by Tim Gilmore, 12/23/2016
Les Paul Garner’s little yellow-trimmed red brick house sits directly across Jackson Street from three and four story luxury apartments. In his early 50s now, Paul moved into the house when he was five. He grew up playing football between this house and the houses that once stood on the land the apartments now occupy. Some of his earliest memories are of running through a line of his friends with the ball, shirtless and exhilarated and sweating in the summer heat, and learning to ride his bike around the corner on Oak Street. In the midst of the apartments’ development in 2014, workers parked earthmovers and tractor tread cranes in his front yard and cracked the sidewalk in front of his house.
Paul’s is the last house of the old black neighborhood of Brooklyn for several blocks between Park Street and Riverside Avenue. It was one of Brooklyn’s newest in 1968 when Paul’s parents moved from a two story house nearby on Oak Street where spreads the parking lot for the luxurious 220 Riverside. Just under 1,000 square feet, the Garners’ concrete block house was their own in the community to which they’d long belonged. Paul still remembers that first house too. He recalls playing with his sister under the carport in the midst of pouring rain. He smiles and nods slowly, his eyes seeing far away.
The tall sprawling apartment complex across the street is one of several such new developments in Brooklyn, the neighborhood former slaves and Buffalo Soldiers—the nickname for black troops fighting against the Confederacy in the Civil War—began to call their first home in the 1870s.
The apartments call themselves The Brooklyn Riverside, but Paul says Jacksonville never cared about Brooklyn before and jokes, “If this is Riverside, where’s our burgundy signs?” He’s referring to the street signs that mark the neighborhood and designated historic district of Riverside Avondale to the south and west.
Still, Paul likes that he can eat calzones now on Riverside Avenue, though he wishes the restaurants in the new Brooklyn shopping plazas offered more fried food. He says hello to the residents of the new apartments who walk their American Kennel Club-certified dogs down Jackson Street. They keep to themselves.
He smiles a big gracious bear-like grin, wearing a maroon cotton-wool jacket and knit cap in the cold, and says, “But you know, I keep thinking about what I’ll do. I’d like to set up here on the corner and barbecue some ribs and fry some fish and offer anybody who comes by some delicious food for free.”
In 1978, when Paul was 15 years old, he walked Brooklyn selling The Florida Star, the preeminent black newspaper first published in 1951 at a time when the city’s mainstream newspapers refused to report Civil Rights stories, or now-infamous events like Ax Handle Saturday in 1960, when whites, some wearing Confederate uniforms, attacked black citizens in the streets around downtown’s Hemming Park with ax handles and baseball bats.
The Florida Star was a community newspaper that sold well in the community that was Brooklyn. Looking at the empty lots on vacant streets now, it’s hard to imagine how easily Paul could walk every block in Brooklyn and sell 150 or 200 papers. He delivered them on Thursday nights, before they hit the stands Friday morning, just before his basketball practice.
“I got to know this neighborhood so well,” he says. “Now all the storeowners, they knew Brooklyn well too, but they were stationary. I walked every block and knocked on every door.”
He remembers the elderly ladies who sat outside on their porches every evening. He recalls Abboud’s Grocery and Jimmy’s and Gary’s and Tad’s Restaurant. Though the neighborhood’s population had declined from more than 6,000 in 1950 to around 800 in 1980, Brooklyn still employed itself and was self-sustaining. He remembers playing pinball as a teenager at Fat Round’s hangout at the southwest corner of Chelsea and Dora Streets.
As interstates ploughed through cities across the continent, however, a curse fell upon Brooklyn. While new apartment developments tout the area’s closest proximity to interstates running north, south, east and west as a reason to move in, the nexus of east-west Interstate-10 and north-south I-95 developing rapidly in the 1960s and ’70s terrified the multi-generational Brooklyn residents of shotgun houses and 19th century “crackerwood” cottages and two-story wood-frame homes.
“The most frightening phrase anybody had ever heard was ‘eminent domain’,” Paul says. “You have lots of people who grew up here and later owned their own homes here, and these was the first homes they ever called their own.”
Rumors of new expressway development crisscrossed Brooklyn constantly. The City of Jacksonville paid large sums of money for neighborhood development plans, imagining various new highway configurations, but never invested in the community.
“The city might tell you your house is worth $15,000 and they might offer you $5,000,” Paul says. “And you never knew what was coming. Homeowners was afraid to invest in their own properties. It made more sense to leave, for the old folks to go to a senior citizens’ facility, for you to relinquish your own community.”
Paul sold papers block by block, mowed lawns, taught school, served in leadership posts for Brooklyn community councils, coached basketball, preached, and advised young men in trouble.
He also served more than a decade in the Army and says, “I fly my flag on Veterans’ Day.” He understands why Americans are concerned about the Middle East, but not why his country ignores its own richly experienced historical neighborhoods like Brooklyn. And deciduous winter trees drop branches among telephone poles now swarmed in forests of new pine saplings.
Even today, Paul’s one of two or three longtime residents who know Brooklyn best. Standing at the intersection of Jackson and Oak, half a block from his house, he points to the tall security fence that severs Oak Street where the road should enter the open central area of The Brooklyn Riverside. Oak Street once ran naturally north to Stonewall Street and Leila.
The fencing of The Brooklyn Riverside expresses clearly its separation from the community of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Riverside is a housing bubble, located one mile from Riverside and severed from Brooklyn with benign disdain. The Brooklyn Riverside is neither Riverside, nor Brooklyn.
The 220 Riverside, the apartment project whose parking lot occupies the site of Paul’s first home, is anchored by an amphitheater and pond called Unity Plaza. 220’s developers said the plaza would “unite the people of Jacksonville.”
The website for The Brooklyn Riverside includes a page called “Neighborhood,” which locates the apartments “at the heart of everything in the Riverside community,” though they’re a mile from Riverside. The “Neighborhood” page lists banks and schools and shops as distant as Jacksonville’s newest suburban shopping mall 14 miles away.
As we walk past a 770 square foot house on Chelsea Street, the last survivor in a line built for Buffalo Soldiers in the 1870s and ’80s, Paul says he’s not against “progression,” but he spent years reading Brooklyn’s history in the Florida Room in the Main Library and doesn’t trust so-called “progress” that disrespects communities deeply rooted and can’t sustain what exists already.
“It makes my heart hurt,” Paul says. “I’ve gone to community meetings in Brooklyn all my life. These developers never cared about us before. They don’t care about us now. It makes it easier for them that most of us are gone. Everybody says they care about history, but my history is in this neighborhood. These developers—their history is just dollars.”
If developers could meet the needs of the real Brooklyn and match their plans respectfully to the history of the community, Paul says most remaining Brooklynites might be willing to listen. He sees little need, however, for developers to listen to the people whose families have called Brooklyn home for 150 years.
When The Brooklyn Riverside first opened, Paul received a citation for parking his car on the street in front of his house, “obstructing traffic,” where he’d parked for 40 years. The shape of old paving bricks that show through the worn-away asphalt of Jackson Street resembles a partially submerged map of the United States.
Paul comes back to his idea of barbecuing ribs and frying fish and thinks about what’s come and gone. The mysterious ragtime blues guitarist Blind Blake lived at multiple residences nearby on Stonewall Street. Old churches have been demolished, Mt. Calvary Baptist stands empty, and the centurial Church of God in Christ Temple holds services still.
“Maybe we could celebrate this neighborhood’s 150th,” Paul says, smiling, undeterred after decades of false promises and institutional racism. “We could close off some streets and have the best fish fry and maybe Jacksonville could finally appreciate the real Brooklyn.”