological map. It wasn’t those in the know, the insiders of an outsider subculture. It was news anchors doing what they’re paid to do: latch onto the melodrama and hype it. When police showed the video to neighbors at Johnnie Walker Community Center and TV news crews showed it to the rest of the city, its promoter added, “Featured on various news stations all over North Florida. Nigga we made lol” to its youtube page.

If that were all you knew of Grand Park, you’d be surprised driving Wylene Street, or Henrietta, or streets named for Confederate victories in the Civil War, to see a sparsely populated and mostly quiet neighborhood of 1960s and ’70s ranch-style suburban houses, to see old people growing beds of collard greens outside their bedroom windows, to see racist blackface lawn jockeys in front yards. And no, the community center’s not named for the scotch label but a neighborhood activist who died in 2004.

What classification of haunting is the replacement of the lynch mob with the street gang anyway? What perverse persistence of violence in the landscape? What strange repetition in time?

The problem with Grand Park, says Essey Howard, is not so much the place, but its placelessness. Now 64 years old, Essey has lived in Grand Park, on and off, since the 1960s. “Used to be, you had come through Grand Park just to go downtown,” he says. “You had to come through Grand Park just to go north. It was a way station.” Since being named for the nearby railroad confluence called Grand Crossing, Grand Park has always been about passing through.

Grand Crossing from above, 2018

Essey says Grand Park needs roots. The neighborhood needs stores. “There ain’t no stores and there ain’t no place to put ’em,” he says. It needs jobs: “I go out there a lot, hang on the corner, chat with ’em, see what’s goin’ on. People cain’t get a good job.” It needs drainage: “That was always a problem.”

The neighborhood wedges into the center of the so-called “Northwest Quadrant,” the part of the city mostly black and mostly poor that’s lacked city services since long before the Consolidation of Duval County and the City of Jacksonville was sold to black Jacksonville in the late ’60s as a new form of government finally bringing them basic services.

Before Consolidation, however, Grand Park was mostly white, and this neighborhood’s not inner-city. A minute ago, Grand Park was a suburb, and it’s still largely rural. The Sheriff’s Office and TV news have used the word “gang” in association with Grand Park more than any other headline word but “guns” and “shots.” Essey Howard, however, is skeptical. “There’s no gangs in Grand Park,” he says. “The gangs come through from elsewhere. In Grand Park, it’s just people hangin’ together.”

But in August 2013, then-Sheriff John Rutherford and infamous State Attorney Angela Corey held a news conference to announce the arrests of six members of the “Grand Park Gang.” A century before, a different sheriff fended off a Grand Park lynch mob. Rutherford bemoaned the “deadly ‘don’t snitch’ attitude” in black neighborhoods where people trust the police no more than the allies of kids who commit crimes and might want revenge. He called “the gang […] a criminal enterprise at one time numbering 43 members with associates ranging in ages from 15 to 32.”

a still from “Let’s Go Slide”

So what constitutes a “gang”? It’s not an officially registered entity. Stock in gang identity isn’t sold on the New York Stock Exchange. Is a gang a violent shadow government exorcising real power in the community? Or a clique of desperate kids, their masculinity crucified upside down at the root, trying to convince anyone whose attention they can steal, by any means necessary, that they’re important? The Florida State Attorney’s Office labels local rap groups gangs, inadvertently both giving groups like Cutt Circle the chance to defend their name and raising the value of their brand.

Rutherford said the Sheriff’s Office relied on RICO charges, the same 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act used to prosecute Mafia gangsters, to arrest members of the “Grand Park Gang.” Gangs or not, Grand Park centers the “Northwest Quadrant,” or “Zone 5,” as 15 year old aspiring badasses and the Sheriff’s Office call it, the bloodiest region in a city that’s for years been known as the “murder capital” of Florida. So why would Jacksonville be bloodier gangland than much more urban Miami? Why was Jacksonville’s 2017 murder rate double that of Orlando’s and Tampa’s, higher than New York’s during Prohibition? What does Jacksonville have to prove?

a still from “Let’s Go Slide”

Why, in BossCity and Headfirst’s video, are scrawny kids without shirts sitting atop Hyundais and waving guns, or walking down railroad tracks in the neighborhood woods and rapping about Al Capone? Sometimes the stakes are highest when they’re lowest. The smallest actions carry most risk when lives have least value.

