by Tim Gilmore, 5/7/2017
Easter Sunday. 1962.
The two rows of 12 little houses face each other through weathered front porches across their narrow courtyard as they’ve done since 1911.
In these old photographs, Harry Walters still smiles forward, six years old, holding his Easter basket on a Sunday slipping further and further behind us. Behind Harry’s cousin Ricky, four porches recede into the background just as that Sunday, without Harry’s and Ricky’s knowing it, had already (always) begun to do.
Dancy Terrace was a good place to be a little boy. The community faced in on itself and everyone watched out for the children. The Victorian district of Springfield spread its grand Queen Anne houses and elegant foursquares around this “bungalow court” that lines a fold in the middle of the block bordered by East 9th and 10th, Hubbard Street and Main. Technically, that central space is Redell Street, but the street is really a sidewalk.
While bungalows dot every region of North America, bungalow courts are stereotypically Californian. Despite realtors typically referring to any small house as a bungalow, the bungalow is architecturally distinct, standing a story and a half tall and featuring porches, slight gables, and exposed beams and rafters. In The Bungalow Book, 1923, Charles E. White warns, “All that bungles is not a bungalow.”
Though Springfield’s Dancy Terrace may be Jacksonville’s only bungalow court, these houses are more like shotgun houses than the bungalows so often associated with designer Gustav Stickley’s “Craftsman” movement at the turn of the 20th century.
Harry recalls playing kickball in the courtyard. When Harry and his brother heard Big Jim, the steam whistle that’s sounded daily across central Jacksonville since 1890, they darted inside for lunch.
Harry’s grandmother, who lived in the house across from his, told him not to listen the long-haired folksinger who sat on a nearby porch and played guitar. The words of his songs were wicked. A few years later that longhair, Jim Stafford, had Top 40 hits with songs like “Swamp Witch” and “Spiders and Snakes.”
Even in the 1980s, by which time most of Jacksonville had long feared Springfield due to decades of dilapidation, “white flight,” and the influx of halfway houses and boarding houses, Dancy Terrace’s 996 square foot houses still had fenced front gardens and lovely shade trees.
Ironically, by the time Dancy Terrace’s front porches appeared in the 2006 movie Lonely Hearts, starring John Travolta and Salma Hayek, the entire court stood abandoned.
Springfield fell for a long time. Its decline began well before most urban neighborhoods’ post-World War II exodus and its rise took longer than most such neighborhoods too.
For Dancy Terrace, that means strange historical disjunctions. Even as Dancy Terrace provided a safe and communal setting for its children in the 1960s, other parts of Springfield had already long been falling to squalor. Sometime in the 1970s, the pseudo-serial killer and arsonist Ottis Toole began his reign of fire over the district. Then, after restoration and preservation organizations gained momentum in resurrecting the neighborhood, Springfield’s bungalow court fell completely vacant.
In 2012, Save Dancy LLC, a corporation run by Hailing Zhong and her husband Johannes Ullrich, committed wholly to making Dancy Terrace a community once again.
At the corner of East 10th Street and Redell, the street sign stands crooked and misplaced. Someone has uprooted it and busted it through the top plaster step at the porch of the first house.
The house next door is occupied. It’s the first one of the 24, but Hailing tells me the tenant’s lived there a year and is renewing his lease. Several houses down, the second house has been rehabbed and is on the market for $850 a month. 1901 Redell, a red house down at East 9th, will probably be the next renovation.
Hailing and Johannes have renovated other Springfield houses since moving to Jacksonville from Quincy, Massachusetts in 2005 for Hailing to accept a job as an engineer. They quickly fell in love with Springfield, their chosen neighborhood, and just on the cusp of the Great Recession, Hailing decided to become a real estate investor full-time.
In the past 20 years, Dancy Terrace has changed hands often. During the foreclosure that preceded Hailing and Johannes’s involvement, ownership of individual houses passed to multiple investors.
So the couple’s first task was to reconsolidate ownership, since individual owners would have little incentive to renovate if other owners don’t share the vision.
Hailing speaks of a “tipping point” when enough of the houses have been renovated and occupied that Dancy Terrace will, once again, sell itself as a great place to live.
“I’m committed,” she says. “I live in Springfield and I walk and drive past these houses every day. I promise to see this project through.”
We walk past a house whose porch has caved in and another whose porch is gone entirely. A recently bright red heart cut from thin plywood floats broken and chipped, affixed to a front porch.
Perhaps once again, children will laugh where the trees used to be. Perhaps once again, little kitchen gardens, punctuated with the occasional satsuma and grapefruit tree, will grow before these porches.
It’s windy today. It stormed last night. I wonder if when the weather’s just right, the corridor between these rows of houses might form a wind tunnel. Perhaps that accidental woodwind music could be a selling point for the right kind of romantic, a writer, an academic, a singer-songwriter.
Hailing bends down to pick up trash. She speaks of security cameras invisible in the trees. You couldn’t truly call Dancy Terrace abandoned five years ago, she says, when there were so many stray cats.
She knows she’s struck momentum, but sometimes all she can feel is resistance. It’s not a personal resistance. Indeed, the new Springfield might well be the tightest-knit community in the city. It’s the resistance of history and the inertia of decades.
It would help, for example, if a nearby storefront laundry stopped letting small-time drug dealers hang out all day.
This resistance, she says, is like the trash. The trash grows just like the grass, but quicker and regardless of season. She’s always picking up the trash. It spreads like dust in an ancient and long-sealed house.
Still, this is the Springfield whose boarding houses are gone, whose restored houses are some of the greatest examples of Victorian architecture in Florida, and the Springfield that throws the one of city’s largest parties each fall with Porch Fest.
Hailing shows me a tall foursquare she and Johannes have renovated nearby on Walnut Street. The 1914 house contains over 2800 square feet, including its two story verandah.
Standing behind the blushing lush-pink blooms of an abundant oleander, Hailing still talks about Dancy Terrace, whose houses are one third the size of this one.
Old houses, like old people, are worlds of their own. If it’s true that when an old person dies, a library burns down, an old house, when lost, likewise takes its own entire world from the world.
We walk through the Walnut Street house. We take the stairs. A front bedroom opens onto the second-story porch.
As soon as we enter the bedroom, our stares rivet to something that clings to the blinds and shouldn’t be here.
“Is that a bird?” Hailing asks. “Is it alive?”
I approach it slowly, circle it carefully, and watch its small round eyes watch me.
“Yes,” I said.
She opens the door to the second-story porch and I cup the dark speckled little bird as gently as I can in my palm. Its sharp beak opens wide and its tiny wings beat fiercely against my hands.
When I step onto the porch and let the starling go, it’s as though it’s already gone. It flies that fast. Its wings beat vigorously. It counters the day’s strong and unpredictable winds. It’s gone from me forever.
How long did that little starling cringe alone in that house? How does that fierce small bird navigate the rooftops and trees and city streets it covers in seconds? I envy the starling’s relationship to the city. By contrast, people seem some hubristic hybrid, half lost wanderer and half symptom.
I hope that starling attains its full being and finds its murmuration, that choreography of thousands moving as one that’s heralded in human minds an apocalypse, an army of angels, the dawn of a new age.
I hope the same for Springfield and Dancy Terrace. Every hour’s an apocalypse. New ages dawn every minute.