by Tim Gilmore, 8/22/2022
Moving day, 1973. The Jacksonville Housing Authority is demolishing the house. The kids from next door play in the cardboard boxes and wooden crates stamped “South Florida Beverage Corporation.” Above their heads loom the crowns of tall palms, the transformers on telephone poles and the strange massive masonry and Egyptian hieroglyphics of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. Lon will miss playing Frisbee with these kids. Half a century later, he wishes he could remember their names, wishes he knew what became of them.
It’s been half a century since “urban renewal bought the land.” Lon King looks out at the scrub palm and ragged mulberry trees and thorny greenbriers and jessamine tendrils crossing barbed wire. The scent of irony carries stronger than the faint fragrance of trumpet creepers: the housing authority replaced housing with empty lots where homeless people sleep.
Five decades gone now, that tall Colonial Revival-style house with its pedimented windows and wide porch with Ionic columns. Fifty years gone, the little brick duplex where Lon lived in 909 and the single mother and her five children lived in 911. Today, dumped mattresses and car tires sink in a boscage of Mexican petunias reseeded from long gone porch plants like virile ghosts.
Back on that moving day, Lon is 19 years old, his bicycle his sole means of transportation. The little black girls who live next door stand beside his bike as he snaps a photo in black and white, the little sister chin-strapped with a wildly extravagant floral bonnet. In another photo, her open-toed shoes seem to wear their own extravagant floral bonnets.
In 1973, Downtown stoops and broods, molders and maunders, empty and eerie, a Southern Gothic dream. It’s the height of White Flight, post-apocalyptic. At the end of the workday, when all car traffic has receded to the suburbs, Lon rides his bike down the middle of the streets at the heart of town. He cruises block after block walled with lovely old buildings fallen hard, no restaurants, no shops, no groceries.
His leaving the suburbs has frightened his parents. Grown up in suburban Arlington, a white child surrounded by white neighbors and white classmates, Lon’s moved Downtown to be close to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, where he works in communications. He’s rented rooms in boarding houses first on one side of Liberty Street on Church Street, then the other. He calls his second Church Street place the presidential suite because he has his own bathroom.
He grows his hair long, trades in the horn-rimmed glasses for a pair of Windsor frames like John Lennon wears, hangs up a dartboard and shelves full of records.
Most of his neighbors are poor, focused on the urgencies of the day. Thinking about tomorrow costs too much. Petty crime seeps through the humid summer haze, thefts and burglaries but not many robberies or shootings. The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s lies more than a decade in the offing.
Songs waft out open windows, Al Green crooning, Sly and the Family Stone syncopating, The Main Ingredient singing, “Everybody plays the fool, / Sometime, / No exception to the rule, / Listen, baby.” The streets aren’t empty when people are dancing there.
He moves into 909 Market for the extra space. It’s $72.50 a month. Two bedrooms. Before all the kids move in next door, there’s the teenage couple from somewhere out of state. She’s a runaway, but goes to school every day at Andrew Jackson High up Main Street. They’ll make sure she graduates. The boy signs the girl’s report card as her father. The cats go in and out the rift in the busted screen door. There’s Panda, the seal point Himalayan. Lon will forget the other cat’s name.
The single mother and her kids live at 911 for maybe a year, maybe less. No address stays stable. They move in and the Jacksonville Housing Authority forces them out.
The children’s lives are hard, but they’re happy. They’re loved. They never think about why the street that crosses Market is called Confederate. They laugh and play. They shout and sing. They twirl batons and cuddle the cats. Their straight white teeth shine and their brilliant eyes beam.
And on those days when rain never breaks the bland blinding glare of the immensity of sun-filled sky, still the waters rise. Hogans Creek fans out underground, then comes up beneath your feet. Some rainy days, the waters wash through. The following day, a dry morning, a full moon comes closest to the earth. Floods blister beneath, sweat upward, then drown the streets. The waters appear to defy gravity, but they’re obeying the gravity of the moon.
The crossroads is covered. The little brick duplex crowns a small rise in the land, so that even as floodwaters enclose it, make 909 and 911 an island unto itself, they never touch it. The tall Colonial where the Kimbrells live sits higher still. The time his cousin housesits while Lon’s out of town, he invites friends over, they park at the side gate and the waters flood his car.
