Brooklyn: Myrtle Avenue Underpass / Tunnel / Subway

by Tim Gilmore, 6/29/2018

Hundreds of people stood at the turgid waters at Bay Street and Main (then called Bridge Street) and watched the floods take down drygoods shops and liquor stores and fruit stands, collapsing them into the whirling river broth. Bay Street sunk beneath rising rains. Hackney carriages broke apart as their horses swam for land. Railroads washed out. Waters stood three feet high in Leila Street houses in Brooklyn.

The Florida Times-Union reported that “a negro driving a team of mules” early that Friday, the 15th of May, 1903, misjudged the water’s depth at Myrtle Avenue and Bay Street. Though the water seemed to skirt the surface down Myrtle to the wooden McCoy’s Street Bridge, floods had washed the roads and bridge out completely, and the driver and his mules plunged hell-bent into the currents. The driver, whom the newspapers failed to name, swam to the banks. His mules drowned snorting in the roil and froth of the storm.

This sump, up from McCoy’s Creek at Bay Street and Myrtle Avenue, has always been a Slough of Despond and those mules would not be the last lives lost at this watery crossroads. Its years as Jacksonville Subway and Myrtle Avenue Underpass did nothing to alleviate flooding.

Bedford walks me through the tunnel. There’s no despondence here for him. He’s 78 years old, a white man named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who’s lived in predominantly black neighborhoods since he was 16 in 1956 and who’s only ever loved one woman, a black woman.

The underpass opened in 1909, along with the Lee Street (Park Street) Viaduct. The Riverside [Avenue] Viaduct, above McCoy’s Creek, had quaked unstable for years. It trembled and groaned on its foundations in the floods of 1903. New roadways better connected Brooklyn, to the south, and LaVilla, generating industrial and commercial growth between the segregated dark neighborhoods.

As Jacksonville streetcars rolled west on Bay Street, they turned south, dipped into the new underpass, and moved through a very short “subway” into Brooklyn.

Volume Four, January-June 1909, of Harvard’s Stone & Webster Public Service Journal announced, “The Myrtle Avenue Subway, opening up another convenient passage to the Riverside and Highway districts, has recently been accepted from the contractors by the city. This will give the [Atlantic and East Coast Terminal C]ompany a new line to this territory, which we hope will be in operation within the present year.”

Though streetcars long ago disappeared from Jacksonville, a concrete walkway between support beams through the Myrtle Avenue Underpass still runs the “subway” route. Bedford and I walk it, slowly, few cars passing us on either side, early this Sunday morning. We might as well be ghosts. Or someone else’s memories. Then again: same thing.

The floods of Christmas 1916 separated the city, today’s downtown, from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Riverside to the south. Barricades stood at 76 deluged intersections, and the Myrtle Avenue Underpass lay entirely submerged. The Times-Union reported the nomadic Wisconsin family of a man named J.S. Basel braved Jacksonville floodwaters in his “Fordalow,” a “bungalow on a Ford.”

On July 2, 1919, The Tampa Tribune reported “Jacksonville Emerges from a One-Day Flood,” in which seven and a half inches of rain fell in 24 hours, stalling trains, washing out roads, and sending boats up streets. “The Myrtle Avenue Subway leading into Riverside was seven feet under water, and, of course, street car traffic to that section was cut off.” Boats transferred passengers from downtown streetcars to dry land on Price Street and upland down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, “McCoy’s Creek being well over its banks.”

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Old photographs show the heavy iron rail lines spreading outward from the center of Jacksonville’s commercial and industrial rail hubs running five, 10, 15 and 18 tracks wide just north of McCoy’s Creek from westward Honeymoon and erstwhile Rural Home Plantation over Brooklyn and LaVilla and into the massive neoclassical Jacksonville Terminal.

Jacksonville Terminal, 1920s, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

It was on the railway tracks that crossed over the Myrtle Avenue Underpass and former subway that David Fuqua was electrocuted by a 2300 volt power line in the already brutal heat of July 11, 1948. It would take less voltage to execute serial killer Ted Bundy in Florida’s electric chair in 1989.

Just below the Associated Press story in The Pensacola News Journal appeared an ad “for Cool Comfort,” suggesting you “insulate your home with fireproof Gold Bond Rock Wool.” How often do the accidents of history mock our tragedies?

David Fuqua was 26 years old. In the previous census, 1940, he’d still lived at home with his parents at 1250 East 14th Street. The AP said David Fuqua was “fatally burned” that Saturday “while working on a railroad installation above the Myrtle Avenue Underpass.”

Bedford heard stories about David Fuqua’s violent electric death, but Fuqua died a few years before Jacksonville’s slum clearance and a new Civil Rights Movement altered the circuitry in Bedford’s brain.

