Located just north of Florida State University, Frenchtown is considered to the state’s oldest primarily historic Black community. Frenchtown dates back to 1825 when the U.S. government gave a Tallahassee township to French General Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, for his help during the Revolutionary War. Following the Civil War, it was largely settled by the former enslaved.
During the height of segregation, Frenchtown’s Macomb Street emerged to become the epicenter of Tallahassee’s Black business community. A premier stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, its Red Bird Café hosted famous performers like Cab Calloway, B.B. King, Cannonball Adderly, and Ray Charles. Frenchtown was also known for its collection of historic residences and churches.
The community fell into decline as an unintended consequence of desegregation, due to its economic foundation being ripped apart. During the early 1990s, most of the historic commercial storefronts on the west side of Macomb Street were razed to make room for the expansion of the street to four lanes. This was a period, I remember well during my time at Florida A&M University. Frenchtown is where I got my haircuts, a tattoo on my 21st birthday and a destination for Caribbean food. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was not much left on the Macomb Street strip. Tallahassee’s urban core has dramatically changed since those days. The campuses of both FAMU and FSU are significantly more expansive, encroaching on nearby historic neighborhoods.
Like many historic African American communities across the country, Frenchtown’s residents are in an ongoing fight to preserve the neighborhood’s identity and cultural heritage. Recently back in town to attend the Journey to Emancipation history conference, I took the opportunity to spend a bit of extra time to explore the ongoing revitalization of Frenchtown on foot. Here is a virtual tour of the neighborhood and a look at a few affordable housing and cultural heritage initiatives that could be applicable solutions for other communities seeking withintrification as opposed to gentrification.
Completed in 2019, Casañas Village is an 88-unit income restricted rental community located along Macomb Street between West Georgia and West Brevard Streets. The $20.4 million project is named after Aurelío Angel Casañas, a Cuban immigrant, musician and former Frenchtown resident. While the project was built on 2.3 acres of vacant property, an adjacent historic residence was preserved and restored into the apartment community’s leasing office. Affordable housing was made possible with $16.2 million in federal tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.
The Standard at Tallahassee is a $64 million student housing development built to accommodate 915 students. Located along Macomb Street, residents of Frenchtown strongly opposed this controversial infill project. In 2017, concessions were offered by the developer Landmark Properties of Athens, Georgia and City of Tallahassee. The project’s design was modified to create a 30-foot wide community plaza and incorporate street level retail space along Macomb Street. The height of the building was also reduced from 90 feet to 65 feet to keep it in scale with the Renaissance Center across the street.
$485,000 acquired from the sale of the city-owned property was then used to help implement recommendations from the Frenchtown Placemaking Study. The study was a direct response to Frenchtown resident concerns about student and affordable housing developments being built in the neighborhood. This student housing development opened in August 2019.
The collection of commercial structures along Macomb Street were constructed between 1938 and 1955. This block could be replaced soon with a mixed use development being coined as the Frenchtown Redevelopment Initiative. The proposed project would add a grocery store, retail shops, office space, 150 apartment units and 16 townhouse units at the intersection of Macomb and West Tennessee Streets.
Carolina Oaks is a 25-home single family, mixed-income, $4.175 million affordable housing infill development in Frenchtown. Built in 2005 by a public private collaboration between the City of Tallahassee and Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, the development was the first designed mixed income subdivision in the city. However, unlike a typical modern single family housing development, new infill houses were constructed on vacant lots within the established Frenchtown street grid. Residences were designed in architectural styles that complemented the scale and architectural characteristics of Frenchtown’s existing built environment.