The water rises like a levitating body, threatens like the Old Testament, but recedes within hours. You watch it wax and wane on a hot spring day like the ancient slow heartbeat in the land.
One day Lon and a friend are sitting in his living room talking and listening to music. The song skips. The needle on the record in the bedroom is bouncing. He assumes a cat’s jumped on the record player again, so he walks to the other room and meets a teenage boy standing there holding his turntable. The boy has Lon’s jacket under his arm and a pocketful of canceled and blank checks.
The encounter is strangely cordial. The boy sets down Lon’s things and asks, “Want me to go out the way I came in?” He’d entered through the window in the other bedroom, but Lon tells him to leave by the front door.
Lon’s career with the sheriff’s office spans 30 years, ends when he goes back to college to become an elementary school teacher. He takes a job at St. Clair Evans Academy beside Hilltop Village Apartments at 45th and Moncrief, teaching children who remind him of those kids at 911 Market.
In 2021, City Council Member Ju’Coby Pittman writes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking that new housing be found for the residents in Hilltop’s 200 apartment units spread throughout 14 buildings. “Residents shouldn’t feel like they live in prison while watching the infestation of rats and rodents take over a place they call home,” she writes. In a campaign called Justice for Hilltop, she arranges for HUD officials from Atlanta to come meet the residents and a six year old girl named Sareeda James says the rats come in through the ceilings and under the doors.
Lon thinks back to his time teaching elementary school. “These kids,” he says, then shakes his head, his big beard and kind eyes facing elsewhere. “What they were dealing with was a lack of being able to count on anything at all in their lives, anything at all. That’s true for both them and their parents. They had no control over any of the circumstances of their lives from one day to the next.”
The light on Moving Day captures its moment, 1973, these kids’ skinny arms and legs, the curiosity in their eager faces. Behind them, signage on a one-story brick building advertises Respess-Grimes Engraving Company. Another empty parking lot will soon replace it. Lon leaves Market Street for Naldo Avenue south of Downtown in San Marco.
All the coffeehouses and bars and galleries and restaurants and bakeries just up the street in Springfield in the summer of 2022 remain unimaginable in 1973. It will take decades for historic urban neighborhoods throughout the nation to come back, re-prime, revitalize diversified, come to grips, maybe, with White Flight.
That old Colonial has been gone about as long as it existed. James and Dorothy Kimbrell had called it home since the late ’50s. Though he married Dorothy in Chicago, James Lemuel came down from Waycross, just as it sometimes seems all southern and central rural Georgia eventually lands in Jacksonville. James Joseph was 12 when he died from a ruptured appendix in Waycross in 1937.
The Kimbrells never have another child, but they turn their old house into the Kimbrell Apartments. James fashions himself a real estate man, keeps his office, never busy, downstairs, and Dorothy busies herself looking after the boarders. At various moments through the years, the house feels something like a family home. In the early 1970s, the Kimbrells are in their early 70s. They won’t live in the “senior living” for which the housing authority is demolishing their home. They’ll go back to Waycross instead and be buried there.
The following summer, 1974, just north on East 1st, the housing authority builds Centennial Towers, 14 stories, 208 units, designed by architects Herschel Shepard and George Fisher. The other parcels it purchased lie empty for a decade, then for a score, then for half a century.
The final city directory entry for 909 lists “King, Lon.” Whatever stories, identities, desires and desperations the old Colonial hosts, the directory names John Small and John Sims, a Clyde Glidewell, each with their own world history now unknown, and Kimbrell Real Estate at 355-2180. When I dial the number five decades later, I’m told it’s been disconnected.
Lon and I look up at Centennial Towers, newly renovated. The building hangs over the empty lot where the duplex stood. In ’72, the directory lists 911 to Nathaniel G. Tan, 909 to Garmel W. McMahan. The final year, the directory lists 909 ★ King Lon and 911 ★ Stevens Robt. No Robert Stevens lived at 911 that year and the family who lived there receives no mention.
Centennial Towers peers over the crumbling 1920s Hogans Creek footbridges. Stories slip through the cracks in the stone. Voices sink in the rising waters, the insidious lunar pull of tidal seep. These children sit on the front stoop, smiling, attentive to a moment that’s silenced and vanished but for Lon King’s half-dozen photos.