Old Southern Feel or Old Southern Restrictions?

Avondale's history as a restrictive community still stands today.

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Tucked away under a viridian canopy of live oak with a scenic backdrop of the St. Johns River rests Avondale, one of Jacksonville’s oldest neighborhoods. Its streets are lined with charming bungalows and Mediterranean revivals, and though the area boasts plenty of waterfront mansions with sprawling yards, there’s still a sense of Southern humility and welcome in the air—or at least, it would seem. Spanish moss and despicable histories drape over the western stretch of St. Johns Avenue, a street that, while open to the public, was—and in many ways, still is—accessible to only a select few: Is Avondale still functioning as a restrictive covenant nearly 100 years after it was established? 

Following the end of World War I, Jacksonville experienced a real estate boom. With a great deal of land in the area was up for grabs. Developers noted the appealing and valuable quality of the lush, green flora with views of the shimmering river. But much like the previous landowners, they had a similar vision for who they wanted to live there and take priority. 

The suburban expansion into Avondale included relatively strict deeds that dictated the size, placement and minimum budget required to build a home in the neighborhood, the first in Jacksonville to do so. These restrictions extended into the area within a radius of roughly two miles, reaching into modern-day Murray Hill, Ortega, San Marco and Downtown. A street index from the ’30s shows neighborhoods being divided into four colors: green for the “best,” blue for “still desirable,” yellow for “declining/questionable” and red for “hazardous.” To little surprise, Avondale is captured in a small sliver of green within the map. In comparison, historically Black neighborhoods such as LaVilla were aggressively branded in red—in fact, in some copies of this street index, a racial slur is used to describe these neighborhoods. 

A few decades later, the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. Despite this, these some areas of Jacksonville have experienced very minimal levels of integration. Avondale, for example, has an overwhelmingly upper-class white population. Why? There are a few key factors at play: the first being that landlords can choose who they want to rent out their properties. And who they don’t want to rent to, as well.

As Avondale is a high-demand neighborhood, properties often receive multiple applications once a rental is posted, making potential discrimination easier and more covert. Racist attitudes and traditions in regard to housing have been no stranger here either, even as recently as last year. 

Down the road in Ortega, Abena and Alex Horton noticed that, despite their home having more bedrooms and land than their neighbors’, their property was curiously valued lower than their neighbors’. Abena, who is Black, and Alex then removed all traces of Black art and culture from their home. Their appraisal rate skyrocketed 40%. As a result—and after being met with an unwelcoming attitude from their initial appraiser—the couple filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

  Another important driving force behind the neighborhood’s homogeneity is its demographic continuity, a preservation of the demographic and culture of an area’s residents. In a 2019 study of Avondale, Krista Paulson, an associate professor at Boise State University, observed the neighborhood’s population, in terms of race and class, evolved very little, if at all, since its founding. Sources vary on Avondale’s diversity composition today, but average 89% white. Business and commerce also sustain the elite population with specialty boutiques and fine dining restaurants. 

Sadly, blatantly racist attitudes still exist and only further contribute to Avondale’s residents being overwhelmingly white. A few years ago, the once-beloved owner of Florida Creamery, a sweet shop on St. Johns Avenue, posted an Islamophobic tirade on social media. It went viral and prompted a boycott, which eventually led to the shuttering of its doors. In the process, the incident carved a subconscious sense of caution for Avondale as some commenters expressed their lack of surprise over the owner’s post based on the look and feel of wealth in the neighborhood.

Even in plain sight, one can take note of the class characteristics Avondale uses to distinguish itself from surrounding neighborhoods such as Riverside. For example, the sidewalks are much nicer and follow through without interruption, and the driveways are longer. The lawns are painstakingly manicured and strategically adorned with Southern blooms, such as azaleas and gardenias, a luxury when lawns a few blocks away are limited to small patches of grass or are non-existent. 

In addition to home design and architectural differences, there are social constructs working to keep the status quo in Avondale. Multi-generational families and traditionalists, for example, do their best to maintain the neighborhood’s look and feel, while quietly upholding Avondale’s reputation as one of Jacksonville’s most affluent and exclusive places to live. 

While the notion of being a restrictive covenant in 2021 may ruffle some feathers, especially as the area has grown more liberal in the last couple of decades, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate Avondale still operates as one holistically. 

There’s still work to be done, deeds to dismantle. With the summery open space and sweet magnolias that entice, Avondale looks like the picture of Southern hospitality. But that hospitality is not extended to all.  Without the push for equity and diversity, the Old South masquerades as old Southern feel. Change looms, just like the Spanish moss. 

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