Consolidation Reconsidered: Duval and Jacksonville 40 Years Later (2008)

In 1968 the City of Jacksonville and Duval County, Florida were consolidated into one government. Where once there had been eight municipal governments and a county commission, there was the one City-County government. The only municipalities to remain separate were those of Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Baldwin.

The city had grown. In the 1920s it saw many migrants arriving at Union Station, now the Prime Osborn Convention Center, in search of work (Henry Miller recounts a scene of a Jacksonville unenthusiastic about blue collar migrants at this time in Tropic of Cancer). The late 20s and 30s brought with them a great surge in African-American culture; from Harlem Renaissance writers to Blues and Jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and even local residents like Ray Charles. Ashley Street downtown inspired musical numbers and hosted vaudeville acts. Street performers displayed their talents. Lavilla, Brooklyn, and the Eastside were home to numerous Social Clubs and churches in a myriad of denominations. Lavilla came to be known as the “Harlem of the South”, and it is even said that Jelly Roll Morton acquired his name there.

Even as the 40s and 50s dawned the rise of department stores kept much of the emerging middle class — white and black — in the city’s orbit. At this same time though, Jacksonville was bearing witness to the national trend of white flight which occurred after World War II. Lured out by an ever more appealing suburban life, and spurred further by the threat of increasing black power, many whites left their cities and took valuable resources with them.

Although Jacksonville was not unique in this case, the complaints raised against the state of the city prior to consolidation were valid, and many of the problems would appear to have been solved not long afterwards, at least from one racial and class perspective. The measure was passed by popular vote in a referendum. Many minority leaders even supported the consolidation. The city government, with an obsolete power structure, was rife with corruption. Schools lost state accreditation. Increasingly motivated by the imagined threats accompanying desegregation and the civil rights movement, whites took the tax base with them, exacerbating problems of public services in the black communities.

It was forecasted that a black majority would soon assume control of the entire city. The black population had mixed feelings about this. Their neighborhoods were still grossly lacking in some of the most basic government services. Even middle-class black neighborhoods still lagged behind many working-class white neighborhoods in the construction and upkeep of public infrastructure. Beyond that, even the sizable middle-class black neighborhoods were doubtful that the white system would let them into the power structure if and when it came to the point of a black majority. With the promise of voting districts in the new consolidated city drawn out specifically to satisfy the concerns of the African-American citizens, local leaders went pro-consolidation (some only to later find out that their districts had to be redrawn, in ways negating the intended effects, due to allegedly misspelled street names in the original plans, etc.).

Jacksonville had, in any case, entered a new era. The character, though, which showed itself in the Axe Handle Sunday race riot and in the city’s dealings with minority community leaders throughout its history can still be seen today in city hall meetings. The 2006 decision made despite the pleas of church groups, the Movement for Economic Justice, and others, to welcome Wal-Mart into the working-class black neighborhood of Soutel serves as only one example. White Jacksonville, its local and migrant business class on one side of the river and its white Southern conservatives in the surrounding hinterlands, dismissed once more with its unfailingly short memory the wishes of Black Jacksonville to form economic strength of its own. Economic strength that many still claim they need to find, independently, for the safety and future of their children.

It may be beneficial for all of us, then, to examine the possibilities of what else may have been in 1968. What if community leaders had offered alternative solutions that responded to the city’s needs? What if then the city’s majority had voted against the measure? What could this mean to the over-all standard of living in the city, and could this have prevented today’s problems of racial tension, pollution, and gentrification?

Racial tensions are as visible in Jacksonville today as they were at almost any other given time in its history. The conflicts in the government come from starkly contrasted representatives from such starkly contrasted community prerogatives as those they represent. Between the conflict of such dominating minority voices as Councilwoman Pat Lockett-Felder and moral majority or commerce-minded council members, little room is left for addressing other minorities who have otherwise progressed much further around the country. Corruption is often suspected of black leaders proposing funding for community improvement when they then want it directed to religious organizations — although such is the conservative nature of Black Jacksonville that many cannot see the issue with allocating public funds to religious organizations.

The very recent rise in crime was found to follow racial lines, with more black-on-black and black-on-white crimes within the city than anything else. Crimes have, as before the crime rate became a hot topic, been concentrated mostly in black communities in the Northside and Westside, but also in what the local press would consider more ‘affluent’ areas; that is to say, crime has been concentrated in areas of poverty or targeting areas of affluence. If the language of race in terms of crime might be taken as a sign of our media’s racial bias, it may also be remembered that before consolidation Jacksonville had several well-circulated black-interest papers which may have taken different views on today’s crime rate.

Jacksonville has also attracted national attention for its number of allegedly miscounted African-American votes during the 2001 presidential elections, and a degree of international attention for the controversy caused by the racial profiling of 15-year old African-American Brenton Butler by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, documented by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Racism tainted the election campaign of Sheriff Nat Glover, and has now come to light in the fire department. Not only has geographic separation been counter-productive to race relations in the city, but it has also shifted public and private services’ directions to serve whites, both the ‘old’ Southern white and the otherwise white dominated suburban middle-class.

