by Tim Gilmore, 2/4/2017
For half a century, Reginald Bridges’s 544 square foot shotgun house has hummed with the magnetic density of Brooklyn’s long life. Most larger houses have lived far less.
For half a century, Reggie’s called this house home. After Hurricane Dora tossed the roof off his childhood home at 119 Chelsea Street in 1964, the Bridges family moved around the corner to 1107 Jackson.
It was here that Reggie and his little brother Harold started Brooklyn’s own radio station, WATG, We Are the Greatest, in 1968. It was here that Reggie started archiving photographs and flyers and newspaper articles and bus schedules and obituaries and anything else that related to Brooklyn in the 1960s. It was here that his little brother died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in his old car out front in 1978. It’s here that Reggie lived alone with his diabetic father, taking care of him the last years of his life. It’s here his father died in 1999. It’s here that Reggie oversees a kind of unofficial museum of neighborhood history, built of his lifelong collection.
He points to a blurred image of a woman in uniform, wearing a long skirt, a hat, and a tie. One shoulder arches higher than the other. She doesn’t smile.
“Now that’s Miss Josephine Statums,” he says and hammers an index finger at her image affixed to a large folded posterboard. “She was our patrol lady when I was going to school,” he says.
A handwritten caption beside her photo says, “Kids from Brooklyn went to Forest Park Elementary School during this time! Josephine Statums Brooklyn’s School Patrol Lady on the corner of Forest Street and Myrtle Avenue across from Setzer’s Grocery Store.”
Reggie stands up straight and smiles wide, sweating, occasionally wracked by a hacking cough. “I saw her just last week,” he says, excited. She’s 92 years old, Reggie is 61, and though they hadn’t seen each other in years, she recognized him instantly.
In the days before Interstates 95 and 10 ripped through largely black neighborhoods like LaVilla and Brooklyn, Forest Park was a short walk down Chelsea Street to Forest Street to the corner of Forest and Goodwin. Like Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary on Jacksonville’s historically black Northside, Forest Park had been built on the site of an incinerator dump.
Decades before the City finally closed School No. 104 in 2005 and demolished it in 2010, “People kept gettin’ sick all the time,” Reggie says, “but you know, we didn’t know nothin’ about it back then.”
Josephine Statums’s posterboard is one of several dozen stacked around the small front room of Reggie’s house. He displays them at community meetings and events at the J.S. Johnson Community Center across the street. The boards contain old photos, newspaper articles, and enough pages affixed in plastic sleeves to form two or three booklets per board. Across the boards are titles like “Historical Brooklyn Jax,” “Brooklyn Old Churches,” “Brooklyn Deaths,” “Our News,” and “Old Brooklyn Stores.”
There are photos of Hazel Thomas’s little square store with the awning. She was 93 years old when she stopped selling candy and soft drinks on Elm Street, just around the corner from Brooklyn Park.
Reggie says he’s embarrassed by the old photos of his house, before it wore its bright coat of white paint, before its porch was screened in with chicken wire, before the white picket fence stood out front.
In hazy photos from the 1980s, Mayors Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri talk to old men in suits and old women in staid skirts with handbags.
“Now let me tell you something,” Reggie says. “Those two mayors was different. They was the only ones come and met with the senior citizens and they did it regularly.”
He shows me flyers for neighborhood meetings dating from the early 2000s, the 1990s, the 1980s. He wants me to understand, he says emphatically, he has these flyers because he went to the meetings. “All these years, I been goin’ to these meetings, and all these years, the city promised to fix the housing situation in here.”
There was a time when HabiJax, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, might be interested in Brooklyn. There were long years when the City wouldn’t fix streetlights, when trash collection services were poor.
After the City bought up the historically black and culturally rich neighborhood of LaVilla to the north and demolished it in the early 1990s, Brooklyn residents sought assurance from city leaders that their neighborhood wouldn’t be next.
City officials promised they wouldn’t condemn the neighborhood through eminent domain and promised new affordable housing, but as Brooklyn’s population dropped from thousands to hundreds and old shotgun houses and dogtrot houses and Carpenter Gothic foursquares were boarded up and demolished, promises withered on the vine.
As for the new gated apartment complexes built along Riverside Avenue, for which old Brooklyn roads have been closed to non-residents, Reggie says, “You know, we go to some of the new stores and restaurants in those developments, but most of us here don’t have the income to be able to afford it. And the new people, they don’t mix with us. I don’t think they know we’re here.”
Behind the posters, the walls are covered with photos of Reggie deejaying in the 1970s or looking sharp in his green 4-H uniform, pictures of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, American flags, framed certificates, and Reggie’s radio operator’s permit.
Around the time Reggie started archiving every Brooklyn document he could find, he and his little brother started WATG. They operated the station from the back yard and transmitted via cable across Spruce Street to Brooklyn Park.
The station might not have transmitted far, but the whole neighborhood listened. There was always a baseball or basketball game at Brooklyn Park. There were always kids gathered. There was always somebody grilling hot dogs or frying fish. There were always people dancing. When there wasn’t a game, the Brooklyn Bulls basketball team held practice.
Reggie holds an arm out straight and points at me importantly. “This is what I want you to understand,” he says. “We had a complete neighborhood. We had a complete neighborhood. It was home and it was complete. Now when I walk down these streets, I look at all these empty fields and I can see everything that was here. Oh there were so many houses. So many people and churches and stores and the barbershop and the Wash-a-mat. We had a complete neighborhood.”
The complete Brooklyn played and cooked and laughed and danced at Brooklyn Park. Reggie walks me across the street to point out the one WATG loudspeaker still hanging, lifelessly now, from the top of a tall gatepost over the baseball diamond.
Kids wrote their song requests and dedications on a clipboard at the station behind Reggie’s and Harold’s house. In the summers, neighborhood kids volunteered at the station, and a few of them later deejayed for years at the city’s radio stations.
After Harold died in 1978, WATG always acknowledged his birthday by playing the music he’d loved best. “We played all his favorite tapes,” Reggie says. “He used to like listening to Jerry Butler and James Brown. He liked the Trammps’ disco and he liked the Spinners.”
Now we’re looking together at a grainy photograph of a little boy in a suit standing on a Brooklyn sidewalk half a century ago. If you could photograph time, you’d capture this very image. We forget most every detail of most every day. What remains comes to seem random, whether a single image of a muted childhood moment, or a neighborhood.
“Before I’m gone,” Reggie says, “I’d like to see something restored and respected back here, I’d like to have some assurance there’ll be affordable places to live, and I’d like to see,” he says, speaking loudly, passionately, waving his arms over his posterboards and photos and notes and newspaper clippings and bus schedules and lists of churches and stores and people no longer living, “I’d like to see all this material, once again, have itself a new home.”