From Avondale to Arlington, Mandarin to Murray Hill, the Southbank to the Southside, each one of Jacksonville’s over 500 neighborhoods has its own distinct character, history, and amenities. In the upcoming issues of EU Jacksonville, our team of writers and photographers will take you along on a journey of discovery, introducing you to stories, residents, and merchants in our myriad community pockets, as well as highlighting the many public facilities at our disposal. Did you know there are 27 parks in San Marco, or that the largest neighborhood land mass is in the Northside?
Let’s learn what’s in our own backyards. You just might like to live there one day. Start by checking out this issue’s spotlight on Brooklyn.
Where’s Brooklyn? Historical Brooklyn and the modern boundaries of Brooklyn are two different things. Today, if you’re traveling down Riverside Avenue, the Fuller Warren Bridge (where the Riverside Arts Market is held) is considered to be a dividing line between Brooklyn and Riverside. Fidelity is considered to be on the Brooklyn side, and The Cummer Museum is in Riverside. That’s only become the more modern definition of Brooklyn since the Fuller Warren Bridge was put in place in 1954. Historically, if you were coming down Riverside Avenue, from the Riverside neighborhood, Brooklyn really begins at the intersection of Riverside Avenue and Forest Street. Forest Street is the cut off to the South, the St. Johns River ends Brooklyn on its east side, McCoy’s Creek is the northern barrier and Myrtle Avenue bounds the west edge of Brooklyn.
Forming the northern border between Brooklyn and Post to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "La Villa" is McCoy’s Creek. In the late 1800s, the sluggish creek was surrounded by marshes and standing water. It’s been re-engineered several times since 1897, mainly because of construction and flooding. When the new union railroad station was built, marshes were filled in, and the creek was redirected.
Today we might look at the ecological cost of destroying wetlands, but city planners at the time saw them as a health hazard. They weren’t wrong: standing water was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, spreading yellow fever, one of the epidemics at the time.
In 1929, McCoy’s was once again modified. The creek was straightened, deepened, and the unsafe marshy areas were filled in and changed into a public green space. From the Planning and Development Department’s report, engineers at the time said that the 1929 project removed “the biggest swamp in any city the size of Jacksonville in the civilized world.” While the changes were very positive, McCoy’s Creek needs regular upkeep to function as it should. Today there are still problems with flooding.
Wedged between Downtown and Riverside, Brooklyn is a neighborhood often unknown to transplants. Locals know it, but recent development is starting to bring it back into the general public’s eye. The Brooklyn of Jacksonville was presumably named for the Brooklyn of New York, probably by ex-Confederate soldier Miles Price. Why he named it after what was a very pro-abolitionist city in the North has been something of a mystery. At the time in 1868, the Brooklyn of New York State had not yet been consolidated as a borough of New York City, and the Civil War had ended just three years before. Perhaps the reason for the name was the demographics of the area in the late 1860s. Brooklyn may have been seen as a neighborhood only made possible through the efforts of the North and the Union, so it makes a strange sort of sense that it would be named for a Northern city with staunch abolitionist leanings.
In the late 1860s, a community of black freedmen formed there, some coming in after service as Union soldiers, some moving in earlier as laborers, while the Union occupied Jacksonville during the war. By 1870 a census of Brooklyn counted 356 residents. The neighborhood was racially diverse, with 59% black and 41% white. They came from everywhere: among their birthplaces were counted 11 different states in the United States. Eight percent of them were foreign-born, hailing from as far as Prussia and the West Indies. They worked in domestic service, as carpenters, barbers, butchers, night watchmen, policemen, sawmill workers, fishermen, clerks, grocers, and at least one gunsmith.
From the late 1860s through 1901, Brooklyn had a boom in residential development. Middle and upper class families began building large homes along what is now known as Riverside Avenue. But the Great Fire of 1901 reshaped our city, and Brooklyn started to dwindle, with industrial and commercial businesses replacing many homes.
The only home to survive after the mini-mansion boom on Riverside Avenue was the Rochester House or the River House. You can see it today, but it isn’t in Brooklyn. In 1911 they loaded the house onto a barge and floated it down the St. Johns River, relocating it to 2107 River Boulevard, where it sits today.
