Archive Room, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012

Outside the director’s window the terracotta spandrels of leaves and griffins from the Levy Building across the street are occasionally interrupted by the cars of the Skyway system, much lampooned by locals who don’t know mass transit systems can work much better and serve a larger geographic area. The Skyway cars slip down the track roughly even with the director’s window.

Might have thought the commission’s office would be in some grand old house, with oak paneling and stairways with ornate balustrades, fireplaces, verandahs, even secret passageways.

But the Historic Preservation Commission’s office is on the third floor of the Ed Ball Building, a rather bland, 11-story steel-frame building built in 1961 and named after a local businessman. From the elevator, a long beige hall takes you to a reception desk in a long beige room that leads onto a long beige hall and another.

The director is a kind man. His office is a kind of sacred space, though blandly governmental. He knows the far-flung communities that make up Jacksonville, or at least the Jacksonville that exists if it does in the interstitial areas between Gilmore and Sweetwater and Pablo Beach and Silvertown and Spring Park and New Berlin. If Jacksonville, as an entity, exists, it exists in this Joel McEachin’s understanding and knowledge.

Down the hall is the archive room. Here, in the midst of the blandness of departments configured like Matryoshka dolls (Historic Preservation Commission within the Department of Planning and Development—though some might say the two entities are opposed), is a room with a kind of magical keeping. The door is locked by code. Inside the archives are file cabinets around the periphery of the room surrounding an island of file cabinets in the center.

Most of the center island contains files on buildings and plots of land in Riverside Avondale, the largest “historic” part of town, and on downtown, including the hundreds of dilapidated Victorian wood-frame houses destroyed in the early 1990s in LaVilla.

In 1991, Mayor Ed Austin campaigned for his “River City Renaissance” program that included the destruction of most of the old houses in LaVilla, once its own city, but for a long time a western annex to downtown, dense with the old houses and old whorehouses and old schools and hospitals and places Jazz musicians had played their hearts out a long time ago, a neighborhood haunted by Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and James Weldon Johnson. For the fifty years prior to Mayor Ed Austin, the neighborhood had festered and fostered prostitution and gun deaths and, lately, crack cocaine. The “Renaissance” eliminated an entire part of town, but mostly empty parking lots and weeds took its place.

In 1926, Leola B. Wilson recorded “Ashley Street Blues,” a blues song set in LaVilla, and recorded by Paramount Recording Company, “the Popular Race Record.” She sang, “I don’t want any you women to be frettin’ and cryin’, / If you ain’t got no man, I’ll give you one of mine.” An advertisement followed up, “And, believe her, she’s got plenty of men. She tells about her night steppin’ on Ashley Street in this great new Paramount Record—‘Ashley Street Blues.’ You’ll say it’s out of sight, folks, when you hear Leola B. sing this Blues. Lots of action—you can just imagine you’re down on Ashley Street, the famous Lover’s Lane of Jacksonville. Ask your dealer for Paramount No. 12392, or send us the coupon. 12392—Ashley Street Blues and Dying Blues, Leola B. Wilson, with a fine Guitar accompaniment by Blind Blake.”

Peripheral shelving in the archive room contains files on Murray Hill, Yukon, the beaches, North Riverside, Lackawanna, Arlington, San Marco, St. Nicholas, Empire Point, Panama Park, Pine Forest.

It’s hard to document histories in places where histories were not documented.

Jacksonville was Jacksonville until, in 1968, the city of Jacksonville consolidated governments with Duval County, and then Jacksonville became what Jacksonville had been plus hundreds of smaller communities along waterways and railroad lines and inexplicable pockets of woods for almost 200 years outside the city.

What the devil is Jacksonville, Florida?

Exempli gratia—A consensus of Florida residents would call Jacksonville the most backward, the most “redneck” of the state’s middle-size to large cities, though in the Civil War, the city mostly sided with the invading Federal troops, the Yankees. In the 1970s, Southern rock bands came from Jacksonville, singing songs about the South before banners of enormous Confederate flags. Then they died in plane crashes, overdosed, and drank themselves to death. Few people below Daytona will claim Jacksonville as Florida, saying it’s the capitol of South Georgia. Most people south of Daytona see Florida as something semitropical and other than the South. Jacksonville is the same South about which William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

If Jacksonville stretches over 800 square miles into something not really a city at all, the archive room on the third floor of the Ed Ball Building, 314 North Hogan Street, one block south of Hemming Plaza—the very center of the entire region—seems a kind of miniaturized version (a microcosm? a voodoo doll?) of the entire city.

Here, in this room, is the essence of the St. James Building, the Old City Cemetery, the Roosevelt Hotel, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. More than that, here in this room is the essence of everything that lies between.

If this were an episode of The Twilight Zone, whatever happened to anything in this room would happen to the city these archives represent, outside the walls of this building.

And that brings the archives room together with this text. What you are reading purports to be the ergodic autobiography of a city. It shares kinship with William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.

What you now read is either the biography of an ordinary city, or the autobiographies of ordinary men and women.

In the middle of the city, on the third floor of a bland building, an archive room represents the city. Here’s what is clear:

What is clear is that lives have been lived with no idea of their documentation or their representation. John Muir says most wild things come into the world and leave it without us ever knowing it. Most human beings also come into the world and leave it without us ever knowing it.

Therefore: a) the archive in the center of the city must be expanded to match the lives lived outside of it, b) the text called This Kind of City must be expanded to match the lives lived outside of it, c) most of an ordinary city in the Northernmost part of a Southern state will inevitably fall outside of representation, though d) in a neighborhood called Pine Forest, Hazel Tisdale could remember hiding in the old neighborhood cemetery, could remember the white men chasing her, could remember them looking for her in the street in front of her house, could even remember seeing them looking underneath the old church.

On one side of St. Augustine Road, just beneath downtown, the rich people lived, and on the other side it was all poor blacks.

“Douglas Anderson was our bus driver,” she said. “He was very kind and very patient and tolerant with children. He was well-known and respected. Everybody knew Mr. Douglas Anderson.”

Mr. Douglas Anderson was a kind man. So is Joel McEachin. The director circumvents the island in the middle of the room. These archives contain all the official documentation of the geographical, developmental, and architectural history of the city. The room is a voodoo doll. The room is a representation that can be expanded without any idea of an end.