Article by Ennis Davis, AICP
The intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Dennis Street in 1928. The Myrtle Avenue Subway can be seen in the background. The Subway was the connection between LaVilla and Campbell Hill.
The Gullah Geechee community of LaVilla was founded in 1866, when Francis F. L’Engle subdivided a portion of J. McRobert Baker’s former LaVilla plantation and provided 99-year leases to 41 freedmen.
With L’Engle serving as the town’s first mayor, emancipated enslaved found the new town attractive due to its inexpensive housing and proximity to employment. Growing rapidly, LaVilla was home to nearly 1,100 residents by 1870, 77 percent of whom were black. By 1880, LaVilla’s black population had doubled. In 1887, it was annexed into neighboring Jacksonville.
Significant growth came as a result of Henry Flagler organizing the Jacksonville Terminal Company and opening a Union Depot to accommodate the five major railroads serving the city in 1897. Fueled by rapid growth following the Great Fire of 1901, LaVilla expanded west to Myrtle Avenue. By 1913, the west side of Myrtle Avenue had become home to several saw mills and lumber yards along the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.
A look down Broad Street during its heyday as LaVilla’s primary commercial corridor.
In addition, the area around the intersection of Enterprise (Beaver Street) and Myrtle Avenue had emerged as another walkable business district in LaVilla during the first decade of the 20th century. The neighborhood remained majority residential until the city became the first in Florida to implement a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. Created by George W. Simons, Jr., a segregationist, the discriminatory plan facilitated the economic prosperity of neighborhoods like Riverside, San Marco, Murray Hill and Ortega at the expense of Black neighborhoods like LaVilla, by directing heavy industry to locate in these underrepresented communities.
By 1931, the west side of LaVilla had become one of the largest railway mail/express centers in the country, with more than 80 percent of the state’s mail being processed at facilities in the neighborhood. Furthermore, heavy industrial businesses, including the Florida Iron & Metal Company, L. Moore Pipe & Sprinkler Company and the Graham Jones Paper Company had replaced the sawmills and many frame residential dwellings of the late 19th and early 20th century.
An aerial showing the construction of Interstate 95 during the late 1950s through LaVilla. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
In 1947, the original 18-mile path of Jacksonville Expressway system was proposed. The selection of the expressway system’s routes was determined by avoiding areas deemed most valuable at the time, to eliminate “blighted” neighborhoods and serve as barriers to stop spread of “blight.” Deemed to be “blighted” neighborhoods, the expressway’s original route cut through the center of LaVilla. On March 26, 1960, the the Jacksonville Expressway opened, officially severing LaVilla in half.
In 1993, the River City Renaissance plan crafted by then Mayor Ed Austin allocated millions of dollars to revitalizing the neighborhood on the east side of Interstate 95. Dilapidated buildings were torn down and historical structures, like the Ritz Theatre, restored or reconstructed. Considered urban renewal, this project displaced thousands and demolished most of the buildings within its target area.
With the passage of time, today many consider LaVilla to be a neighborhood east of I-95 that has been erased from existence. Today, it is not uncommon to hear civic leaders refer to the area as a blank slate.
West Duval Street in LaVilla in 2020.
However, this inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. I-95 was built through the middle of the neighborhood and much of the failed urban renewal strategies afterward were targeted for the downtown side of the historic Black community. Nevertheless, the west portion of the historic neighborhood remains today. Here is a virtual tour of the community that has been labeled as being a part of the Rail Yard District in recent years.