by Tim Gilmore, 5/14/2021
1. These Earliest Women
Who were they, these women, in these earliest photographs? Surely someone kept a record. Surely somebody jotted notes. Who is she, wearing the crosshatched cinched dress, horn rimmed glasses, sitting behind her bed and beside her circular houseplant stand? Who calls her on that rotary dial phone beneath the bedside lamp? Does she call her grandsons?
In another image, she flips through a photo album, seated on that silk brocade flowered sofa, a framed graduation photo of a granddaughter or great niece beside her. Ceramic dogs perch beneath the glass coffee table before her, atop which stand figurines of swans and chickens. In the view from her window, she owns the Jacksonville skyline.
2. Rhythms of Windows
It’s one of architect Ted Pappas’s most Brutalist designs. The Jacksonville Housing Authority commissioned the 15 story 209 unit tower in 1974. The Hogan’s Creek Tower welcomed its first residents two years later. Built to house elderly residents with low income, the tower stands blocks south of where Brewster Hospital, run by and for black people during segregation, and the historic wealthy black neighborhood of Sugar Hill once stood.
Pappas’s Brutalist design echoes architecture like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation built in 1952 in Marseille. Unlike Pappas’s best known Brutalist building, the Mary Singleton Senior Center, with its wall planks shaped on redwood forms with poured concrete, this tower rose from precast concrete sections.
You can read the rhythms of windows line by line, floor by floor, as if you’re reading music. The apartments are modest but spacious, with views of the skyline that would raise the price of more commercial units, while out front stands a large red metal sculpture by Atlanta artist Carl Andree called Jacksonville Trisect. It was the first public work of art commissioned in Jacksonville in 50 years. Most of Jacksonville panned it, but tower residents loved it, amiably debating whether it depicted an anteater, an elephant or an ostrich sticking its head in the ground.
3. Frail, but Hale
Christmas 1990. Frank Henry Thomas could not have said how he spent the day. The police could tell you how they spent it: searching back alleys Downtown and Springfield, through Blodgett Villas, beneath the overpass and along the banks of polluted reeking Hogan’s Creek. Auxiliary officers dredged the creek with long poles and nets, bringing up rotten clothes, grocery carts, an empty steamer trunk.
It was cold outside and Frank Thomas was frail. “Frail, but hale,” his neighbors said. “Hail fellow, well met.” But he was 100 years old and a previous caper outside the tower hadn’t ended so well.
After a door alarm went off that Christmas morning, attendants checked each apartment. At 6:30 a.m., they reported Frank missing. He’d only lived at Hogan’s Creek a month, but he’d already wandered away twice. Arline Hall, current president of the Tower Tenants’ Association, said Frank was in good health. He was spryer than many a 40 year old. He was lean and he could walk and walk. And walk. But he suffered from memory lapses.
Three weeks before, Frank had disappeared. He couldn’t say why he’d left. He just had to go. He didn’t know where he’d gone. He had places to visit. He thought he might have been around the world, but so much had happened in his long life that he wasn’t sure which things hadn’t. When an old man was reported lying before a grand tall Victorian house in Springfield, the old man who turned out to be Frank said he’d been mugged.
4. Learning to Fly
It was Saturday, July 9, 1994, when Jimmy Hodges took a dive, made a psychogeographic pilgrimage, not that he’d have used that term, sought out the earth he’d always loved from his height, found reconciliation. Strange it was that falling six stories to the earth might feel like taking flight.
The newswire lede said merely and said clumsily and said glibly: “A Jacksonville man fell six stories to his death down a trash chute.” Tragic though it was, the story was minor news; a handful of papers would pick it up, then run it as a brief.
Jimmy Hodges lived on the sixth floor. The Hogan’s Creek Tower stood 16 stories. No explanation. No indication of murder, said a sheriff’s office spokesman. No need for investigation. Story over, soon as begun.
5. Skyline Mayor and Tower Totem
Who were these ladies, huddled in afghan blanket sweaters and shawls, panty hose bunched up on calves, metal cane perched at the side, knitting in the dark beneath an unlit corner lamp, a shoddy and desultory Christmas tree draped scantily in beads and ornaments and sagging tinsels, and what show are they watching on TV? Their eyes all pull to one source, out of frame, in the distance. They take it seriously.
Who was she who let the photographers come take pictures of her at home atop the city seven decades into her life in 1976? The new residents of “the senior citizens’ tower” praised their accommodations when newspapermen interviewed them. Many of them had lived without running water in their youth, siblings asleep side by side in flammable kitchens, wooden rooms built on wooden rooms in the deeper labyrinths of the inner city. Others had lived in boarding houses carved out of mansions. Now, in their old age, they’d come to this “poor man’s penthouse,” as some of them called it.
Might this distinguished elderly woman have been Frances Hines, 71 year old first president of the Towers Tenant Association? Frances seized each chance to speak for her community. She needed to know each tenant to know how best to represent each need. She saw this vertical community as a neighborhood. The floors were the streets.
And the greatest challenge meeting the neighborhood at large was the controversy of the Trisect. When the rest of the city converged on the neighborhood to trash talk the public art project out front, all Hogan’s Creek Tower felt affronted. The city hated Trisect. The city hated that the City spent money on what the city called “so-called art.” The community understood that. They knew the city hated that “the government” spent money on them too. So tower residents rallied around Trisect, discussed whether it were a bug, a bird, a dinosaur. Whatever it was, it became their mascot. It became their totem animal. It became them.
Frances told reporters she loved her view of the skyline from her window. As president of the tenants’ association, she might as well have been mayor of the city. She loved her role that much and took that much pride. She told reporters she loved her view of Trisect from her window, loved its eyes, loved the colors. “You know, I’m old and I like red,” she said. Maybe the city outside had difficulty understanding how Trisect was art, but tower tenants had no such trouble. “That’s alright,” she said. “We get it.”
6. Pilgrimage on His 100th Christmas
On Christmas Day, 1990, 100 year old Frank Henry Thomas walked for 17 hours across Downtown Jacksonville. What had happened and what route he’d taken, he couldn’t say. He might well have wandered the creek after which the senior citizen’s tower where he lived was named. Might have followed Hogan’s Creek under Broad Street and Boulevard, beneath ancient buildings and the cry of a steam whistle named Big Jim, across the Confederate flag etched in walkways across Confederate Park, around and down past the Armory and under Liberty Street, underground beneath or dodging cars across Union Street forming Arlington Expressway before the Mathews Bridge, dropping through homeless camps snug under the trees, around train cars and train cars and train cars, by the creek’s widening by the Maxwell House Coffee Plant and almost into the slow but inexorably roiling St. Johns River, flowing north from downstate and into, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. Police found him wandering outside Metropolitan Park, home of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and the World of Nations Celebration.
Where he’d gone and why, he could not say. But in the end, who can? Police returned him home, but where’s home? especially across a long life? at 11:30 pm. He’d made a psychogeographic pilgrimage, not that he’d used those words. He’d waited a century for the journey. His mother used to sing him the songs that saved her through slavery. His uncles, he remembered, voted for black men after the Confederates lost. Then black men couldn’t run. Then his uncles couldn’t vote. They could, but couldn’t. That’s what he’d learned most. You could, but you couldn’t; you could, but you couldn’t. He’d waited 100 years. It was the best Christmas of his life.