There was a time in my life where I found myself in a predicament. One that dictated, among other things, a few days out of the week I had to take a bus from McDuff Avenue to downtown. The route traversed McCoy’s Creek Blvd from west to east. The times I would become impatient waiting and walk to my destination outnumbered afternoons spent riding the bus. Wandering along the sidewalk, which runs parallel to the path of McCoy’s Creek, I was struck by this mostly untouched waterway in the heart of the city within sight of the tall buildings of Jacksonville. I remember the smell of the creek too, a heavy metallic odor that rose out of the water on hot days. Sunlight glanced off the surface with a strange opalescent shine. The clearly polluted stream was, nonetheless, teeming with life and I waited for the chance to see a three-eyed fish or a teenage mutant ninja turtle. I thought the surrounding neighborhood, Mixon Town, directly north of I-10, a stone’s throw from Riverside, an interesting place dotted with century old homes.
McCoy’s Creek runs east from the Lackawanna River winding through run-down residential areas and industrial sites, a waterway once used as a canal for moving goods manufactured along its banks to the open channel of the St. Johns River. The creek was part of John Henry Klutho’s plan for a large string of parks that would encircle Jacksonville’s main downtown area called the Emerald Necklace. Klutho, Jacksonville’s godfather of architecture, created this plan over 100 years ago but we, as residents of Jacksonville, know how long it takes the city to execute even the best laid plans.
In a surprising turn of events the city has taken some big steps to make this dream a reality. Starting last year, McCoy’s Creek Blvd (which followed the creek from McDuff Avenue to a dead-end at I-95) underwent demolition. The city decided it was time to do something you rarely see cities do: delete an entire roadway. McCoy’s Creek Blvd was prone to flooding both with heavy rains and complaints from the residents of Mixon Town. The project will eventually be completed as a greenway, instead of a road, and will act as a natural flood barrier. The waterway itself will be restored with dredging and a much needed clean-up. The manufacturing sites that surround the creek have been a source of pollutants for decades and McCoy’s Creek is among the dirtiest waterways in the city.
The timing of this change couldn’t be better for the on-going real estate boom in Jacksonville. Building of the greenway will no doubt be a major catalyst for development in Mixon Town, a historically under-served neighborhood. As of now, there are already many houses being remodeled to be put on the market. The environment will benefit from the transformation of McCoy’s Creek from a desolate dumping ground to a healthy stream, but so will new residents. What about the people that currently live there? Will they be the ones who can finally be proud of the creek running through their backyards?
If the other end of McCoy’s creek is any sign of the future then the answer is; probably not. McCoy’s Creek currently enters the St. Johns River underneath a parking lot in Brooklyn next to the former Florida Times Union building. Plans unveiled last month called for the building to be demolished and replaced with a high-end apartment development and grocery store. The mouth of McCoy’s Creek, where it meets the St. Johns River, will be uncovered and a kayak launch built. Brooklyn has transformed from a historically Black neighborhood, like its neighbor Mixon Town, to the one of the fastest growing luxury apartment communities in Jacksonville. Block by block the old houses have come down, residents have moved out and gleaming Town Center style developments have taken their place. Mixon Town will be served a similar fate with traditional house by house gentrification, we assume, because it has happened before.
In the heart of Mixon Town along Forest Street there stands the brand new campus of the Jacksonville Classical Academy, a private school that aims to provide children an education that public schools can’t. That education doesn’t come cheap, far beyond what most in the neighborhood directly adjacent can afford. The land the school sits on used to be home to another school, the Forest Park Head Start School, built during segregation for minority children and demolished in 1970’s with a playground built in its place. The site was also home to a municipal waste incinerator which operated from 1910 to the 1960’s. Ash from the incinerator was improperly disposed of on land next to the school and the homes in the area. Ash was also dumped directly into McCoy’s Creek poisoning the already noxious waters. During the late 2000’s, the site then became the focus of a Federal Superfund clean up project, a government program reserved for only the most toxic of contaminated places all over the United States. After the soil surrounding the former incinerator and former Forest Park Head Start School was dug up and removed, construction on the Jacksonville Classical Academy began. The memory of the school for underprivileged children and the building burning hazardous waste right next door was lost like dust (or ash) in the wind.
Environmental recovery doesn’t come easily. Environmental justice is even harder to achieve. So, when we see our leaders making what seem to be good decisions for our environment we must ask ourselves not only is this the best choice for our planet and the people but will everyone get to enjoy the fruits of the labor?