10 Attractions Downtown Jacksonville Should Have

Downtown Jacksonville is loaded with potential, and there are plenty of opportunities for new attractions that make the most of our unique culture and history. From fresh seafood markets to a Southern rock museum, here are 10 ideas for attractions that could and should open in Downtown Jax.

6: James Weldon Johnson monument

Augusta Savage’s temporary sculpture The Harp, 1939.

James Weldon Johnson is the most impressive person ever to come from Jacksonville. Among other things, Johnson was an accomplished author; Florida’s first African-American lawyer after Reconstruction; the principal of Stanton, which he converted into Florida’s first black public high school; a U.S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua; the first African-American head of the NAACP; a leading light in the Harlem Renaissance; and a university professor. While he was principal of Stanton, the LaVilla-born Johnson wrote the “black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, which his brother J. Rosamond Johnson put to music. His other works include the groundbreaking novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and the poetry collection God’s Trombones.

Johnson is woefully underappreciated in his hometown, although no one in Jacksonville history is so deserving of a public monument. A monument wouldn’t even have to start from scratch. Back in 1939, sculptor Augusta Savage, another Jacksonville native prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, designed a statue inspired by “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” called “The Harp”. The statue, in the form of a harp with a row of choir singers representing the strings, was built in temporary form for the 1939 World’s Fair. Unfortunately, Savage was never able to make a permanent version, though photos and bronze miniatures survive. Done right, a modern take on this sculpture paying homage to Johnson and Savage could give Jacksonville another signature work of art as well as a tribute to parts of local history that are too often overlooked.

There are plenty of models for great monuments to local figures, and public spaces to house them. There’s the Frederick Douglass Monument in Rochester, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Monument and square in Portland, Maine, the Horace Greeley Memorial in Manhattan’s Greeley Square Park, and the suitably bizarre Franz Kafka monument in Prague. A logical location for a James Weldon Johnson monument could be Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, located at the Johnson family homesite, but this space is not well located, and its condition is frankly embarrassing. Johnson deserves a far more prominent location and an active space. Hemming Park, the Jesse B. Smith pocket park on Forsyth Street, the Federal Courthouse plaza or some new, similarly accessible place could do the trick.

7: Fishing pier

The Jacksonville Beach Pier in 2011.

The St. Johns River is Jacksonville’s crown jewel, but Downtown is lacking in ways to really interact with it. One relatively easy way to fix this would be to add a public pier along the Northbank Riverwalk. Like the extremely popular Jacksonville Beach Pier and others in the area, a pier in Downtown Jacksonville with a small supply shop would be a way for locals to fish, rent equipment, or just sightsee for little cost. Fishing is already a popular activity in Downtown Jacksonville - the best spots are usually under “No Fishing signs” - and this would certainly be a popular amenity considering how much the local culture values fishing and great seafood. Past proposals for redeveloping the Shipyards site have included restoring some of its old piers; a pier there would be fairly close to the Downtown Core and near other proposed amenities like the potential U.S. Navy ship museum. Many other spots along the Riverwalk would also be perfect for piers of different sizes.

8: Music and culture in LaVilla

Memphis’ Beale Street, a potential model for reviving LaVilla.

From the late 19th century into the 1960s, the Downtown neighborhood of LaVilla was a major center of Jacksonville’s African-American culture. Music halls, theaters and shops lined the streets, and musicians from all across the country played and stayed in the neighborhood, earning it the title of “Harlem of the South.” LaVilla declined precipitously from the 1960s, and what remained in the early 1990s was mostly demolished in a failed urban renewal plan. Since then, the neighborhood has largely been a moonscape, but successful revitalizations of similar neighborhoods provide templates for restoring one of Jacksonville’s most historic quarters.

Memphis’ Beale Street and St. Petersburg’s The Deuces are similar African-American districts that were largely demolished in the later 20th century, but today, both are in the midst of rebirth. In both cases, the cities developed long-term strategies that focused on preserving what was left, playing up the local history and culture, while also incentivizing new buildings that fit in with the dense, walkable neighborhoods. In Beale Street’s case, the result is a thriving strip of blues clubs and restaurants, and one of Tennessee’s major attractions. There’s no reason the same couldn’t happen with LaVilla. LaVilla is already home to the historic Ritz Theater and Museum and historic buildings like Genovar’s Hall, the Clara White Mission and Old Stanton High School. The Broad Street corridor, especially, has nearly four blocks of historic buildings to preserve and work with, as well as many opportunities for redevelopment and infill. And of course LaVilla has culture and history to spare. With some long-term vision and planning, the city could prepare the Broad Street strip and the surrounding neighborhood for a resurgence, making way for locally-focused music halls, soul food restaurants, cultural spaces, and an authentic environment that can’t be found in any other city.

9: Bike network

Proposed bike and pedestrian improvements for the Emerald Necklace project.

This is another idea that came up, repeatedly, in The Jaxson forums. A bike (and pedestrian) network is an infrastructure investment that would help people enjoy downtown and connect to and from the surrounding historic neighborhoods. Most great cities have networks connecting bike lanes, sharrows and multiuse paths to improve bike safety and give people another option for mobility. Jacksonville has the advantage of weather that’s suitable for biking 9 months of the year, meaning it’s a serious shame that our bike infrastructure doesn’t cut it. Fortunately, headway is being made to create a bike and pedestrian network stretching through Downtown and the Urban Core, with projects like the Emerald Necklace, the Fuller Warren bike and pedestrian bridge, and the Riverplace Drive resurfacing coming on line. More of this, please.

10: Just more stuff

Ten major development projects already under construction or proposed within a five minute walk radius of Hemming Park. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

In The Jaxson forums’s discussion about desired attractions in Downtown Jacksonville, the common refrain has been simply “more.” More places to go, more places to eat, more places to walk to or interact with - just more stuff. Whether it’s attractions like those on this list or something else entirely, Downtown Jacksonville just needs more.

We at The Jaxson are big promoters of the “3 C’s” of successful urban development: Clustering of Complementary uses within a Compact setting. People will walk about a quarter mile to a destination, so the more you can cram into a small, walkable area, the more foot traffic and vibrancy you’ll get. The individual attractions are less important than the vibrancy that comes from having so much to do. This strategy has been proven successful time and again in redevelopment projects of all sizes, whether they’re small districts or commercial strips or whole bustling neighborhoods. And it’ll work here. Just picking a few key areas to start with and throwing everything we’ve got into making them excellent will go a long way to bringing Jacksonville the Downtown environment it deserves.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.