by Tim Gilmore, 1/31/2020
1. Urban Living
“Might just end up being the last house left in Brooklyn,” Les Paul Garner tells me. I’m talking to Paul and Reggie Bridges, Brooklyn’s unofficial historian, on Paul’s front porch. Reggie lost his house last summer when Vestcor Companies demolished it to build The Lofts at Brooklyn and “bring urban living” to the neighborhood.
“If this is urban,” Reggie says, extending his arm to indicate the surrounding streets, “and we been living, well, I guess that made us ‘urban living’ a long time ago.”
Reggie says he and his neighbors received a letter from Vestcor in January 2019 advising them what the company would pay for their homes and telling them they had until summer to leave.
“It was Vestcor, not the City, who said you had to move?” I ask. He nods and says the people who live on Spruce and Elm Streets are next. Now he’s living in senior citizen housing on the Northside. “I hated it,” Reggie says. “Spent my life in that house.”
Paul mentions a former neighbor whom Vestcor paid $60,000 for her home. “She ran around acting like it was a million dollars,” he says. “That ain’t nothing compared to the money they’re making off our neighborhood.”
I ask Reggie what happened to his collection of historical artifacts. He’d collected everything he could find relating to Brooklyn since the 1960s and it filled his house. Edward Waters College tried to help save it, he says, raising funds and finding a place on campus to house it, but the deadline to move arrived before the effort came through. He’s got the photos and videos, he says, but “everything else is gone.”
“I would have accepted having to leave my home,” Reggie says, “if I could have left the museum behind, give it its own home, so everybody could know the history of our community.”
It’s begun to rain. Reggie’s wearing a ballcap under a hoodie as he stares across the street toward the 310 unit Brooklyn Riverside Apartments, built in 2015. After a long pause, he says, “Now it’s gone. And I’ll have to live with that. I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my life.”
Paul says he’ll never leave. Developers can built apartments and condos on every other parcel of the neighborhood where he was born, but he’s staying put. “They can offer me hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says, “and I won’t leave even then. You can make all the money in the world, but you can’t make your home again once they take it away.”
2. Highway Construction / Slum Clearance
The banner stretches across the fence, promising “Urban Living” when the new apartments called Lofts at Brooklyn open in the fall of 2020. To bring urban living to Brooklyn, bulldozers demolished Reggie Bridges’s house and the homes of his neighbors. Reggie lived here for 56 years.
Reggie’s collection of everything-Brooklyn filled his 544 square foot shotgun house. Here, Reggie and his little brother Harold started WATG, We Are The Greatest, the Brooklyn community radio station in 1968. Here, Reggie grieved after Harold’s death from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in his car parked along the street in 1978. Here, Reggie took care of his diabetic father the last years of his life until his death in 1999.
In his 1993 rationale for demolishing LaVilla as part of his “River City Renaissance” plan, Mayor Ed Austin referred to the historic black neighborhood immediately north of Brooklyn as an ugly “front door” to the city, since drivers on Interstate 95 saw all the poverty of a fallen and dilapidated LaVilla upclose. Construction of I-95 had sliced through LaVilla in the 1960s. From Jacksonville to Miami, civic leaders and newspaper editorial boards praised 95’s construction as a form of “slum clearance.” By the early ’90s, after redlining and “white flight” and the crack cocaine epidemic, City Hall saw no reason for LaVilla to continue to exist.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Brooklynites had begun to fear what Les Paul Garner calls “the most frightening phrase anybody had ever heard.” He means “eminent domain.” Since first being platted for freed black people just after the Civil War, Brooklyn, originally a slave plantation, as was LaVilla, offered its residents their own “shotgun houses” and “dogtrot” houses and “hall-and-parlor” houses and “crackerwood” cottages and rowhouses. As, through the decades, Brooklynites heard rumors of new development plans, new highway construction maps, how the city might offer them a third of what their houses were worth, their fatalism ossified. Brooklyn’s population plummeted from more than 6,000 in 1950 to a few hundred by 1990.
Then there’s the historical irony that, at the start of the 21st century, gentrification of black “inner city neighborhoods” is reversing the “white flight” that occurred after World War II. People once forbidden by law and deed from living anywhere else are now forced from the old neighborhoods others long ago abandoned for new suburbs. Those old enough to remember can say they saw the tide go out and come back in. They watched the white middle class flee the black inner city, only to see that same middle class, slightly more diverse, come back in and tell them to move. In the 1980s, “urban” was a synonym for “black.” Not anymore.
3. Trojan Horses
It’s one of the colder days of this warm winter, temperatures dropping to the 40s. Soon the conversation shifts to the few remaining Brooklynites’ suspicion of Jacksonville politicians and business leaders. Reggie and Paul remember a meeting at Brooklyn’s J.S. Johnson Community Center with City Council member Reggie Fullwood in the early 2000s. They’ve told me of this meeting several times in recent years.
