Article by Ennis Davis, AICP
Present day retail storefronts along A. Philip Randolph Boulevard.
Jacksonville’s urban core is home to a number of historic walkable neighborhood commercial districts. Many are a direct result of the defunct 60-mile Jacksonville streetcar network, which was operated by the Jacksonville Traction Company. Asa Philip Randolph Boulevard is an early 20th century example that survives today.
Platted in 1869 just northeast of the city by Jesse D. Cole, a 31-year-old real estate agent from Virginia, Oakland emerged as a Reconstruction era destination for the former enslaved. Seeking employment at nearby docks and sawmills, many were of Gullah Geechee descent, arriving from former plantations along the Atlantic coast between North Carolina and St. Johns County. Located east of Jacksonville and Hogans Creek, the community also became the home of the Duval County Hospital and Asylum in 1870.
Originally a rural community, Oakland rapidly urbanized after 1880 when the Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad and the Jacksonville Street Railway Company were extended into the neighborhood. With two streetcar lines running along Florida Avenue, the corridor quickly emerged as a commercial destination for the communities of East Jacksonville, Oakland and Campbell’s Addition.
A 1913 Sanborn map of Florida Avenue (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
By the 1920s, Florida Avenue had become the Eastside’s version of LaVilla’s Ashley Street and known as “The Avenue”. A center of segregation era Black commerce for residents living east of Hogans Creek, The Avenue stretched several blocks between the Jacksonville Shipyards and East 8th Street and was the place to see and be seen, connected to downtown with a streetcar line that run down its center. A dense, pedestrian friendly strip, its line of mixed use buildings were occupied to mom and pop businesses, restaurants and clubs, including the Blue Ridge Inn, Charlie Joseph’s grocery store, Johns Furniture and Bill’s Clothing. Famed neighborhood residents who once frequented this strip include internationally known individuals like Philip Randolph and Zora Neale Hurston, A.L. Lewis and Bullet Bob Hayes.
The Avenue’s fortunes changed during the 1960s, a decade of heightened racial tension throughout the country. However, the first major event was a natural one, causing $1.5 billion in damage to the city. In September 1964, Hurricane Dora hit Jacksonville as a Category 2 storm, damaging buildings on Florida Avenue and setting of the looting of businesses along the street.
1069 - 1075 Florida Avenue in 1968. Located near the intersection of Florida Avenue and First Street, tenants in 1958 included the Thompson Beer & Wine Tavern and Mathis Shoe Store. Also captured in this photograph is the East Side Hotel, which is the light blue building on left. These buildings were razed as a part of an urban renewal project. Today, the Kids Hope Alliance is located on this parcel. (University of Florida)
Over the last four decades, several attempts have been made to revitalize the strip back to its former glory, including the creation of a redevelopment plan in 1979, rebranding the corridor as A. Philip Randolph Boulevard in 1995 and the completion of a street beautification project in 2003. The centerpiece of a withintrification plan to become a regional destination for Black-owned businesses and culture, much of the Avenue’s historic commercial building fabric still survives today.