Look at the conversation online. Though the point of slang is to exclude those who don’t get it, and the point of outsider subculture is to give people excluded from the mainstream the power to exclude those outside their own group, somehow the social media commentary, while sincere, created what looked like a caricature of outsider trash-talking.

a still from “Let’s Go Slide”

When @904lilgutta prompted, “all you YouTube gangsters let’s all meet and talk like men,” another Jacksonville rapper called Headfirst’s music “kountry ass shit,” invited “yo bitch ass” to “Kome slide to Bompton,” and said, “We gone lay u down on the set homie.”

It doesn’t matter that neither boaster lives in Bompton (supposed name for Compton, California under the influence of the street gang, the Bloods), or that a “warning” at the start of another Keezy Feat and Headfirst video says, “All prop guns used for this video is for music videos and movie use only.” The biggest putdown is calling Jacksonville rap “country.”

a still from “Let’s Go Slide”

The South, white and black, has an honor code. It always has. Like two men dueling with pistols in the Old South, those implicated in the code look ridiculously dishonorable to people outside of it. The code means that insults must be repaid. The South has always been more violent than the rest of the nation, but doesn’t take kindly to its longtime reputation for being backward. Ironically, when people feel defensive, they more fully display those characteristics that most shame them: shame a man for being a hick and he might stomp you like a hick would. Meanwhile, rap is supposed to be urban, the cityscape of the outlaw who inverts the terms of power, but Grand Park is hardly the 1930s’ New York of Murder, Inc. The only thing worse than being from the ghetto is being a hick, a rube, a black redneck. What’s it mean to be a rapper from a big country town?

from The Tampa Tribune, April 22, 1922

Grand Park was certainly “country” in 1922 when the Associated Press reported the formation of a white lynch mob that Sheriff R.E. Merritt estimated at “between 400 and 500.” After “seven negroes [were] held on suspicion in connection with an attack on a white woman in the Grand Park section of the city Wednesday morning,” Merritt called in the Florida National Guard on Friday, April 21st, “having declared the situation tonight in the Grand Park section […] that of a mob lacking a leader.”

Merritt said the victim had not been shown a lineup to identify her attacker and The Florida Times-Union specifically stated, “Authorities have no evidence to connect any of the suspects with the crime.” Troops would protect the county jail through Saturday night.

Windsor Hotel, early 20th century, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

The sheriff wished to avoid a repeat of the 1919 storming of the jail that resulted in two unconvicted black murder suspects, Bowman Cook and John Morine, kidnapped and lynched. The mob had dragged Cook’s bullet-filled corpse through the streets and dumped it before the Windsor Hotel in the shadow of the Confederate monument in the middle of Hemming Park in the heart of the city. Sheriff Merritt faced growing criticism in the city, the A.P. reported, but though he “reported folks in the Grand Park section still bent upon disorder,” he avoided a second jail storming in less than three years.

from The Florida Times-Union, February 13, 1906

And Grand Park was certainly “country” on February 13, 1906, when The Florida Times-Union reported that the day after Valentine’s, first thing in the morning, the Jacksonville Development Company would begin selling lots for the “choice and promising sub-division of Grand Park, where the Atlantic and East Coast Terminal Company is constructing extensive freight terminals.” Grand Park took its name from Grand Crossing, the intersection of three railroads immediately to the west. Each 50 by 100 foot lot sold for $50, “$3 cash and $1 a month until it paid.” [sic]

Grand Park, the T-U asserted, would be a bustling way station, with “new terminals, […] a big railroad repair shop, round houses, coal shutes [sic], etc. Every freight train leaving the city of Jacksonville will be made up in these yards and all freight coming to Jacksonville by rail is to be received and handled here. It will be the one great railway center of Jacksonville.”