Says Reggie Bridges, “Reggie Fullwood looked at us and told us, he said, ‘I am not going to let Brooklyn become another LaVilla.’” Reggie Bridges was vice president of the community organization at the time. He says Fullwood specifically said the City would not use eminent domain, the right and process by which governments purchase private property, whether or not owners wish to sell, for “the greater good.”
Yet Reggie Bridges received the notices that he’d have to sell his home from Vestcor itself, not the City. This ouster was not by eminent domain, but purchase power. If Vestcor assumed the power to push residents out, the company never fell back on City Hall to back it up and carry through. Eminent-domain-by-proxy?
“And you know who Fullwood was working for, right?” Paul says, and Reggie says, “Vestcor!” It’s true, though Vestcor wasn’t developing apartments and condos in Brooklyn at the time.
Fullwood left Vestcor to start his own real estate development consulting company, Rhino Harbor LLC. In 2017, he was found guilty of fraud for laundering $60,000 from his Florida House of Representatives campaign account through Rhino in 2010 and 2011 to pay for personal purchases ranging from flowers to liquor.
“And you know Vestcor is doin’ the new school over there too, right?” Paul says. “They buildin’ it where our school was.” He waves a finger back and forth between himself and Reggie. Forest Park Elementary School in neighboring Mixon Town was built in 1954 on the site of a former incinerator ash dump (as was another black elementary school built during segregation, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary near 45th and Moncrief). Jacksonville finally closed Forest Park in 2005 and demolished it in 2010. Reggie has a photo of Josephine Statums, Forest Park’s “patrol lady” half a century ago.
On the newly environmentally reclaimed Forest Park site, Jacksonville Classical Academy will begin its first classes this fall where Reggie attended elementary school, just as Vestcor opens The Lofts at Brooklyn where Reggie’s house stood. It’s hard not to take the very impersonal nature of these facts personally. A July 2019 Florida Times-Union editorial noted, “Vestcor Companies Chairman John Rood is the force behind this school,” and that the School Board approved the “public charter school,” affiliated with the private conservative religious institution Hillsdale College, unanimously.
In May 2018, Politico ran a story called “The College that Wants to Take Over Washington,” which Alice Lloyd of the conservative newsmagazine The Weekly Standard began, “Trump University never died.” It’s located in Michigan, she wrote. “It’s a place called Hillsdale College.”
School districts in other parts of the country have rejected Hillsdale College’s “classical academy” public charter schools. In Detroit, the school’s sponsor, a “Tea Party” conservative, bemoaned how “government run school systems” were “soiling the tenants of our Western civilization” and made statements on social media like “The only way to successfully negotiate with Islam is to present them with their complete destruction.”
On March 22, 2019, The Florida Star published a story about Jacksonville Classical Academy called “Curry Is Selling Off the Black Community,” noting that Vestcor’s John Rood has contributed heavily to Mayor Lenny Curry’s Political Action Committee and that the “classical academy” charter school will be tax exempt but receive public funds for capital improvements.
If Reggie Fullwood, first elected to City Council at 24 years old in 1999, promised Brooklynites that Jacksonville wouldn’t seize their community through eminent domain, technically that promise held. The City itself did not evict Brooklynites from their homes. Vestcor did. In Brooklyn, eminent domain takes place through private companies and is not, therefore, eminent domain after all. Right?
4. Doesn’t Know, Doesn’t Care
I stood once in Mount Mariaah African Methodist Episcopal Church at 99 Oak Street in Brooklyn. That was its name: “Mariah” with three As. Built in 1899, it had a wooden belltower and bare earth floors. It stood where one block of Riverside Brooklyn Apartments now stands.
“Riverside Brooklyn” was built outside gentrified Riverside, the large historic neighborhood south of Brooklyn, in 2015, and 10 years ago, most Jacksonville residents had no idea their city had a neighborhood named Brooklyn.
I don’t know if anyone living in “Riverside Brooklyn” knows the mysterious blind ragtime blues musician Blind Blake once lived there on Stonewall Street, where he just might have written “Ashley Street Blues,” named after the street in LaVilla, “Diddie-wah-Diddie” or “Police Dog Blues,” and I don’t know if they’d care. I don’t know if anyone living on the part of Stonewall Street now closed off behind electronic gates for residents of “Riverside Brooklyn” knows Blind Blake wrote and sang a song called “Stonewall Street Blues.”
“My Stonewall Street gal makes me feel thisaway,” he sang. “You call me in the mornin’. You call me late at night.” He sang, “You swear that you love me, but you know you don’t treat me right.”
