Slum Heart

by Tim Gilmore, 5/5/2018

1. “Jacksonville is rotting from the heart” / “city with a future”

The deep baritone drips with condescension, festers with open sarcasm. Though the 1950 film Slum Heart of Jacksonville shares a common writing style with its 1947 predecessor booklet, One Bad Apple, and though both call for the clearance of slums through the middle of the city and the construction of public housing, the dark gravelly depths of Slum Heart’s voice sustain a tone of brutal mockery to the end, while One Bad Apple tempers its racism with criticism of slumlords and a quasi-understanding that such a thing as systemic racism might very well have sculpted from the earth the city of Jacksonville, and most other American cities as well.

Slum Heart of Jacksonville, a black-and-white film little more than 10 minutes long, argues the shanties of black “slums,” cluttered about the heart of the city, should be demolished, that servants who live in such filthy and vermin-ridden hovels might bring disease into wealthy white households, and that poor black neighborhoods pose a “menace” to “the health and progress of an entire city.”

Partially funded by the Federal Housing Authority, local films advocating “slum clearance” and the forced migration of poor black families into public housing permeated the nation after the American Housing Act of 1949. Detroit. St. Louis. Minneapolis. Oklahoma City. Atlanta. Jacksonville.

The film begins with cheery horn music, camera shots that pan automobile traffic on the Main Street Bridge and pedestrian crowds at Main and Bay Streets. The narrator introduces Jacksonville, “gateway to Florida, potential metropolis of the Southeast. It’s a city that is just winding up a decade of phenomenal growth. And just starting out on another one.” Jax boosters have said much the same thing, in different words, ever since.

At least the film starts optimistically. The 35-page booklet One Bad Apple begins, “Jacksonville is rotting from the heart.” Jax decriers and critics have said much the same thing, in different words, ever since.

It continues, “Jacksonville is a young city—so young that egrets still raid the goldfish ponds at the better homes; so young that a black bear was killed on a downtown street in May 1946. Jacksonville’s slums are young, but as bad as any in the South.”

Slum Heart shows bareheaded men walking briskly toward the camera before the apartment tower now refurbished as 11E, men in fedoras marching quickly away.

“A steady flow of motor traffic back and forth across a modern four-lane bridge. Downtown in the shopping and business district, there’s an endless hustle of activity, air of prosperity. The crowd moves with sure purpose along the busy streets, looking as though they know where they’re going, know how to get there, are in fact already on their way. All of it says plainly and quite proudly, ‘This is Jacksonville, city with a future!’”

2. Slums “filled with evil” threatening “an entire city”

As Slum Heart of Jacksonville bears only the name of Bender Cawthon, it’s hard to say how much responsibility Cawthon, as “supervisor of production,” bears for the brutal racist tone of the film. The film names no writer, but starkly similar language in One Bad Apple makes it hard not to conclude that Alexander Crosby, writer for the booklet (in 1947) also worded the narrative for the film (in 1950).

Cawthon worked as projectionist in Jacksonville’s early theaters, in the days when the showing of movies depended on the artist-mechanic who worked the magic behind the scenes. In the mid-1930s, Cawthon produced a weekly Jacksonville newsreel shown before featured movies at the Florida Theatre. Over the decades, he accumulated a large collection of early 20th century Jacksonville film footage from which Slum Heart clearly scores.

One Bad Apple, as a print publication, delves further into detail, with statistics and nuance, and credits each commissioner of the Jacksonville Housing Authority as well as its Negro Advisory Committee.

While Slum Heart seems to blame poor black residents for their poverty and minimally acknowledges that some white families live in substandard housing, One Bad Apple notes the close parity in numbers between poor black and white residents, then darts a clever dig at slumlords: “There is, however, a silver lining to the plight of the 10,000 Negro families and nearly 8,000 white families in substandard housing. The lining is found in the pockets of the absentee owners who are doing very well indeed.”

After Slum Heart introduces Jacksonville as the next metropolis of the Southeast, a claim made for the city, by the time of my writing this sentence, for almost 200 years, the tone becomes ominous. Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church stands in the background down an empty street, and the film cuts to a street marker at Newnan and Union, a line of shotgun shacks back of the crossroads.

The narrative voice turns more smug still, snips condescendingly, “But maybe we’re being a little too optimistic. Let’s walk down this stretch of Newnan Street and see if there’s more to a city than what appears on the surface.”

It’s true what this racist baritone says next: “In a way a city of human beings is much like any individual human being.” The narrator makes a lovely synecdoche.

But it still feels invasive, 70 years later, to watch these private moments, boys attaching shirts and sheets to clothes lines, a woman walking from the back door of her woodframe home to an outhouse, opening the door, sliding in, slipping the latch behind her.

