Brooklyn: Avon Apartments / Sam’s Grocery

by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2017

Condemned, this old boarding house, called the Avon Apartments from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, inhabits its triangle of ground, corner of Edison Avenue and Magnolia Street, a world unto itself. Its windows look out upon this neighborhood that throve and lived fully, even vibrantly declined, then disappeared. But for this old house.

For Amal Al Hasan, the sagging woodframe structure will always be an international hotel, a corner home in the wide world, the rambling quarters in which so much of her family converged from Palestine.

“It was my grandfather’s hotel,” she says, “and it was the place generations of my family found home in Jacksonville.”

Amal recalls her grandfather fondly and, though he bought the property in the early 1970s, she considers the 111 year old boarding house an embodiment of Sam Al Hasan. “There’s so much happiness in that house,” she says. “There’s so much laughter and family togetherness and joy.”

She calls her grandfather “a very wise man,” who used the apartment house and then the grocery he adjoined to help his family “get their feet on the ground” and “learn the language and the currency.” She was next in line to inherit the grocery, which her parents had run as a sandwich shop, but decided on a medical career instead.

Officially, the sandwich shop, which opened as “Sam’s Grocery” in the mid-’70s, was called “Sam and Son’s,” but the transposed apostrophe really referred not just to one son but to Amal’s grandfather’s eight children, four sons and four daughters.

It makes sense historically that the old hotel became home to an extended Palestinian family, since the building was always positioned obliquely in the neighborhood around it.

The house had always “stood out,” a neighborhood centerpiece, partly because its triangular parcel of land never fit the grid lines of the streets. It stood askew, for it was built to fit neighborhoods replaced, in the very same space, by later neighborhoods. The land had been fitted to a pre-1900 plan for an expansion of Riverside, just southwest. In 1906, the grand vernacular house was built, then resold immediately and again.

In 1908, the new neighborhood called the Forest and Date Street Addition incorporated the house as part of Riverside. Date Street became Edison Avenue. Much later, this part of Riverside was understood to be an extension of Brooklyn, immediately to the north, since the interstate juncture of 95 and 10, just to the south, offered a newly clear and bold line between Riverside and Brooklyn.

I stand and face the house. Most of its two-story porches, front and back, have been enclosed. Its pilasters still stand exposed. Overhead, dentils run the wooden cornice.

I step onto the porch and ring the doorbell. I expect no sound but hope for some ghostly response, perhaps Gertrude or Mildred, who lived here in 1932, when the house was known as the Homelike Apartments.

Perhaps the Avon’s apartment manager, listed in city directories as Ula in 1953 and “Eula” in 1972, could give me her name’s correct spelling and tell me about her life. The 1940 census identifies her as “Eula,” her husband Papé as “head of household,” and their 30 year old son Fred still living at home, almost unheard of at the time for an able-bodied and mentally-sound adult son.

I’m dying to ask the operator to connect me to ELgin 4-5014. I’m always failing these long-distance time-travel phone calls.

Eula won’t tell me her story. She will not answer the phone. The operator won’t connect us. The operator quit her job in 1975. I’ll never now speak with Eula of her life. The directory tells me, in no uncertain terms, “Magnolia ends,” and then: “No return.”

Amal so loved the stairs, the balcony, the porch. When she was small, she helped her parents, Hala and George, work the shop. “My mom made the food and my dad ran the register. They did so much business when the corporate headquarters opened around the corner. Blue Cross Blue Shield. The corporations had their lunch breaks. I don’t know how my parents kept up. Longtime customers called them Mom and Dad. After the rush, when the afternoon calmed down, I loved to sit on the porch or upstairs on the balcony. It was my space for a while, my place and my time. The breezes came off the river, and I’d have my own world, in my grandfather’s old building, all to myself.”

I look through the corridor from front to back, doors to boarders’ rooms open to one side, the staircase ascending the other.

I walk to the back, look through the corridor to the front door, climb the rotten and severely listing stairs, peer out at the lonely city.

Though I long for specifics, all I think now is that everything has happened within the radius of my sight, everything, and that of that everything, veritably nothing remains.

“My grandfather owned two buildings, side by side,” Amal says. In the empty lot toward the river, a similar woodframe vernacular house once stood: 723, which, in earlier years, only two or three residents called home. One night, lost among immeasurable other sad darkness, lost and gone, 1979, a tenant dropped a lit cigarette, ignited a fire that turned the grand old wooden home to kindling, filled the sky with what of all that history and life the fire reduced to black plumes racing into atmospheric currents that circumnavigated the earth.

Oh!, Amal says, “My grandfather was devastated! Devastated!”

In Folio Weekly’s annual “Best of Jax” issue, readers often voted the Camel Riders her parents sold the city’s best.

In August 2012, a New York Times headline called the Camel Rider “A Taste of Jacksonville, Tucked into a Pita.” It’s not unusual that Jacksonville newcomers assumed “Camel Rider” an ethnic slur, but The Times’ lede contextualized the phrase this way:

“There are subs. There are heroes. There are hoagies, po’ boys and grinders. And in this port city, which has the country’s 10th largest Arab population, there are Camel Riders.”

In Katherine Cohen’s brilliant 1986 master’s thesis, “Immigrant Jacksonville: A Profile of Immigrant Groups in Jacksonville, Florida, 1890-1920,” she points out that nearly 10 percent of Jacksonville’s “foreign-born white population” in 1920 was Syrian, while the “original Arabic community in Jacksonville” included Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Jordanians, and Palestinians.

Jacksonville’s Deep-South Middle-East immigrants succeeded by not being black in Jim Crow days, ducking their heads politically, and opening groceries, slaughterhouses, restaurants, and real estate agencies across the city.

The Camel Rider sandwich, now served by Arabic restaurants across the South, originated in 1965 or 1972, depending on your source, at The Sheik, an Arabic sandwich franchise that began at 18th and Main Street. The Sheik’s original Camel Rider included ham, salami, bologna, lettuce, onion, tomato, and Cheddar or American or Swiss cheese.

Said John T. Edge of the Times, “Tabbouleh, served on the side, is as traditional in Jacksonville as potato salad is elsewhere.”

A faded note tucked into a window frame on the door says, “Mrs. Helen [Hala’s Anglicized nickname] and Mr. George are retiring after 37 years of business. Thank you to all of our loyal customers for your support and allowing us to serve you. We will miss you all! God Bless You.”

I circumnavigate Sam Al Hasan’s hotel, the old Homelike and Avon Apartments. I try to count its sides, three or four times, but somehow fail and fail again. I can no more count walls than I can dial long-dead phone numbers. Long walls bow inward. The old inn still makes the most of its odd triangle. I count five sides, then seven, then six.

How fitting! This rambling accumulation of a house defied shape before it was built, stood at odds to the shapes of its streets, then introduced to the American South the Middle East.

No wonder this old house recalls for Amal her grandfather. This scorching Sunday afternoon, this ghostly persistent global caravanserai sags and leans, groans and creaks around me, and I feel I’ve come to tea with a wisdom that knows the ancient world about us in a way I will never achieve.

The soul of this house is old, its time differs from ours, and it peers at the monstrous parking garage across Edison not with disdain, nor even sadness, but with an understanding patience achieved by long persistence, a long view that feels almost omniscient.

Soon it will be as though all had never been.

So, all that’s not now must once have existed.

And did so. Right here.

Where Sam Al Hasan made a home for his family 6500 miles from home.

cont’d as Brooklyn: Avon Apartments / Sam’s Grocery (After the Fire)