From Avondale to Arlington, LaVilla to Lake Shore, 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 Hemming Park.

Laid out in the early 1820s, a public square was created by Isaiah D. Hart, considered to be the founder of Jacksonville. After his death, his heirs sold the piece of land to the city for $10, maintaining the vision of this square, originally called City Park, to be a public square. The Civil War left Jacksonville decimated, but those northern troops returned as tourists. By 1869, Jacksonville had become a hot destination for visitors. Great hotels were built to accommodate, and Jacksonville had over a dozen; the biggest and fanciest two faced onto St. James Park (another one of Hemming Park’s former names).

“You could walk down Laura Street or Church Street and hear the strings of the St. James orchestra playing on the veranda of the St. James Hotel in the cool winter air and see wealthy people dressed up in their finery; high silk hats for the men and fancy bonnets for the women. On the guest book of the hotel, you’d see the signatures of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and the royalty of Europe. It was quite a deal,” says historian Dr. Wayne Wood. “And just three blocks away on Bay Street there were cows, pigs and muddy streets and gun fights on Saturday nights. It was really a contrast between the elegance of high society and bucolic frontier that somehow was attractive to tourists.”

The cultural and tourist epicenter began to diminish as trans-continental railways rushed people farther South and West to ever more exotic locations. Community leaders dreamed up a successful Sub-Tropical Exhibition that brought tourists back to Jacksonville, including President Grover Cleveland.

Unfortunately, the following year an outbreak of Yellow Fever plugged the momentum of the exhibition. After a few failed years, it was no more.
Shortly after, a wealthy citizen named Charles Hemming, who was an officer of the Confederacy during the Civil War, donated money to build a monument in the center of the park. To repay him for his largess, the city renamed the park after him.

Three years after the monument was erected, on May the 3rd of 1901, was Jacksonville’s day of infamy: The Great Fire. Starting in LaVilla and moving through a path that covered two miles by one mile, the fire burnt everything in Downtown with the exception of a narrow, 12-block area along Bay Street.

“All the people who lived within a few blocks of the park, when they saw the fire coming, piled their belongings around the monument in the park, thinking that would be away from the burning buildings and their stuff would be spared. Well, of course all that stuff caught on fire,” says Wood. “During the middle of the fire, a commentator noted that the marble shaft of the column was glowing red from the heat. That’s the only structure in the path of the fire that still remains today.”

After the fire, the city was rebuilt with haste. The newly constructed Windsor Hotel on Hemming Park opened only eight months later. The St. James building was built to house the 9th largest department store in the country: May-Cohens. Now our city hall, the St. James building is the largest Prairie Style building in the world and was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Klutho. More historic buildings, like the Snyder Memorial Church, The Seminole Club, and the Elks building became symbols of Downtown’s renaissance.

Hemming Park remained the prominent public space Downtown. When presidents came to town, they would come to the park to give their talks. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon all spoke in Hemming Park.

“Every great city in the world has some form of public square. The fact is that it’s the most precious piece of real estate, a town square where so much of the cultural and commercial and social life has occurred in almost two centuries….It’s in the perfect spot: geographically in the center of where our city is growing, away from the river but close to it, and all the streets in Downtown circulate around the park, making it even more the center.” -Dr. Wayne Wood

The embarrassment of the state of Hemming Park had been bubbling for many years. A little over two years ago, several city council members and business leaders (specifically Denise Lee and Jim Bailey) formed a committee to discuss the future of the park. Once the City realized that it was probably not within the City’s capability to turn the park around, they put an RFP for an outside group to manage the park. Through a number of revisions to the RFP, conversations about what would make the park successful, and studying parks around North America that have done similar transformations, The Friends of Hemming Park (FOHP) were selected to be the agency to reactivate and program Hemming Park.

A new ordinance reflected all of the elements the founding board of FOHP felt were necessary pieces for Hemming, including beautification and repair of the park, providing security from dawn to dusk, daily programming, and a humane approach to dealing with the crime in the park.

From the word possibility, Friends of Hemming Park began doing their homework, studying Placemaking principles, other parks around the country that have accomplished similar efforts, and looking at exciting programming opportunities.

Hemming is in the process of incredible transformation. Contrary to what many assume, the park is not overrun with homeless people; only one third of the regulars in the park are without a home. Friends of Hemming Park partnered with The Sulzbacher Center in placing a social services coordinator in the park (and in the library) aiding those individuals who need and want services. In addition, through a partnership with Downtown Vision, Inc., the park has two full-time ambassadors from 7am-7pm. During special events at night and on weekends, off-duty JSO security will be in the park. FOHP understands that a utilized public space must be a safe space.

With events such as Tom Joyner, the library’s ebook mobile, a 36-foot-long whale puppet, Jaxsons Night Market, Arc Jacksonville’s “Running of the Bulls,” and other community-inspiring programming, the park is already cleaner, more utilized by people, and a decrease in illegal activity is taking place.

In addition to regular programming and having ambassadors in the park, amenities are being phased in over the next six months. This month, FOHP rolls out its cafe on a trial basis, allowing a number of different caterers and food trucks an opportunity to impress the lunchtime crowd. An official request for proposals will go out to anyone who wishes to apply to be the regular food vendor in the park. A coffee cart, freshly-cut flowers, and bakery are planned, as well as a reading room (in collaboration with the library) and a plethora of amenities for children and families.

Sweet Pete’s opens this month, adding another kid-friendly element on the outskirts of the park. FOHP is talking with a number of organizations Downtown to jointly program and collaborate on creating a space imagined by the entire community. A thriving Downtown and an imaginative, creative, safe, clean, and activated Hemming Park are about being inclusive and collaborative with all sectors of Jacksonville.

The long-term, overarching vision of the park is to restore it to a modern, green urban space, where it is a beacon for families. Regular lectures, films, concerts, theater, health classes, art openings, and other events will be a draw to the park. The goal is to bring high-speed internet into the park to allow for meetings, collaboration, and an outdoor respite from office walls. In every sense imaginable, the park will be transformed into a vibrant community space.

About Keith Marks