It seems I fell in love with Brooklyn just in time to see it die. Fat Rounds, whose real name was Roosevelt Wilson, was sick, skinny and no longer ran Brooklyn poolhalls when I met him just before he died in 2017. Then came early morning text messages, a building on fire, Brooklyn’s 111 year old Avon Apartment Building, about which I’d just written a story. I’d just talked to Amal Al Hasan, whose Palestinian grandfather Sam ran the old wooden hotel for decades. Now fire had taken it before dawn.
This past week the City demolished the Brooklyn firehouse. The earth shook. Clouds of brick dust floated across Riverside Avenue. A man with a face mask drove an excavator, ironically named, over history.
A preservationist who works for the city and doesn’t want me to use his name says, “City Hall doesn’t care about historic preservation. City Council members are not trawling Facebook to see how many frowning emoticons people stick on photos of the fire station demolition.”
He’s frustrated. He cares about his city’s communities and about its representation of its own history. He considers the demolition of LaVilla the largest act of destruction Jacksonville’s suffered since the Great Fire of 1901.
Until a few years ago, he says, “Nobody who didn’t live in Brooklyn knew Brooklyn existed. Now Brooklyn is disappearing and all the new apartment buildings name themselves ‘Brooklyn.’”
He knows preservationists care about Brooklyn’s 1896 Mount Calvary Baptist Church and about the last “United States Colored Troops” house, the so-called “Buffalo Soldier’s House” around the corner from Mount Calvary on Chelsea Street. Those buildings, he says, will soon be gone. It’s a fait accompli.
Meanwhile, developers plant mammoth off-site storage buildings along the interstate in Brooklyn. There’s no money in building the “ministorage” units of the 1970s. Today’s four-story storage facilities consume whole city blocks. If it was shameful to have drivers on I-95 see LaVilla in the 1980s, apparently massive lifeless storage facilities represent the city much better.
The city employee says City Council members, with a couple of exceptions, would only pay attention to historic preservation if it affected their reelections. The only way for Brooklyn to have saved itself, he says, was by developing a lobbying power large enough to influence election campaigns and outcomes.
“This city,” he says, “even through several of its black representatives, has always protected its moneyed white interests.” He says Jacksonville cares about historic preservation for neighborhoods originally segregated white: Riverside, Avondale, Springfield, San Marco. “Jacksonville always destroys its black neighborhoods,” he says: Oakland, Fairfield, East Jacksonville, LaVilla, Sugar Hill. And Brooklyn.
5. How “Brooklyn” Killed Brooklyn
“The crazy thing about it,” Les Paul Garner says, “is ‘Brooklyn’ ain’t Brooklyn.”
The new apartment complexes call themselves “Brooklyn,” necessitating the quotation marks. It’s the difference between “I” and I. To say “I” is a pronoun is to call, via quotation marks, the word “I” a pronoun. To say I is a pronoun would make no sense. Likewise for Vestcor and other developers to call Brooklyn, this historic neighborhood, “Brooklyn,” signifies the paradox. Most Jacksonville residents only learned of Brooklyn when “Brooklyn” killed it.
Just before Christmas of 2016, Paul told me he’d like to host a big barbecue and fish fry and invite the residents of all the new apartments for Brooklyn’s 150th anniversary. Then, he’d said, “Maybe Jacksonville could finally appreciate the real Brooklyn.”
Now, early 2020, many units in the new buildings remain empty. Paul’s only met one or two people who live there. Some of the residents of Brooklyn Riverside Apartments across the street have complained about him though. Though, when Brooklyn Riverside first opened, Paul received a ticket for parking on the street in front of his house, where he’d parked for 40 years, he continued to do so.
Then someone began to leave notes on Paul’s windshield, telling him he shouldn’t be parking on the street. Residents of Brooklyn Riverside Apartments have their own private parking inside electronic gates. Paul kept parking where he’d always parked. The final note left on his windshield said that since Paul, despite the warnings in all previous notes, had continued to park on the street, the anonymous note writer had wrecked his car and was calling the police. This evening, in the light cold rain, Paul rolls his eyes. He parks up in his own front yard now. Another Brooklyn Riverside neighbor called the police when Paul played his Gospel music too loud.
Still Paul wants to host that fish fry and barbecue. He and Reggie shake their heads and laugh about it. “Yes sir,” Paul says. “This might end up the last house in Brooklyn, but you’ll still know where to come for some pork ribs.”
I regret ending this story so similarly, though so much has transpired in Brooklyn since, to how I ended the story I wrote about Paul and his neighborhood at the end of 2016. He shakes his head and smiles and says it’s okay. He’ll live his life tomorrow just like he lived it yesterday. Reggie pats his chest over his heart and tells me, “I stand with Paul,” and Paul nods and says, “I ain’t worried.” He holds up both his palms, looks up to the clouded sky and says, “I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”