LaVilla has an incredibly rich and interesting history, and there are many who are passionate about sharing that and making the neighborhood everything it could once again be. One of those individuals is Steve Williams, the CEO of Harbinger Signs, a custom sign fabrication company with a prominent list of national clients. Steve is “obsessed with the neighborhood and its history” and has put his money where his mouth is, purchasing property that he envisions being a multistory mix of art, retail, dining and residential spaces. He wants it to be an incubator of sorts for young businesses that share a vision for the area.
Steve’s interest goes far beyond entrepreneurship. He wants to raise awareness about the important history of the neighborhood and how it can play a critical role in shaping Jacksonville’s culture— and its future. He sees LaVilla as a blank canvas brimming with potential. “It is in the perfect spot to be downtown’s suburb, where artists and millennials can afford to live and create, celebrate, experiment, dance, sing; all of the things that neighborhood used to be know for.” A particular landmark, he points out, is the ballroom where a number of celebrated jazz musicians came to play, still intact with its Deloach Furniture. The space is empty, but still standing and set up the way it was when all of those great artists came to perform there. “We need to take that history and turn it into something that pushes us forward, helps us love ourselves and helps others love us, too! It used to be called the Harlem of the South. However, many say that Harlem was more like the LaVilla of the North.”
As passionate as Steve is about the history and possibilities of LaVilla, he’s equally as passionate about what he sees as bad decisions for the neighborhood. “The only changes I have seen are bad ones. Now is the time to make sure the bus station doesn’t go there.” His vision for the convention center, if it doesn’t begin to garner more business, is to turn it into a community center with shopping, restaurants and maybe a movie theater. And he feels a real key is to “connect all of that with the RITZ Theatre.” Based on proximity to things like Fresh Market, the Avondale strip, and Springfield, Steve feels like LaVilla could become the walkable neighborhood that it should be.
“I think if we as a community do not take LaVilla seriously, we will find it only to be bus stations, doctor offices and useless office buildings, when it could honestly be the richest, most exciting, thriving community that stamps Jacksonville on the map as the leader in Southern cities.” Steve imagines Jacksonville’s downtown and LaVilla areas, surrounded by the historic boroughs to the best in the South. But in order to do that, he feels that the design must be authentic and that the streets be lined with architecture. And it’s from this place, this vision of a neighborhood steeped in incredible history and culture, that we can “yell, not whisper our unparalleled history. It’s ours for the taking.”