by Tim Gilmore, 11/14/2019
1. Eminent Domain of the Heart
In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Marjenhoff Park seemed built of frothing currents and rain and sewage and river and swill. If you could find a high enough point to stand, you knew you stood at the heart of a neighborhood, or at least a neighborhood that once here stood.
Alex Marjenhoff’s little two-chimney woodframe house stood in the water like a storied houseboat. Could he have pictured these waters when he was president of South Jacksonville City Council?
Neighborhood residents took their streets by boat, counting dead fish floating sideways. What if a public square were built of water? After all, a city’s no solid thing. It’s as fluid as the river that birthed it and flows yet through it.
They didn’t imagine the city would buy them out. They’d heard the neighborhood was risen from swamp upon which it was built, but so was much of downtown and the districts around it. Just a few years ago, urban engineers had discussed spending $3.2 million to raise the streets. Besides, half the city’s leaders believe climate change is a political conspiracy.
This last May, Mayor Lenny Curry’s Budget Review Committee voted to support a $4.5 million plan, 75 percent federally funded, to buy and demolish 17 homes around Marjenhoff Park and return the area to wetlands.
The park hasn’t been the center of the neighborhood for decades. Interstate 95 sliced Reed’s Subdivision in half in the 1960s and over the years, each additional lane heightened the park’s distance from San Marco on the other side of the highway. Now the wall of concrete that rises over Marjenhoff Park dwarfs the lonely old oak tree at the corner of Southampton Road and Bee Street. When storms come, the tides slosh against the lower bulwark of the interstate.
In about 1934, a seven year old Fred Marjenhoff and his friends saw an alligator lurking in the pipes that connected the pond in the park to the river. The kids ran after the alligator, which, Fred told Sandy Strickland shortly before he died in 2013, was about five feet long. Then older kids came out of surrounding woodframe houses, pointed guns at the reptile, and killed it.
2. Evolution, Dissolution
Cites swallow cities, towns, every kind of imaginable community. History’s the record of hauntings, the hauntings of uncountable pasts and each of each past’s myriad futures. Even those futures that never arrived. All these worlds linger just outside the peripheries of our vision.
Somewhere along these waters, along these lands buried beneath stories enacted later, Governor Harrison Reed bought part of the old Hendricks Plantation that dated to 1797. The liberal Republican had come to Florida to serve as tax commissioner during the Civil War and was elected governor in 1868. He retired to his farmland five years later.
When Reed died in 1899, his farm was developed into Reed’s Subdivision, bordered by railroad tracks on two sides, swamp, and the fertilizer plant of E.O. Painter, more than a decade before headlines read, “Insurance Companies Take Painter’s Body” and “Gruesome Story in Dixie in Dissection of Remains.”
South Jacksonville incorporated in 1907, though all that separated it from Jacksonville was the river. When only ferries connected the towns, the river was more than enough. South Jacksonville’s streets remained unpaved and no electricity lit its night. Still, the town quickly gained a newspaper.
On May 31, 1912, a strange news brief appeared in Florida newspapers, reporting, “The South Jacksonville Journal says ‘the mayor is rapidly recovering from a slight attack.’ Those Jacksonville attacks are something terrible and the South Jacksonville mayor must be a wonder to rapidly recover from one.” Though whatever attack Mayor John Fletcher White, Jr. suffered is unclear, that same year electricity became available from six p.m. until midnight.
South Jacksonville elected Alex Marjenhoff to its city council in 1928. The backs of his business cards read, “Re-elect A.D. Marjenhoff for Councilman 4th Ward / Your Vote Will Be Appreciated / City Election June 3, 1930.” The South Jacksonville liquor scandal never touched him.
A June 23, 1929 Jacksonville Journal story said, “County authorities and federal prohibition agents say there isn’t a bootlegger in South Jacksonville. They claim that the southside city is unique among towns its size in the entire country. There is no place you can buy liquor in South Jacksonville.”
The following June, however, the Associated Press reported that South Jacksonville Chief of Police C.E. Steinhauser, two South Jacksonville police officers—J.F. Jones and J.M. Lorimer, Jr., a South Jax fireman named Dwight Carpenter and a civilian named Abbott Simmons “were found guilty of charges to violate the prohibition law, possession and transportation of liquor. The jury deliberated 20 minutes.”
In June 1931, the AP reported that a federal jury found South Jacksonville Mayor T.J. Harris “not guilty” of “conspiracy to violate the national prohibition law.”
And that was the last of South Jacksonville. In 1931, Senator J. Turner Butler introduced a bill to merge South Jacksonville with its neighbor across the river. South Jacksonville, with more than 5,000 residents, voted to dissolve itself in the bigger city.
