by Tim Gilmore, 6/6/2016
I must have been five years old. I feel like I can see the faded chaos inside Peterson’s Five and Dime, 1979, but can’t focus enough to make out details. I seem to recall my mother buying me plastic toy dinosaurs: a stegosaurus, a triceratops. Whether it’s 1986 or 1869, the past so often seems just out of focus, what’s lost just out of reach.
My mother had grown up in the neighborhoods of Riverside and Fairfax Manor, and, like many Riverside natives of her generation, had moved to distant suburbs. When she had a doctor’s appointment in Riverside, we’d visit places like Peterson’s in Riverside’s Five Points and the Purple Petunia on Post Street.
One day, 20 years later, I had lunch with Jim Draper and Steve Williams, artists and co-owners then of Pedestrian Art Gallery, which was located in a two-story building beside the Junior League Building on Park Street, a block and a half from Five Points proper. I’d been working on a Folio Weekly story about Pedestrian.
Jim Webb dropped by, so excited he could hardly breathe. He was about to open Fuel Coffeehouse in the old Peterson’s Five and Dime Building. Not long ago, I looked back at a number of freelance and stringer articles I wrote in the late ’90s with surprise at how much I’ve forgotten, but I distinctly remember Jim’s joy that day.
Jim walked me through the building. Peterson’s was either about to go out of business or had just closed, I can’t recall which. We walked through the crowded back inventory on the second floor, where there were boxes of dolls that looked to have been there for decades.
Jim removed the letters that spelled Peterson’s from the front of the building and made them the foundation for a collage on the inside front wall. In and around the original Peterson’s letters, Jim glued doll heads, little green plastic army men, Christmas decorations, “and basically a bag or three of anything that was in Peterson’s.” It wasn’t even ironic, but a kind of sweet homage. Out front, where the Peterson’s sign had been, local artist Liz Burns painted the Fuel logo.
For a decade, Fuel shifted personae from coffeehouse to bar and hosted everything from poetry readings to hardcore punk shows. It was an integral part of Five Points, and of the culture of Riverside and the city.
As to why Fuel closed, Jim says, “Leave that to the mysteries of the era.”
Then the Peterson’s Building, or the Fuel Building, or the Woolworth Building for those who remember its longest tenant, F.W. Woolworth Co., the original Five and Dime, sat empty for seven years. Brett Waller and Phyllis Wheelan remember a soda fountain next door to Woolworth’s at Goode’s Bakery, especially their childhood Cherry Cokes.
A full list of the building’s tenants over the decades can be found at Florida Times-Union photographer Bob Self’s website, www.vintagejacksonville.com. Great A&P Tea Company occupied the building its first three years, followed by Towers Hardware from 1932 to ’36, after which the building sat empty for two years in the thick of the Great Depression. After a year of no listings following Woolworth’s 28 year tenancy, the building became home to Economy Five and Dime from 1969 to ’72, United Five and Dime from ’73 to ’76, then Peterson’s from 1977 to 1999.
Now Steve Williams has bought the building. It’s strange how things circle through time in cities.
For a long time I thought of Steve primarily as an artist, but in 2006, he took over the sign business his grandfather had started elsewhere in Riverside in the early 1960s. Steve changed the name of the company from Quality Sign to Harbinger Sign of the Future. He feels his role in developing the Peterson’s Building into Hoptinger Bier Garden and Sausage House is the beginning of a new phase of his life.
* * *
One night at Fuel, I was sitting at the bar, having had a few too many drinks, when my niece Angela came in and ordered a beer. Angela Canaday knows more about medieval art history than anyone else I know and looks eerily like my mother. The moment doubled. I could see, split-screen, Angela with a tall lager glass on one side and my mother buying me dinosaurs or toy soldiers on the other. I felt strangely ashamed.
Another night, I wandered randomly into Fuel and found a couple dozen shirtless tattooed young men standing around watching a hardcore metal band. Suddenly I stood next to my nephew, Micah, broad-shouldered, lantern-jawed, tattooed, 6’7”, with a higher IQ than anyone else I know.
The band, Micah told me, was “straight edge,” a term I didn’t know, though I remembered Minor Threat, the hardcore punk band whose 1981 song gave its name to the movement. Straight edge, I learned, was a hardcore punk subculture whose bands and fans abstained from alcohol, drugs, promiscuous sex, and sometimes eating meat or using caffeine. They clearly did not abstain, however, from moshing.
I love the feeling of being in a playhouse theater or black box after the show’s over. One night after Ken McCulough led a student production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Wilson Center, I remember that as the props were cleared from the stage and the crowd had disappeared, I felt I could hear any voice ever spoken in this theater if I listened the right way.
