by Tim Gilmore, 8/17/2019
“Used to be, all these rooms was filled up,” William says. You can feel the empty six-bedroom woodframe house reel with laughter, with the mischief of kids, the discipline of annoyed parents, with singing, with talks about what’s happening in the wider world and right here in the heart, with the worries of keeping things up to keep on living.
William’s not homeless now because he lives on the porch. If that counts. The house is condemned and it’s for sale. On a picnic table out back, William’s drying old blue jeans.
He’s spent his whole life on Spearing Street in East Jacksonville, either down here in Fairfield or up the street in Oakland. He was born a few days into 1951 when Spearing was a dirt road.
He smiles wide and warmly, rows of gapped teeth erupting in a big white grin. His humble possessions fill the metal glider rocking chairs on the veranda that reaches, in two floors, along the side of the deep house.
For 20 years, William performed odd jobs around this house. He calls it patchwork, the endless roof repairs. He kept telling the woman he calls his mother to replace the 3,000 square foot roof. She didn’t have the money, he says, and didn’t want to spend what she had. So he patched it and he patched it.
The long decline accelerated rapidly in the late summer of 2017 when Hurricane Irma blew a window in, soaked the interior, and came down upon the disintegrating roof like a third floor.
2. The Community’s Mortgage
Alan Weisman begins his 2007 book The World Without Us, a 300+ page consideration of how the world would revert to a natural state if human beings disappeared, with a hole in the roof of a barn. He quotes an architect named Chris Riddle: “‘If you want to destroy a barn,’ a farmer once told me, ‘cut an 18-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.’”
Inside the Sloan/McQueen House, ceilings hang in tatters and splinters in the kitchen, over the stair landing, throughout the bedrooms on the second floor. The earth reclaims the house from underneath, up above, and inside out. Vines turn the roof to soil, tendril down over sinking windows, and creep across the bedrooms. Window sashes rot and slip from rusted decorative iron grillework. The siding warps. Mold colonizes floorboards and mocks the wallpaper’s faded yellow flowers.
Corners of kitchen cabinets crumble to soft damp clumps of powder. Winkles and clamshells and starfish pattern the dining room tablecloth while the cloth in the kitchen is Christmas red with broad green shapes of leaves. Beside the water heater, cutout blue letters on a pantry cabinet spell “Mable’s kitchen.”
Mable Paige called this kitchen hers for almost half a century. In the 1970s, she and her husband John proudly called this big house home. In later years, the Paiges, then Mable after John died, took in boarders to help pay medical costs and house repairs.
Folger’s Coffee cans, a toaster, a pickle jar and a Quaker Oats box line the top of the pantry. The refrigerator lurks beside the unglassed window, the table overflows with old papers and plastic containers, and a sodden Honeycomb cereal box lies on the floor. Between the table and the empty window rests the carcass of a cat, rigid clouds of dark gray fur atop a body almost entirely gone, head mummified, mouth frozen open in final agonal convulsion, teeth intact.
The detritus of living litters the rooms, pushed into piles away from rot that leaks from the ceiling: an ironing board—t-shirts on clothes hangers—an extension ladder—laundry baskets—Bibles—the word “Amen” in red, gold and green lettering on a wall—a large black-and-white photograph of two young children in the center of an applique with the words “We love Grandma” stitched above their soft faces.
On January 29, 2016, Mable’s daughter, granddaughter and 22 month old great-grandson paid her a visit. The tall gables of the old house and upper branches of the camphor trees sheltered four generations at once. But even long-learned experience falters. And Mayor Lenny Curry would talk up his coming down to the ’hood, as though a mayor shouldn’t already know the deepest, the oldest, the most desperate streets of the city first and most of all.
The house had made itself home for just over a century that January night. Charles and Lillian Sloan built this house in 1913, two years before John Henry Rosemond moved to Jacksonville, probably from his native South Carolina. Charles Sloan worked for a short-lived startup called the Jacksonville Motor Car Company. John Rosemond had trained himself as an architect.
John and Ida Rosemond lived nearby on Florida Avenue the next three decades, John making himself known as designer of black Jacksonville’s handsome homes and grand churches. In the mid-1940s, the Reverend Andrew McQueen of First Baptist Church of Oakland, seven blocks northeast of the house Sloan built, made the Sloan House his home. Rosemond had called First Baptist his own “home church” for years when, in 1944, his design for the new sanctuary rose nearby at 1025 Jessie Street, just east of Florida Avenue.
