Hogans Creek and the Emerald Necklace

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Stained concrete walkway in the middle, berm to the right, concrete incline toward the (concrete) Hogans Creek Bridge on the left. To the right of the berm, the creek silts up almost all the way across. In this particular corner of alluvium, so much trash covers the concrete, you can barely see anything beneath. Newspapers, old clothes, fast-foot bags, beer cans, gin bottles, clothes hangers, flower pots, an old mattress reeking of urine, a rusted grocery cart.

Early 20th century, Hogans Creek, “Jacksonville’s Grand Canal,” connecting Confederate Park, east of Main Street, to Springfield (later Klutho) Park, west of Broad Street and Boulevard. Broad Street crosses Hogans Creek and becomes Boulevard. Then Hogans swerves toward the housing projects, the Blodgett Homes and Villas, the Brutalist Hogan’s Creek Tower.

Strange man with a big beard sifts through the trash by the creek where it’s been carved beneath the street. He has rheumy eyes and bacterial sinusitis breath that smells like something crawled up into the cavities of his face and died.

“People look at me and they judge me,” he says. “I have a college degree. They don’t like what they see when they look at me, but I’m a truer reflection of this city than the hypocrites. Most people in this city, they just want to buy, buy, buy. They throw shit out, so they can buy. They only like to look at what they buy, but what they throw out piles up.” He says the true state of the world in the 21st century is a garbage dump, and he’s a true reflection of a 21st century American city. “I’m refuse, so they don’t like me, because they can’t buy me. You think about what I’m saying. Where’s all this stuff everybody’s making and buying got to go?” He tilts his head back, puffs his chest out slightly, and holds out an arm to indicate the trash all around him. This place down here, he says, is post-apocalypse. That’s what all that making and buying is, the apocalypse. And the trash that covers the world, that’s the post-apocalyptic landscape. Down here’s post-apocalypse under Broad Street, he says. “that’s all it is.”

Then he goes back to his work, filling the grocery cart with bottles, bags, newspapers, clothes, diapers, and a seat from a car. He pushes the cart up the incline to the old minivan parked on the side of Broad Street and begins to unload the cart into the van. He says the natural environment for 21st century human beings is garbage, and that he takes garbage to the three acres he owns on the far Northside and spreads it on the yard around his old house trailer. “Yeah, there’s a troll living in this mess, this nest of trash, beneath the Hogans Creek Bridge, but it ain’t me,” he says. “The troll is everybody else who lives in this town, and all this trash is their natural environment. I’m their natural environment too.”

The earth on either side of Hogans Creek was marsh, fetid, breeding mosquitos and yellow fever and malaria. So in 1907, garbage was brought in and placed on either side of the creek to raise the level of the land for Dignan Park, soon renamed Confederate Park.

Just the prior side of the 20th century, in 1899, a tract of marshland around Hogans Creek was filled with municipal garbage to raise the level of the land now called Springfield Park.

Both parks soon conjoined. More noticeable than either park was the creek that strung them together, and in the late 1920s, Henry John Klutho, the city’s foremost architect, designed an improvement project that centered on the creek itself, rather than the parks. Concrete balustrades arced gracefully around the creek and new reservoir lakes and decorative footbridges curved over it. The bulkheads and footbridges and walkways that moved with Hogans Creek created one central elegant promenade for the whole city.

And the promenade truly was lovely, almost European, and the promenade had been constructed on landfill of municipal garbage. Years later, the lakes would be filled in, the lighting fixtures vandalized and taken down. New roadways for cars would bridge over the bridges for walkers, for flaneurs, over the footbridges that once graced across this thousands-of-years-old creek. The walkways are still there. Those who use them are few and have nefarious intentions. Or are foolish and romantic enough to wander the old and lost backways of the town.

But go back further. Before Hogans Creek was the city’s “Grand Canal,” even before the land on either side was raised with city garbage, the city’s health committee condemned an almost third-world garbage mound that burgeoned on Hogans Creek at Newnan Street. The mound was one of the foremost places to haul garbage, for individuals and for local businesses, for the city jail, for slaughterhouses, for stables.

In the late 1870s, at the time of the condemnation, Hogans Creek was the natural landform used as the city’s boundary at its eastern edge, northern edge, and part of its western edge. Raw sewage and trash filled the creek. So did disease.

For decades here, coal was converted into gas, and coal tar bled into the waters.

If Hogans Creek is thousands of years old, its function as part of the 200 year-old city of Jacksonville is twofold. Jekyll and Hyde. Hogans Creek has been garbage heap, the land around it and the earth beneath it an archaeological compost pile, and Hogans Creek has been this city’s Venetian canal. No gondolas now. Now Carnevale di Venezia here.

The city did rename Springfield Park Klutho Park, but it seems to have done so in lieu of bringing back anything beautiful to Hogans Creek.

And which Hogans Creek did this city decide it wanted, and which vision of Jacksonville?

At some point in the city’s history, the idea of an “emerald necklace” of McCoys Creek and Hogans Creek joining the St. Johns River to encircle downtown seemed a lovely idea. It’s still a lovely idea. But both creeks’ mosquito populations helped spread yellow fever in the 19th century and both creeks now are permeated with carbon compounds and carcinogens. The emerald necklace glows with cancer and mercury and dysentery and death.

In 1998, rains came and they came. That season, a homeless man sleeping beneath a bridge on the side of Hogans Creek drowned in the floodwaters that swept him a half mile down the creek. But go back further.

In 1987, a man’s body was found floating in Hogans Creek. It had been there for five days. He had a tattoo on his arm of a heart penetrated with an arrow. Nobody ever figured out who he was. Now go far further.

In 1914, Jacksonville hosted the Confederate Veterans’ Reunion, bringing 48,000 Confederate veterans to the side of Hogans Creek. It was in commemoration of this event that Dignan Park was renamed Confederate Park. Film footage exists. Old men in white suits. Old men in dark suits. All of them wearing hard-brim hats. No one without a hat. Dancing some kind of jig. Bad rhythm. Jerky, awkward footage. They dance mostly up and down, their bodies motionless, only their legs moving. Arms rigid by their sides. Expressionless faces. Two men fiddling. As culturally confined and circumscribed as any hip hop video on youtube today. Elaborate mustaches. Confederate flags flapping. Then caption, “F.M. Ironmonger The youngest veteran living.” He doffs his hat and bows repeatedly.

The psychogeographer-flaneur talks to the self-identified troll beneath the street, and the troll says he’s not the troll, that a troll does reside in this nest of trash, but that Hogans Creek is the emerald necklace of every Jacksonville resident. He says, “I’m the natural environment.” Preachy fool. Hogans Creek is the city’s Grand Canal constructed from municipal garbage and returned to the city’s original poisons.

But there is something else. If the creek predates the city deep in time, then is it right to identify the creek solely with the city? The city has forgotten the creek, as it’s forgotten those who walk its side, but the creek didn’t need to be known all that long time before the city ever was. Maybe now Hogans Creek is too steeped in history to claim an independence grounded in prehistory, because the city has too deeply poisoned it for far too long. Then again, there was all that time the creek flowed and had no name. Without a name, you belong solely to yourself.

The Great Blue Heron was here 10,000 years ago, and the Great Blue Heron is here now.

“I’d like to believe,” the trash troll says, “the creek looks back fondly on its long, very long youth, just the other side of all this death and filth.”