By 1955, the construction of new transportation networks around the city was used as a means of “slum clearance,” and propagandist films like “Slum Heart of Jacksonville” panned across poor black households in Jim Crow Jax while a narrator snarled sentences like “This very plumbing, if you can dignify it with the name of plumbing, can bring disease and death into your home through the medium of your servants.” On August 22, The Atlanta Constitution ran the headline “Jacksonville’s $125 Million Plan Clearing Slums,” reporting a new “37-mile major street network,” including “a $2,500,000 Myrtle Avenue Overpass […] nearing completion over the railroad yards.”

By May 8, 1956, The Tampa Tribune reported “the Riverside Interchange” would soon “connect the Myrtle Avenue Overpass (a six-lane highway, elevated over railroad tracks),” those rail lines right-angling over the Myrtle Avenue Underpass and former subway, with the bridges of the city’s $8o million expressway system.

Within a year of the opening of the Myrtle Avenue Overpass, August 9, 1959  headlines shouted, “Jacksonville is Flooded!” after lightning hit a city “power-switching station” and the Myrtle Avenue Underpass filled quickly with water, “despite new drainage construction designed to do away with the flooding of this street under railroad tracks near the Jacksonville Terminal.”

photo by Robert E. Fisher, circa 1958, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

The Times-Union reported, “Failure of the water from a heavy rain to exit properly from the Myrtle Avenue Underpass was attributed to pump failure and obstructed catch basins.”

Sometime in the years thereafter, which increasingly blur to impressionistic snapshots, Bedford fell head-over-heels with a beautiful black girl named Alice. He calls her hair a “halo,” claims her lips swelled as full as his heart.

photo September 17, 1958, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

It must have been the late 1960s. He can’t date his feelings to national social movements, though for decades he did. Events slip loose in time. He can’t remember if it were Quincy Jones or The Lovin’ Spoonful, but whenever he thinks of that trans-tunnel swim, he hears a gospel chorus sing, “Hot town, summer in the city, / Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty, / Been down, isn’t it a pity? / Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.”

She kissed him that once. It was all he ever need be kissed. It was one sweet Saturday they’d been drinking malt since noon. It might’ve been ’68. It might’ve been ’73.

They’d watched the waters rise from that particular front porch, ceiling paint haint-blue, Myrtle Avenue, when the spirit come over them. It wasn’t his idea, wasn’t hers, but they were running, hand in hand, into the deluge, toward the tunnel that dropped beneath the railroad tracks that shook the land beneath the highway exit and the interstate overpass.

He’d never learned to swim, but they dove headfirst into the subway, headfirst into the underpass, steadfast into the undertow. They held hands, underwater, submerged with pump stations and electric cables, across the long-dead streetcar tracks.

They’d swum so high underneath. They were angels. They were otters. They were mermaids. They were beavers. They were extraterrestrial alien spirits and deepdown chthonic gods. They were catfish and alligators. They found no headroom above the waters in the tunnel. They tunneled and tunneled. Then rose the other side. Of the torrid turgid compost tea of floodwaters rainbow-swirled with oil and paint and chicken feces and cow blood from slaughteryards just upstream. It didn’t matter. They could’ve been Abelard and Heloise. Or one discordant note off a haunted piano between John and Alice Coltrane.

For the next half century, as Brooklyn and LaVilla burgeoned, faltered, went to war with themselves, lost population, emptied out in the 1970s, ’80s, the 1990s, McCoy’s Creek continued to flood, and the underpass became a river. Time after time. Year upon year. Storm upon flood after torrential rains.

In 1997, after Brooklyn residents celebrated the fact the city would finally address the neighborhood’s continuing flood crises, they learned cuts to new funds meant, as Reverend Lee Harris of Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church, a mile up Myrtle, bemoaned, “The powers-that-be make decisions, while we continue to cry out for help,” and the Times-Union opined, “The Myrtle Avenue Underpass in Brooklyn will continue to double as a lake after heavy rain.”

Bedford tells me, “I came down here after Hurricane Irma last September. I was days without electricity. I’m an old man now.” He smells the sweet pungent earthiness of wood rot at the heart of his house, but says, “Iss alright. I’m an old man. But it got me to feelin’ nostalgic. I come down to the underpass and thought, with any luck, I might swim through it, one more time, in memory of Alice, but there was cop cars on either side, lights blinking. I thought, iss alright for me to die swimmin’ through the tunnel, but I’m too old for suicide-by-cop.”

Alice, Bedford believes, still walks the underpass, probably several times a night, between midnight and five or six. He loved her once. And so did he always. They swam the channel tunnel together and so will they forever.

The ghost of a mule or a drowned extraterrestrial argonaut is but a momentary, if recurring, distraction, real or not, remembered or historical. Crossroads are charted for hearts to be planted, and this one’s that underwater garden of Bedford’s half-century-ago swim with Alice. It’s no pity. There wasn’t one shadow in the city.