Says Slum Heart, “If its heart is bad, [the city] never can hope to reach full stature, vigor, and maturity. Jacksonville does have something of a bad heart.”

The static crackles. As menacingly as Vincent Price in a mid-century horror film, the narrator continues: “A heart of slums.”

It’s not as brutal a statement, honest or not, as One Bad Apple’s introduction, “Jacksonville is rotting from the heart,” but the film soon catches up and surpasses the book’s bigotry.

Slum Heart says, “This little alley…It isn’t far out of anybody’s way, just a few short blocks from downtown’s gleaming shops and office buildings. But what a difference those few blocks make.” The film corners a black woman entering a sodden backyard outhouse, private, invasive. “Here is a world of moldering wood, hard-packed germ-ridden dirt…”

One little boy notices us, turns his head from his friends, wooden railings embracing them, horizontally slatted woodframe walls eyeballed with small windows, smiles toward us, eyes and grin beaming from his in-the-moment childhood. Anyone who sees him has to love him.

Not sympathetically, derisively, the narrator continues: “Yet this is home and playground and all the world known to many Jacksonville children. It’s an ugly and degrading world of vile broken privies, of primitive plumbing that’s neither useful nor beautiful, of moral and spiritual decay.”

Both Slum Heart and One Bad Apple feature an obscene surfeit of toilet shots.

The film zooms in on wood-slatted outhouses and rotten back-porch toilets on the narrowest dripping dirt lanes in the compact center of the city, blames residents for living in such conditions, and calls out wealthy families’ black servants as agents of illness: “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.”

Classist and racist condescension drips with conflations of ethnicity as disease.

One Bad Apple says, “The census enumerators who counted the inhabitants and totaled the rents made no effort to tally the population of rats, mice, cockroaches and other vermin. Jacksonville’s slums are ideally built to sustain millions of rodent and insect pests,” and then, in wording many of the city’s wealthier whites might have used to express their paranoia toward black Jacksonville, “a hungry horde which often migrates to the better sections despite the city’s control work.”

Whereas film footage, presumably shot by Cawthon, shows the interiors of urban outhouses and back-porch toilets, One Bad Apple features similar shots by prolific early Jacksonville photographer Jack Spottswood.

In One Bad Apple, Alexander Crosby uses the phrase “the best people” to refer to the city’s wealthiest, just as promotional material for Trump properties would, 30 years later. Crosby writes, apocalyptically, “The best people of Jacksonville rarely go into the slums. Few have seen the dark and mouldering interiors of the homes where their servants live. Few want to. It is more comforting to keep your eyes shut. But slowly and inexorably like the rising tide, the slums are spreading outward from the heart of the city.”

It’s an almost poetic conceit. The heart metastasizes to spread the (black) center’s troubles to its better (white) neighborhoods.

But in Slum Heart, like a Puritan preacher at the founding of this country, the narrator joins poverty and unsanitary conditions to spiritual wickedness, saying, “Some of your own servants may be using such filthy outmoded outhouses as these. Some of us never see these slums, because our normal business just doesn’t take us near them. Some perhaps have become accustomed to the sight, just don’t notice anything wrong. But nevertheless, the slums are there, filled with evil.”

Now poverty and poor sanitation equate not just to immorality, but become the enemy: “a threat to the health and progress of an entire city, a challenge to those who believe in the future of Jacksonville.” As though the five year old boy skipping between un-sewered shanties chose, after careful consideration, to enter an underprivileged black life rather than that of a white child conditioned never to question his own world.

3. The Price of Filth / The Value of Life

Slum Heart cuts to a corner of Pearl and Orange Streets, in the old neighborhood called Hansontown, later “Black Bottom,” shortened to “the Bottom,” supplanted by Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus, where Orange Street commutes still beneath a brick lane between buildings.

“Do you recognize this thoroughfare?” the contemptuous baritone of Slum Heart slobbers. “Yes, it’s Pearl Street looking south toward the city!”

Our narrator points out these “shabby disease-ridden outhouses” across the street from the State Board of Health Building, sneers, “It’s well located, isn’t it?” scoffs, “Certainly it’s convenient to Jacksonville’s most serious health menace.”

Look at them.” The camera pans to rows of shotgun shacks. “Row on row of dilapidated huts, each of these shacks running from 18 to 22 dollars a month—uncomfortable, unsanitary, indecent!”

In One Bad Apple, Alexander Crosby states that of 46,955 homes counted in the previous census, 17,677 (37.6 percent) Jacksonville homes were substandard.

Crosby’s print voice lacks the pietistic vengeance of the film narrator’s, which declares the city’s slums “spread like an evil cancer through the heart of Jacksonville.”