Surely John Rosemond visited Reverend McQueen at his prestigious home, storied in the black community. Didn’t the preacher tell the architect what black builder and dreamer had designed the renowned old home that housed the heart and spirit of East Jacksonville?
McQueen studied scripture and shepherded his congregation when national headlines heralded a new Civil Rights Movement. He took in boarders to pay the bills. His boarders being his congregants, he had a hard time sticking to the line. When a choir member couldn’t make rent, Reverend McQueen still paid the community’s mortgage.
Three years ago, after that January night, Mayor Curry met Mable Paige on Spearing Street. He promised the press he’d make a “sustained effort to make sure we are not having this conversation another year.” Unbeknownst, apparently, to Curry, the conversation was more than a century old.
Two years ago this month, Hurricane Irma began to brew. The idea began in the folklore of slaves, the belief that hurricanes form off the African coast, travel across the ocean coiled up like a whip, and lash the slave states in revenge. The myth resonates in community psychology, but there’s a toxic logic such cosmogonies ignore. In this case, it’s the fact that the poor suffer exponentially more than everyone else in the wake of disastrous storms.
3. In the Name of Aiden
The noir TV series Naked City aired from 1958 to 1963, copying the semi-doc format of the 1948 film of the same name. Small-town children watched it to study their country anthropologically. Each episode ended, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Surely every individual in any small- to mid-size city lives “eight million stories” alone and marks the city “permanently” more times than an urban anthropologist can count.
Eighteen months before Irma, one lovely gloomy January evening, Mable’s three generations came to tell her they loved her, and two teenage boys desperate to prove, prove, prove their manhood, when every minute of their short lives, their childhoods, had told them they had to be men and had failed to be men and their failures made their next tests do-or-die, fired stupid guns stupidly and blindly into that car parked stupidly beneath that stupid tree in the stupid stupid stupid Florida night.
Outside the former preacher’s house, asleep in the car, 22 month old Aiden Michael McClendon took gunfire from those two boys, Henry Hayes and Kquame Richardson, and became the 13th murder victim of 2016.
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Jesus wept. Thus does one house tell world history. Thus does one house embody love. Love is all the truth anyone can say.
4. Victims of Success
William grew up on Spearing Street, down past Pippin and Odessa. He loves helping football fans park for Jaguar games and the Florida-Georgia game. He remembers all the houses the City tore down along Albert Street where tailgate parties fill empty lots on football Sundays. Some of the fans are his friends. They share barbecue and bring him Christmas presents.
While some black neighborhoods thrived in segregated prosperity when William was young, the roads through others, even this close to the central business district and football stadium, remained unpaved, lights faltering, no city sewage.
People say “God helps those who help themselves” and never gives his children more than they can handle. Others wonder who we are, as a society, and as individuals who belong to a community, if the most vulnerable among us receive from us the least. This week, City Hall considers giving $30 million to an unnamed corporation to headquarter downtown.
William stands in the shade of the porch, tiny and vulnerable, no bigger than his skeleton. He hasn’t eaten in a couple days, but doesn’t want us to bring him anything. We ask again. And again. He wouldn’t mind some “flavored soda.” We ask what kind he likes best. He says he likes pink and blue.
There’s not much left of Fairfield. You could say this neighborhood’s a victim of its own success. It’s been the entertainment district for a century, but now the venues are big as neighborhoods. A century ago, Fairfield housed film studios, the Florida Ostrich Farm, race tracks, a football field that became, in 1927, Fairfield Stadium and then the Gator Bowl. Now the venues host the National Football League, the Rolling Stones, minor league baseball and “monster truck” rallies.
You could also note that East Jacksonville, this residential ward east of downtown proper but inside the urban curve of the St. Johns River, was always mostly black and that America displaces its black neighborhoods easily and regularly.
Riverside Avondale, Springfield, San Marco and other neighborhoods just outside downtown have come back to life. The devastation caused by the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs is in reverse. Still, other urban districts struggle. The Sloan/McQueen House awaits its visionary. Please step forward.
We bring William his “flavored soda.” Strawberry, fruit punch and grape. Refrigerated. Despite thunderstorms, the heat index tops 100 degrees today. His smile lights up the shade beneath the camphor.