by Tim Gilmore, 7/16/2017
The four story slaughterhouse hulks white in the distance, menacing, stands far back from Beaver Street, and we approach it through the gate in a chain-link fence, move slowly across the mud, the holes in ravaged pavement.
From industrial Beaver Street, littered with crab shacks, boiled peanut stands, and the last functioning pay phones in the city, the tall leaning white form looks ready to fall back on the railroad tracks toward McCoys Creek in the sunken corrupted distance.
Built in 1921, the Farris and Company Slaughterhouse stands both cavernous and labyrinthine. We could easily lose ourselves inside. Some corridors have been sealed for decades. Some doors gape wide open, two stories or three stories in the air. A steep and narrow stairwell climbs beside a long-dead smokestack and exits onto the roof.
Some passageways turn and turn again and might never turn back. Deep inside lurks the center of darkness. Surely we’ll never return.
In 1910, Najeeb and Eva Farris began Farris and Company as a dry goods store at 410 Davis Street in the central historically black district of LaVilla. Theirs was one of many Syrian owned and operated businesses in LaVilla, and in Jacksonville as a whole. By 1920, writes Katherine Cohen in her 1986 master’s thesis, “Immigrant Jacksonville: A Profile of Immigrant Groups in Jacksonville, Florida, 1890-1920,” Syrians were close to 10 percent of Jacksonville’s “foreign-born white” population.
Among Jacksonville’s Syrian businesses were Assad Sabbaq’s grocery, Joseph K. David’s Duval Ice and Coal Company, the wholesale grocery partnership Safay and Khouri Company, and Farris and Company, which evolved from dry goods retail to wholesale meats.
Farris Mansour came to Jacksonville from Syria in 1890 and ran a fruit stand at 329 West Bay Street. A century later, Jacksonville elected its first mayor of Middle Eastern descent. Tommy Hazouri, mayor from 1987 to 1991, grew up in the apartment above his Lebanese family’s grocery on Liberty Street.
Early Arabic business success in Jacksonville occurred in the face of vicious racism. Deep in the Jim Crow Era, city directories and census forms often recorded Syrian immigrants as “Negro.” As Cohen points out, Syrian immigrants were largely Catholic, not Muslim, but anti-Catholicism raged alongside white supremacy in groups like the Ku Klux Klan, specifically, and the conservative white South, generally. Nor was it happenstance that Syrian immigrants lived in black LaVilla, since neighborhood covenants often excluded Arabic immigrants just as they did blacks.
To wander the beautiful brick arches of the ruined Fort Macomb, built in 1820 outside New Orleans, is to know it by another name, the fictional Carcosa, location for the first season finale of the HBO series True Detective.
We recognize Carcosa when we first drive up to this old slaughterhouse recessed from Beaver Street behind where the National Stockyard once extended from the corner of King.
Despite its many flaws, True Detective’s first season is a masterpiece of psychogeography—that portmanteau word comprised of “psychology” and “geography,” from which this website gets its name—with Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, looking at the Louisiana swamp-scape and saying, “I get a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum. Ash. I can smell the psychosphere.”
Indeed. As we approach through the mud and the crawling green, it seems clear we’ve come into the presence of some historical and architectural beast, that this towering abattoir, this looming colossus, could choose to admit or deny us based on the most frivolous criteria.
Very well. The bowels of the building ascend, and we circle through and up them. We had already walked through the blueprints before meeting the slaughterhouse so intimately.
The Eastern Elevation faced us down. Together we trembled. We spiraled up through Fertilizer Storage, Grease Storage, and I know, that together or apart, we will ever remember the echoes in the Brine Tank.
We want to bring in a choir, some castrato arrangement, some post-rock electronica, to flood and soar the acoustics where bodies of beef were packed, salted and seasoned.
Remember the contract?
“Door from killing room into beef chill room will be a Jones Metal clad cooler door” / “All floors will have surface pitched toward drain trap.”
And “Contractor will not be required to furnish or erect” …
steam boilers steam piping “brine piping for either pickle or refrigeration brine” brine vats working or cutting tables
motors, generators, hoists, slaughtering or rendering machinery or tanks heating pipes refrigerating machinery
Despite both racism and religious bigotry, Syrian Jacksonville formed a local chapter of the Syrian American Club in 1912 and a Syrian Ladies’ Charity dedicated to helping the homeless and the poor.
Though most neighborhoods excluded Syrians, all of Jacksonville profited from Syrian business, and Syrian entrepreneurs supported other Jacksonville minority groups. For years, Farris and Company ads could be found in Jacksonville Jewish Center yearbooks.
Two Farris and Company cases reached the Florida Supreme Court. A 1933 case, C.R. Duffin v. W.A. Tucker, concerned Duffin, a Farris-employed salesman who pitched new sales while attending deliveries made from previous pitches—“to-wit: neck-bones, beef liver, pig tails, baloney, ribs, white bacon and Florida smoke bacon.” Duffin was sued for not paying in-town taxes in Cocoa, Florida as an out-of-town vendor. The court ruled in Farris and Company’s favor.
The second case, Farris and Company v. Wm. Schluderberg-T. J. Kurdle Company, 1940, concerned whether a carload of boned beef shipped from Jacksonville to Baltimore C.A.F. (“meaning Cost and Freight allowed to point of destination”) was equivalent to F.O.B. or “Free on Board,” and whether “when so shipped the responsibility of the shipper ceases when the goods are delivered to the carrier.” The court ruled in favor of Farris and Company on whether a refrigerated car was “pre-chilled properly” and whether it contained, contrary to contract, “old cuts.” The court ruled that as “the car was consigned to the consignor in Baltimore” without issue, no evidence convinced it “that error was committed on these points.”
A 1937 peer-reviewed article, “The Comparative Anatomy of the Thyroid and Adrenal Glands in Wild Animals” by Robert Crile, published in The Ohio Journal of Science, thanks “Farris and Company, of Jacksonville, Florida” for help in collecting “eighteen sets of glands of cattle, including bulls, steers and cows, pregnant and non-pregnant animals which in appearance were sleek and rugged. The glands were collected immediately after death.” Crile’s thesis was that an animal’s “energy characteristics […] depend primarily on the thyroid-adrenal relationship,” with special focus on the differences between such glandular relationships and functions in human beings and in other animals.
In the abattoir, ungulates were slaughtered, cattle were brined, pigs were porked and packed for nearly four decades, from 1921 to 1958.
No wonder, when climbing the inner intricacies, we hear against the concrete dark, low moans we attribute to the wind on this still and hot and humid Jacksonville summer night.
I never would have believed that smells could echo for so long, but animal odors persisted for decades in the abandoned Gustafson’s dairy farm in Green Cove Springs and in the kitchen of Fred Cotten’s, when temporarily closed, the oldest barbecue joint in town.
We smell the blood and we breathe the brine. We slip down the brine pipes from the third to the second floor. We freight ourselves up the caged elevator that’s not lifted in 35 years and exit onto the fourth floor. Here surely we’ll find the Minotaur. Here surely we’ll suckle the Capitoline Wolf.
Never have we viewed a vista like we now see the city from atop this slaughterhouse in the gloaming. I wish I knew what seemed most appropriate to this historic moment. I wish you’d let me hold you, but I too, these days, can only bear my presence from a distance.