by Tim Gilmore, 6/6/2012
In the subdivision platted as Oak Hill, it’s hard to find a hill and a little less difficult to find an oak.
The concrete block house, one story, was built in 1959, when it was a showcase home for the new subdivision. Everything else here was woods. It had two bedrooms, 995 square feet.
In 1991, the 900 square foot house across the street caught fire, went up in flames. From the former showcase home, two teenaged boys had watched a dozen people come in and out of that house daily for a year. On these few streets, the house that would catch fire had become the Crack House. An eight year-old boy died in the fire.
Richard Jackson, 59, shot 17 year-old Alie McGill in the face with his .38 caliber revolver, when he walked into his house and found her with a butcher knife.
In the summer of 1989, a teenaged boy waits until his father falls asleep, sneaks out of the house, slips down the street. It’s after midnight. Most of the streets are astronomically named. He walks down Proxima to Sprite, past Centauri to Canaveral, beneath palm trees and streetlights. He walks past the house with the old hearse parked out front, someone’s personal vehicle. He walks to the house with the garage converted into five or six aisles of books. He sneaks into the garage, pulls out his flashlight, and starts eyeing the bookshelves. He steals books by Edgar Cayce, Whitley Strieber, Stephen King. The treasure of his crime is a five-volume set of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, published by P.F. Collier and Son, dated 1903. He takes the books. Inside the house, perhaps a family, perhaps a lonely man or woman, sleeps perhaps, or watches late night TV.
Nearby, in a still largely rural little neighborhood in the middle of the outer city, a neighborhood called Sweetwater, the streets are Biblically named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Esther, and Moses. Sweetwater has been mostly black since freed slaves founded it after the Civil War.
Nearby, in a subdivision platted in the late 1950s as Cedar Hills Estates, the streets are named Flopsy Lane, Mopsy Lane, Peter Rabbit Drive, and Cotton Tail Lane. The streets are named Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Tom Thumb.
In 1986, a woman died in bed in that former showcase home on Proxima Road. She had been paralyzed and bedridden for months. She had been sick for almost two years. She had Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. She was a beautiful woman with long dark hair. She hated her wheelchair. She asked her 11 year-old son to read to her from the Book of Psalms and she believed you could interpret news headlines through the Book of Revelation. Her son would lie down beside her and feel her holding him against her, though she could not hold him because she could not move.
The neighborhood high school is named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Every few years, a group of people gets together to petition that the school’s name be changed. In 2006, a group of community college students sought to rename the school after Eartha Mary Magdalene White, a Florida philanthropist who was the 13th child of a former slave. The Duval County School Board responded with the offer of renaming the school by simply misspelling the name of the Klan leader. So the high school for Oak Hill Unit 11 would not only be named after the Devil, but the Devil’s name would be misspelled. By the governing body of public education. A block away from the school, a pickup truck parked in a driveway bears a bumper sticker with a Confederate flag that reads, “Lincoln Owes Me!”
After a football game at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in 1991, a teenaged white boy was leaving the football field when he saw several black boys run through the parking lot. He immediately fell and forgot where he was. He stood up, ran down 103rd Street to Redstone Drive, then a quarter mile down to his friend’s house where he rang the doorbell. Only then did he realize blood was pouring down his cheekbone and across his mouth. Next week at school, a friend of a friend bragged about knocking down a tall white boy. He had hit him over the eye with a combination lock.
In the early 1980s a little boy on Proxima Road claimed for himself the one corner of his back yard that his father had not claimed for garden crops and fruit trees. The little boy pretended his back corner was an ancient city. He conducted archaeological excavations there. His father had carved him a wooden sword, which he later placed in the archaeological museum of his back corner of the yard. The back fence was covered in honeysuckle. A wooden stepladder crossed the honeysuckle into the back yard of the little boy who lived behind him. When the little boy behind him moved away, the new residents cut down the sycamores, the tallest trees in the neighborhood, and one night the wooden ladder disappeared.
Before he was 10 years old, a new family moved into a house around the corner on Centauri. They had goats in their small back yard. Their skin was a different brown from the black people in the neighborhood. They were rarely seen. They seemed to speak an unidentifiable language. After a short while, goat skulls appeared on tall stakes in the new people’s small back yard.
In December 1989, it snowed in Jacksonville, the only white Christmas in the history of the city. Several teenaged boys from Proxima and Centauri Roads got together and walked up Redstone Drive to Melvin Road, turning right toward the Interstate 295 overpass between Firestone Road and Confederate General Jefferson Davis Junior High School. They took metal trashcan lids from nearby houses and climbed to the top of the slope by the interstate. They took turns sliding on trashcan lids down the snowy overpass onto Melvin Road. For most of them, today was the first time they had ever seen snow.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of the neighborhood Southern Baptists became concerned about Satanism in their teenaged children. These children wore their hair long, wore black clothing, and listened to violent music. Several teenaged boys with dirty long hair would have, if asked, claimed to love Jesus Christ, but had unwittingly begun to find the Devil a more Romantic figure than Jesus, who had once represented long-haired compassionate rebellion, but had come to represent authority figures who did not seem smart enough to understand what was wrong with their kids.
In 1986 a woman died in bed in a house on Proxima Road, having been born in the Great Depression in a neighborhood first built for freed slaves, moved with her family in her adolescence to a higher class (and white) side of the same neighborhood, bought a showcase home in a new suburban subdivision in 1959. She died five years before the Crack House across the street caught fire in the middle of a winter night.
Prior to 1980, the small concrete house was large, filled with imaginary friends, shadows of witches in the middle of the night, where a little boy fell in love with them and became terrified of them as well.