Alex Marjenhoff’s clean reputation saw him through to serving as city council president. He presided over the final sessions in the 16 year old South Jacksonville City Hall before his 25 year old city ceased to exist one minute after the first midnight of 1932.
3. 133 Feet, Thanksgiving, 1933
On those 1930 business card ads for the reelection of A.D. Marjenhoff, Alex Marjenhoff, Sr. seems to have used an old photo. He was closer to 40 that year, whereas Alex Jr. was half his father’s age. The councilman’s image definitely skews younger.
Three years later, Alex Jr. stands for another camera before the modest Marjenhoff House, corner of Bee Street and Huntsford Road. He looks the age of his father in those campaign ads. By that time, his home, this same house, is in Jacksonville. While Reed Avenue still runs the block behind Huntsford, census records show Huntsford, before South Jacksonville’s dissolution, as Massachusetts Avenue, named for Harrison Reed’s home state.
In 1930, the 1200 square foot house was home to Councilman Marjenhoff, his wife Marie, and their children Alex Jr., Franklin, Marion, Arnold, Estelle, Richard and Frederick. If divided equally, the nine members of the Marjenhoff abode, successful in the printing business this early in the Great Depression, each had 133 square feet.
In a 1933 Thanksgiving family photo, Alex Jr. stands at the far left of the top row, his parents seated center front. Behind the family are citrus trees and behind those trees is the family home. Alex, Sr. looks both 20 years older than his son and 20 years older than his recent campaign ad.
This strange disjunction between the ages of father and son throws me back to earlier thoughts about history being the record not just of the hauntings of the past, but the hauntings of futures that never did arrive. Surely those futures too are part of the past.
What of the fact that each thing that exists stands on the scaffolding of all that does not? In the structure of every thing, more absence exists than presence. So if ontology is that branch of metaphysics that studies what can be said to exist, the absence at the heart of presence deserves a pun. So philosopher Jacques Derrida called it hauntology.
Next year, the City of Jacksonville will demolish the Marjenhoff House and flood Marjenhoff Park and flatten the old homes around it. In a coastal wetland city whose leadership has ignored the scientific consensus of climate change and sea level rise, Mayor Lenny Curry has decided to flood this old South Jacksonville park and demolish the homes of this erstwhile city’s leaders. That irony is hauntological.
4. Raising the Swamp / Home and the Haunt
Even in 1923, when a landowner named Lilla White donated her land to the City of South Jacksonville, stipulating its use as a public park, the city had to reclaim its ground from water. Just as Jacksonville had begun in swampland later filled to level, just as Florida seemed as much water as earth, even its air and atmosphere largely water, so six years later, South Jacksonville began to raise Lilla’s swamp to the heart of Reed’s Subdivision.
By 1929, South Jacksonville had a parks department, so residents’ taxes brought salvage to dump in the swamp to make a public square. Carriages brought coquina, limestone formed from shellfish remains thousands of years old, from down the coast south of St. Augustine.
Carts brought lime and natural concrete from the bluffs overlooking the St. Johns River. Brickyards dumped salvage from earth not made rightly new. Salvagers brought heaps broken and molten, calcined bone and bottle and porcelain and glass and clay and brick and woodrot. No doubt, a ceramic opioid jug, oxidized moonshine still, despite what The Jacksonville Journal said to the contrary.
A ground arose where the ground had sunk. New cities built in swamps fittingly rose on the garbage of their new citizens. Cities had risen on their own trash since ancient times.
On the island marooned in the lake in Marjenhoff Park, South Jacksonville citizens planted lime and grapefruit trees, satsumas first planted on this continent not far to the south, on Van Valkenburgh’s land, 150 years ago.
The City of Jacksonville long ago filled in the lake the City of South Jacksonville sculpted in Marjenhoff Park. In the past several decades, tropical storms have washed up the occasional Victorian button and bottle, just as they’ve brought in the corpses of sharks.
In 25 years, what strange remnants of which particular past will surface in these wetlands where city leaders once built their homes? Which future-that-should-have-been will mock young people with the failures of their parents?
And won’t occasional passersby glimpse the vanished Marjenhoff House afloat on the wetlands like a ghost ship stranded between a past, distant from what it ever really was, and every wonderful thing that could have been?
Sometimes, over time, a word comes equally to mean both its most opposite definitions. The earliest meaning of the word “haunt” was “home.” Only later did the word come to mean “that which invades or infiltrates the home.” What then if both denotations, seemingly opposite, are the same? What if home, from the beginning, has always haunted itself? What if hauntings must contribute to home? And what if home, by definition, must be haunted?