“The price we may have to pay for such filth,” says Slum Heart, “would be far greater than the cost of eliminating it.”

Now comes the pitch: “Just think of it. Most of the ‘rooves’ on these shanties leak. The walls, which never have been painted, are rotted away. The windows are broken and sealed with cardboard.” At least One Bad Apple blames slumlords. Slum Heart explicitly blames poor tenants.

The film cuts to a shot of the Gothic spire of Fairfield Methodist Church rising behind clotheslines, a bicycle parked in the sandy dirt.

“Yes,” the narrator drawls and drips, “it keeps out the rain, but it keeps out the air too. And yet these dwellings cost the occupants as much as they would have to pay in modern low-cost housing projects with complete sanitary facilities.”

The narrator points to “Springfield Park, with its fresh green grass and shrubbery, its air of cleanliness, just a few steps from the grimy slums,” then drones down, “But let’s move back to Pearl Street.”

“It is interesting to observe, for example, that many of Jacksonville’s most noxious slums are in the very shadow of the city’s finest and tallest new apartment buildings.”

Slum Heart warns of stirrings of “social unrest,” which may lead to political agitation, perhaps naturally brewing from these “dismal wastes of lost lands and lost lives […] honeycombed through the area of older Jacksonville.” Such ancient areas of new cities bear with them “their menace of health, their social unrest, their economic stagnation, their sprawled but tumbled down miles along the railroad tracks so that newcomers and visitors to our city, and tourists passing through on sleek modern streamliners can get”—

—and here the narration exudes venom—

“a good…long…look…at them.”

Black men in overalls and straw hats sit waiting for job prospects, corner of Stonewall and Park Streets in Brooklyn, presumably bad for boosterism and tourism.

“We certainly don’t turn our most charming side of our personality to the world,” Slum Heart, sadly and smugly demands: “Do we?”

The film pinpoints locations throughout and down in the depths of the city that “fail to carry their own weight,” claiming that “by their very existence, they’re a drag on the whole community.”

The film crystallizes grainy images of Blodgett Homes, built late 1930s. Whatever wooden shanties and shacks Blodgett replaced, the city’s promotional material for new Blodgett and Brentwood and Durkeeville housing projects depicted newly built structures, showing public housing residents happy and domestic and, usually, white.

One image from One Bad Apple shows a young couple facing each other on stairs with the caption, “Boy (John Gordon) greets girl (Agnes Bacon) in a Brentwood Park house. All three look nice.”

Cynically, the greater thrust of “slum clearance” films promotes not just public housing, philanthropic concentration camps, but the push to peripheries of whites into suburbs, the post-World War Two suburban migration now often called “white flight.”

“Come to think of it,” Slum Heart recalls, opportunistically, “that servant girl who comes to your house each morning.”

Right, that servant girl, like Mollie Chapman, family maid for the wealthy post-Confederate Stocktons, seduced or raped by young Guy Stockton, she who gave birth to the baby claimed by black Clara and Lafayette White as their own, Eartha White—said to be named for the planet, from which comes all good, to be a storehouse for her people—who grew up to become the greatest humanitarian leader in Jacksonville’s, and perhaps Florida’s, history.

“And,” Slum Heart continues, “does your dishes and food and clothing…

“Cares for your children…[but]

“Do you know where she goes at night?

“Maybe her home is one of these places…right along here…”

Cawthon’s and Crosby’s film concludes, “The question tomorrow before your city officials will be whether or not the people of Jacksonville will continue to tolerate the existence of sites such as you are now witnessing.”

Slum Heart cuts then to the heart of Riverside, the axis of Park and King Streets, Nasrallah Building in the background. These 70 years later, Park and King Streets represent one crossroads of the city’s most diverse and artistic cross-fertilization, while most of the “slums” the film features were razed decades ago, tenants either sequestered into “the projects” or left to find new substandard housing on their own.

“This matter will be decided upon, tomorrow, at the meeting of your city commission in the City Hall. Now will you be complacent and self-secure in your own home?”

Never. Though our fight must be different from the one Slum Heart and One Bad Apple urges us.

Beneath every urban street corner, every vista from any perspective, lies another Jacksonville, and another, and another. Too many to count. Infinite regress. So many versions of this city, in any one urban corner, that the city must never have begun, never had a beginning. It couldn’t have only been 1822 that Isaiah Hart chartered a new town. Infinite Jacksonvilles recede back past the invention of calendars. The earliest world’s too late, as the earth is always older, renewed. This city was always here. Its struggles are, bitter and brutal, eternal. But we must take them up. If we want our city ever to have existed, to have mattered, in the first place.