By 1916, Riverside Avenue (aka Commercial Avenue) was beginning to take its shape as “automobile row.” For older Jaxsons who have lived here all their lives, Brooklyn was where all the car dealerships were. In the 1950s and early 60s, highways isolated parts of Brooklyn and the surrounding areas, both with the Fuller Warren Bridge and I-95, and the mix began to change. Today some large Jacksonville employers line Brooklyn’s section of Riverside Avenue. The YMCA, Haskell, Fidelity, Everbank, and the Florida-Times Union are some of the notable buildings you’ll find there.
In the 1980s, the city focused on cleaning house in Brooklyn. In 1981, a city survey counted 364 residences, with 298 of those classified as dilapidated. The Downtown Development Authority’s action plan included, according to a COJ report for the Proposed Designation of The Brooklyn Historic District, “new high-rise apartments, townhouses and single-family homes, which would require the acquisition and demolition of 183 houses and the displacement of 550 people.” Although none these homes were built, a large number of parcels were bought by the city and cleared for redevelopment, mainly because the Department of Transportation was expanding Riverside Avenue and Forest Street. Further expansion of Riverside Avenue and Forest Street for a more direct connection to I-95 in early 2000s also resulted in more demolition.
That destruction of many homes and churches in 1980s and in the early 00s, rundown though they might have been, as well as the destruction of ostensibly historical buildings in neighboring LaVilla, are cautionary tales for those who seek to preserve Brooklyn’s historical value.
In 2013 Joel McEachin submitted a COJ report from the Planning and Development Department for the Proposed Designation of The Brooklyn Historic District. In it, a little less than three square blocks are put forth as an historic district. He says the blocks, which are mainly bounded by Dora, Chelsea, Price, Spruce and Elm, are “the last [concentrated] part of Brooklyn that reflects the traditional, historic African-American neighborhood.” Getting approval as an historic district is important, says McEachin, because “there would be some assurance that the houses that remained would be properly rehabilitated and that new construction is compatible, at least architecturally, with the historic district.”
“There are two trains of thought in the neighborhood now,” says City Council Member Warren Jones. His district encompasses Brooklyn. Some people, he tells us, just want to cash out of the neighborhood and have the freedom to sell to developers who can level the houses, many of which are in poor condition. But others, like the community members who pushed for the Planning and Development Department to write the Proposed Designation of The Brooklyn Historic District, want to stay.
By a narrow margin, they didn’t get all the votes needed from property owners to bring the proposed district before city council. Some of the property owners don’t actually live in the neighborhood, and are holding on to the abandoned properties in the hopes of selling for profit later on. With ever-more demand for housing in the adjacent Riverside, and the new development of Unity Plaza and the Brooklyn Union, it seems like Brooklyn is poised for a residential boom.Alex Coley, Hallmark Partners Co-Founder and CEO, says that “transformative” is the word he’s often heard to describe what Unity Plaza will mean to the neighborhood. Hallmark Partners has worked hard to develop Unity Plaza as a dynamic space. The non-profit connected to the park (which also has a space inside) will offer programming and lots of fun activities focused on “bringing together the cultural creatives of Jacksonville,” says Coley. Unity Plaza will be mixed-use, with restaurants, a park, and 294 upscale apartments at 220 Riverside. Celebrity Chef Kevin Sbraga, winner of Top Chef has chosen to launch his first restaurant outside of Philadelphia at Jacksonville’s Unity Plaza.
Not far from Unity on Riverside Avenue, is Brooklyn Station. Brooklyn Station’s anchor is the newly-opened Fresh Market. Also slated to go in the shopping center are Burrito Gallery, Corner Bakery Cafe, Burger Fi, Zoes Kitchen, Lucy’s Gift Boutique, and the Hair Cuttery.
Council Member Jones says that the development is “bringing some much-needed services to the neighborhood” but it also increases the pressure to redevelop the more historical area. What Jones wants for Brooklyn is to see it “redeveloped with a sensitivity to the property owners who live there, to make sure that we respect and honor their desires.” In any case, the development means that one way or another, Brooklyn has to change.