Grand Crossing from above, 2018

Though Grand Crossing was an important rail junction, Grand Park was no “center.” It never eclipsed the bigger rail constellations at the center of town. In fact, the Times-Union’s sensational promotion of the original development foreshadowed what Essey Howard would say, more than a century later, had always been wrong with Grand Park. The place was no place. Just a “way station.” In the “kountry.”

from The Florida Times-Union, March 11, 1906

By March 11th, the T-U reported that Grand Park lot sales had broken “all records in the handling of suburban real estate in Jacksonville.” By purchasing the 600th lot, a Mr. D.A. Mayfield of Fernandina Beach had won an additional Grand Park house for free. Some of those oldest houses still survive on Wylene and Vernon Streets. Public School no. 14, now Grand Park Career Center, at Division and West 18th Streets, was built in 1914.

In the early 1960s, when the legendary Ben Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition activist group, was 10 or 12 years old, he engaged in “BB gun wars” with the white kids in the woods behind his house. Frazier grew up southwest of Grand Park down Kings Road in College Circle. He remembers the railroad tracks and the woods between College Circle and Grand Park’s Canal Street and “large wooden houses on Kings Road.”

Folio Weekly, April 18, 2018, story by Shelton Hull

Ben sounds like a mountain speaking, even when early on a Wednesday morning he says quietly, “We spent most of our time shooting birds in the woods with our BB guns. When the white boys came into the woods with their BB guns, we all shot at each other. We didn’t know why we didn’t like each other. We just knew we weren’t supposed to like them and they weren’t supposed to like us.”

When Essey Howard says Grand Park has changed in recent years, he doesn’t mean the darkening of complexion that happened around 1970. He’s lived on both sides of the Martin Luther King Expressway that cuts Division Street at a right angle and bisects Grand Park. He’s lived on West 25th and on 13th and on both sides, he says, neighbors now stay indoors. “Nobody hangs out,” he says. “Everybody’s afraid somebody’s gonna drive through shooting.”

One of the best times he’s ever had in Grand Park, though, was a neighborhood reunion “a couple years ago. People came from all over,” Essey says. “There was no problems. People got along. People had they families. There was music and food. People was barbecuin’.”

The police were there, but they were officers the neighborhood knew. “The police that was there was like family. They was hangin’ out. People was feedin’ ’em.” The cops were part of the community, not an outside force. And that image of people gathered at the community center, the park, having a good time, doesn’t show up in rap videos.

Down Kings Road, wooden signs remind drivers, “Ye Must Be Born Again” and “The Wages of Sin is Death.” Where Canal Street dead-ends at a giant transportation hub for AAA Cooper trucking company, somebody’s dumped a mattress in the weeds and a box spring in the middle of the road. Bald hulking buzzards stand guard in a wake on the mattress or nimbly step about it, while other birds circle overhead.

This morning, at the 26th Street Grocery at the corner of Almeda Street, a drawing on the blue southern wall advertises the $2.99 burger-or-wings-and-fries special. A gaggle of geese gawks and flounders in cold puddles on the otherwise empty playground at Ryder Park at the southern wall of Grand Park between Automobile Drive and 28 tracks of railroad.

Somebody’s grilling in the park. A tall kid with dreadlocks wrapped up on top of his head peers beneath the hood of a 1970s’ Dodge Challenger. Wild onion stalks wave in a light cool wind down the street from the baseball diamond. People get on with their lives. Life gets on with its people. There’s a happy raucous laughter at the swimming pool on West 20th, “seven minutes’ automobile ride from the City Hall and Bay Street,” so ads proclaimed in 1906, “approached by one of the finest hard road drives in Florida.” The sun’s risen before the moon’s fully fallen. Houses hunker in a grove of camphors. An old man tends his collard greens.

from The Tampa Tribune, February 18, 1906