Erma Cole’s neighborhood flooded so often back in 1965 that she stacked cinder blocks on top of one another in a line to make an elevated pathway to her grocery store. The water was so deep that people rode in boats down the roads. Four square blocks in the middle of Robinson’s Addition, located north of Beaver Street and east of McDuff Avenue North, would turn into a lake.
To call attention to the problem during a particularly bad flood that year, Cole recruited a neighbor, Bill Blackman, to sit in a chair near her store, dangling a fishing pole in the water. Channel 12 took the bait and sent a news crew. The story got attention, but it took six more years, Cole’s appearance on a local television talk show, and a concerted campaign of phone calls by neighbors to City Hall for Robinson’s Addition to shame Jacksonville into action.
Since then, however, Cole says nothing more has been done about the neighborhood’s flooding problems, aside from cleaning debris from the storm drains. In recent years, she says, it’s felt like the city has ignored Robinson’s Addition altogether. Cole finds that hard to fathom. The neighborhood association, founded 38 years ago, is still very active today. (She says she can count on at least 25 residents attending the group’s monthly meetings.) They do their part to keep up the neighborhood, but there’s no partnership with City Hall. City improvement initiatives never seem to reach their streets.
“I can’t say who is behind it and why it is that some areas get fixed and others don’t,” says Cole, 83, the association’s president. “It seems like we’re forgotten.”
Enter Alvin Brown, the city’s first black mayor, a Jacksonville native, a person who knows these neighborhoods, who’s heard the repeated lament. When Brown campaigned for office in 2011, he promised these neighborhoods on Jacksonville’s Northside that they would receive their piece of the pie. Now, facing a tough reelection fight from the well-funded Lenny Curry, who headed both the Duval County and the Florida Republican parties, and long-shot Bill Bishop, a longtime City Council member and former Council president, Brown made what his office billed as a major announcement on Nov. 24. He unveiled Renew Jax — a $35 million initiative specifically targeting the majority black neighborhoods of Northwest and East Jacksonville.
The money for Renew Jax includes a $20 million commitment from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (the local branch is LISC Jacksonville), close to $10 million in federal grants, and more than $5 million in city stormwater utility funds. The money will be spent on drainage, sidewalks, extending city water lines and other infrastructure improvements, as well as on building new housing, rehabbing some old housing, and commercial improvements. Among the infrastructure projects will be a $250,000 study of drainage problems in Robinson’s Addition.
The bigger picture here, according to Brown, is that Renew Jax will bring back the crackle of revitalization to these long-neglected neighborhoods and help right the city’s long history of broken promises. It’s a beginning.
“Renew Jax is a new city initiative founded on a public/private partnership that will empower neighborhoods by improving and expanding housing opportunities while promoting economic development, job creation, building family strength and stability,” he told host Melissa Ross on WJCT-FM’s First Coast Connect.
His critics, however, say Renew Jax is purely political, a ploy to convince black voters that Brown is committed to their neighborhoods, and to his core supporters from 2011.
“It’s political Rope-a-Dope,” says Juan Gray, chairman of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (and a Bill Bishop ally). “He says he’s going to focus on the Northwest Quadrant as we move into the election, when in the past three or four years, he’s done absolutely nothing for the Northwest Quadrant.”