What other potential benefits could there have been, then, in an alternative to consolidation, such as for the white community? With a more decentralized city government, perhaps neighborhoods on Beach or Blanding Boulevards would not have allowed the visual pollution of neon signs and the proliferation of advertising into all free urban spaces. Perhaps strip clubs would not fill each artery of town from one military installation to the next. Perhaps, with downtown residents to support such an action, JTA (Jacksonville Transportation Authority) would have been able to find the money needed to improve the Skyway and bus services by continuing tolls on downtown bridges. This, along with other possibilities, could have prevented today’s problems with pollution. The high pollution in Confederate Park, in the now dilapidated downtown and Springfield neighborhoods, caused by downtown industry, could have been contested at some point had the citizens’ living standards not been so greatly neglected. All our present concerns about the pollution caused by industry dumping waste into the St. John’s may not have been if the city had not come to be viewed as our waste-dump of industry.

At present, the dissatisfaction of suburban life and new racial perspectives are causing a new trend, that of gentrification. A great wave of ‘white return’ is forcing minorities out of their affordable urban housing. This is now being addressed as a civil concern across the country, but still only as a backlash to white flight. Had a black majority in Jacksonville voted against consolidation, it would have been just another problem avoided by the prudence of one of the most historically vibrant black communities in the United States. Instead, what followed consolidation was the complete material destruction of Lavilla and Brooklyn, their rich heritage bulldozed in the name of downtown development but subsequently left as empty blocks for decades… gaping wounds baring witness to the wholesale ethnic cleansing of black neighborhoods standing between downtown and white, gentrifiable Riverside/Avondale.

Forty years later, and nothing at all has changed in this manner of urban management. Most of the projects set forth to improve Jacksonville in preparation for the 2005 Super Bowl were presented as community improvement initiatives but operated on a stop-and-go basis until only a superficial improvement was achieved, with all improvements being neglected shortly after the event. The neighborhood of Springfield, to where city money was streamlined for a few years into the pockets of ‘revitalizers’ (a relationship resembling those which the city has had with many unlicensed contractors, including those good-ol-boys who hire undocumented workers to build City Hall while legally under obligation to hire Jacksonville labor), remains stagnant in its drug and crime problems, though now with the nicest empty bus stops and sidewalks in the entire city. This is another problem which a local, decentralized government would have helped had it been established when it was possible, in 1968. It seems, in fact, that we know our civil and personal lives are lacking ‘outside’ standards. The ignorance of our past has come to be accepted as a struggle to survive Civil Rights… This “Bold New City of the South” embodies that inverse promise of the “New South”: that appearances may well outstrip progress when necessary.

When looking back and wondering why the choice of consolidation has not been loudly questioned by the black community, who seem to have been poised best to benefit from questioning it, one would have to look critically at that community’s own history. When we look back at accounts of the Civil Rights movement in Jacksonville, we find the city’s blacks had a passion for freedom unequaled in many other Southern cities. After desegregation and the end of Jim Crow, blacks in Jacksonville also found opportunity in starting anew in suburbs. Many of the newer business conservatives in the city, who were more intent on personal liberties than they were on the supremacy of a group of people, lived new suburban lives along with like-minded black individuals. Seen by these people, who could be viewed quite literally as the ‘brains’ of the black community, as the best solution to their own problems and the future of integration, they added only to the strength of communities whose representatives pushed against black neighborhood improvements. Jacksonville has always been a political matrimony between a business elite founded on transportation and ‘indigenous’ Florida crackers. Jacksonville left a bloody Civil Rights legacy, yet it all but held the doors open for the Union Army a hundred years before that. For a city seemingly so full of contradictions, it may not necessarily have been evident how a move which would reconstitute the racial ratio of the body politic would effect Black Jacksonville.

Consolidation has proved an irreversible act, though its criticisms run deep into our history as Jacksonvillians, Floridians, Southerners… and as Americans, of all types. Something within us is driven primarily by fear of one another; fear between races or between neighbors. One might venture to say we have all arrived here as communities seeking freedoms, found either by merely arriving or only after slavery and struggle, and have continued that search from coast to coast and from national identities to identity crises. A useful tool for life in our global paradigm might be just the recognition that we Jacksonvillians have a unique opportunity to discover what democratic equilibrium others might find, to work and live in harmony. Another, though, might be the creation of a political order all our own, gradually, in a process aided by preserved communities with equal representation.

In our city, in 1968, there was a path offered toward that end. It may still be useful to consider its benefits. When we took the promise of a ‘big city’ it was at the expense of the harmony we had always been in need of finding. We now ought to consider a reversal of methods. As an old saying goes, the cure for the failings of democracy is more democracy. Forty years after consolidation and the creation of the Jacksonville/Duval body politic, let us consider a politics closer to home. Let us consider more our streets, our neighborhoods. More our politics, more our democracy.

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