After all, Pirandello’s play shows that writers aren’t in control of their characters and their stories. It’s the other way around. Characters, stories, and even settings are ghosts that seek out the medium most open to them. And aren’t the best actors those who become possessed by their characters and cease to be the people who “play” them entirely?
The Peterson’s Building’s just such a haunted theater. Jim Webb salvaged some upright wooden beams on which employees had penciled their names and dates in the 1950s and ’60s Woolworth years. Not quite a century old, this building seems the whole world in microcosm. What can you be sure has not be said here, not been felt, not been lived?
* * *
The plywood that covers the front windows at the sidewalk now says, “World Peace” repeatedly, in columns and rows. A few weeks ago, Jax muralist Nicole Holderbaum had painted the message, “You’ve Been Sharing Bathrooms with Transgender People Your Whole Life,” #JAXHRO, in solidarity with local support for updating Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to protect the city’s strong LGBT community.
Steve Williams meets me on the first floor. The place is gutted. It’s hard to believe it will be open by fall. Steve’s stubble is gray these days. His black frame glasses and wickedly arching eyebrows make him look naturally hip, though he says he was sheltered as a child and refers to his younger self as a dork.
We head up the side stairs and walk the wide open second floor. The brick walls are exposed. The hardwood floors will be refinished, but they’re original.
Hoptinger will operate on the first floor and the roof garden, but second floor office and studio space is still for lease. Steve’s claimed the back studio.
Against one brick wall lean large-toothed iron elevator gears salvaged from the building’s original elevator shaft, and a metal grilled rear door. They’ll be reworked into lighting and electrical fixtures.
Meanwhile, two new elevator exits open onto the roof—one directly from Park Street and one from within the building. Hoptinger’s rooftop bier garden will look out past glass walls onto Five Points below.
Beer gardens or biergartens first developed in Germany in the 1800s and have been significant cultural operations across Europe ever since. It’s the kind of cultural happening Steve Williams believes Jacksonville needs.
* * *
Cities thrive, Steve believes, by proliferations of small projects.
For decades, Jacksonville has defined its urban potential with large singular projects—the Jacksonville Landing, a National Football League team, a convention center hotel.
But no city is great for one or even a dozen such large projects.
Steve believes the City of Jacksonville should incentivize sensible development of a large number of small historic urban properties at once, rather than ignoring its surprisingly large collection of historic urban architecture in favor of one or two large projects it quixotically believes might “save downtown.”
“In some ways,” Steve says, over Hibachi at Sake House in Five Points, “Jacksonville’s the most authentic of Florida cities.”
He realizes the irony of what he’s said, since Florida’s widely perceived as the least authentic state, but he stands by it.
Jacksonville developed long before the theme parks and Interstates 95 and 75, and if in the second half of the 20th century, that fact meant Jacksonville was the city to pass through or by on the way to Disney World and Miami, the fact of its late core revitalization now offers it great potential.
If Riverside’s revitalization had happened full-on in the 1990s, Steve says, “It might be full of generic places like Olive Garden now.”
He acknowledges Hoptinger will bring hundreds more people into Riverside, which already swarms as an arts and entertainment district, but says, “This is an urban area, and besides, I’m weird enough up here,” and he swirls an index finger to one side of his head, “to get the quirks of this neighborhood.”
He’s known Riverside all his life, though his mother locked the car doors when she drove through Five Points in the early 1980s, and he thinks he’s psychologically attuned.
His ideas resemble those of Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 bible of urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I mention Jacobs’s 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People,” in which she says the tendency of any healthy urban area is to become more dense, not less.
Jacobs continues, “If you get out and walk, you see all sorts of other clues. Why is the hub of downtown such a mixture of things? […] Why is a good steak house usually in an old building? Why are short blocks apt to be busier than long ones?”
But the best and truest thing Jacobs writes in that essay applies directly to Riverside’s comic book shops, ballet studios, microbreweries, hair salons, art galleries, antique shops, sushi restaurants, Italian restaurants, Thai restaurants, magazine offices, tattoo parlors, veterinary clinics, pubs, and caterers:
“A metropolitan center comes across to people as a center largely by virtue of its enormous collection of small elements, where people can see them, at street level.”
Peterson’s Five and Dime was just such a collection when my mother brought me here in 1979 and 1980. My focus into the past is a little better now, and I see rows of lurid fake flowers stemmed into Styrofoam platforms. But Peterson’s fit into the neighborhood. It was no Trump Tower or Wal-Mart. Peterson’s made room for strange people to wander its aisles with strange dreams, as Riverside has so long offered its sidewalks and streets.