As the city’s oldest park and our de facto town square, Hemming Park has a rich history. In its happier days, it was truly the heart of Jacksonville. The block was sold to the city by the heirs of Jacksonville’s founder, Isaiah D. Hart, in 1866 for a mere 10 bucks. First known as “City Park,” and then “St. James Park,” in 1899, it was renamed “Hemming Park” after the Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming, who donated the Confederate monument which still remains today.
Over the course of a century, presidents and heroes gave speeches in the park. Civic celebrations and concerts took place there. It was a social destination and a pastoral place of relaxation in the heart of Jacksonville’s commercial district. Sinuous pathways wound through grassy lawns, and citizens relaxed on benches beneath the live oaks.
In 1978, the city decided to turn the park into “Hemming Plaza.” The grass was replaced with bricks and pavers, and what little landscaping remained was cordoned off with concrete curbing. The human scale of the park was greatly diminished. Within a few years, the retail stores around the plaza closed, and instead of becoming an attractive urban destination, the park became a metaphor for the decline of Downtown Jacksonville.
For decades, Hemming Park was walked around, not through. Years of neglect made it an ideal place for our city’s jobless and homeless, vagrants and even rats to do as they pleased. Meanwhile, Downtown employees, residents and city officials sat quietly wishing someone would fix it, but who?
Fast-forward to 2013 when the city of Jacksonville finally issued an RFP for a private group to take over management of the park. The original RFP offered no financial support, and no one applied. A second RFP asked what a private group would need from the city to take on this daunting task. Only one group applied. The nonprofit Friends of Hemming Park (FOHP) was formed for the purpose of revitalizing Downtown Jacksonville by activating Hemming Park. The city offered a million-dollar budget for 18 months, asking that we raise $250,000, host at least five events with 500 people each quarter and organize quarterly stakeholder meetings. We exceeded each goal set for us by far.
Yet it seems City Council’s goals for the park have changed, and we are prepared to change with them. We’re a different organization than we were two years ago, even two months ago. Our interim CEO is the former CFO of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The board has never been more focused or more active. There are new corporate officers and fiscal policies in place. Oversight of all operations has been firmly established. We’ve added private security and more park ambassadors. The remaining staff is composed of consummate professionals responding well to the newly tightened structure, holding up under negative public opinion, making do with less.
We’ve learned a lot over the past two years as the first group to ever take on a public project of this magnitude. Our biggest takeaway is still this: Pretty much everyone wants to see Hemming Park succeed. And no one wants this more than we do.
FOHP, with the support of Project for Public Spaces, has put in the time and effort to learn what it takes to create an engaging public space. We have asked the people of Jacksonville what they want to see in Hemming Park and are working with local partners and sponsors to bring those ideas to life. We have heard from surrounding businesses that their revenue goes up when we program the park, and down when we don’t. From musicians to magicians, food trucks and local vendors, dozens of small business owners depend on FOHP for their livelihood each month.
If you really look, you can see the future of Hemming Park starting to take shape. We’ve added two performance stages, a café area, coffee caravan, a kids’ zone, new signage, and numerous works of art, plus live music and food trucks five days a week. On any given day, you might see field trips of children playing, Downtown employees enjoying lunch, local residents walking their dogs, passersby singing along to live music, old friends continuing a years-long chess tournament.
Now picture a new community stage, a proper playground, green grass, more public art and people of all ages and walks of life coming together as one community. This vision of a vibrant Downtown square is the reality that FOHP wants to bring to life.
Hemming Park is not a simple park. It has no simple solution. It’s going to take all of us coming together to make it a place we can all be proud of. No matter where you live in Jacksonville, Downtown belongs to all of us. Attend an event, join us for lunch, become a friend, send us an idea. We’re listening.
Learn more and get involved at hemmingpark.org.