Today, there’s not much left, but 100 years ago Houston Street was the epicenter of Jacksonville’s bustling red light district.
The district’s interesting history can be traced as far back as 1857 when the city’s first railroad was constructed, connecting LaVilla with Alligator Town (now Lake City). During the Civil War, in 1863 a gun emplacement named Fort Hatch was set up near the present day location of the Houston and Lee Street intersection. This location also served as a tent camp for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the African-American unit that inspired the movie Glory.
In 1866, the area was purchased and subdivided by Francis F. L’Engle, forming the town of LaVilla with L’Engle becoming LaVilla’s first mayor. By 1870, 70% of LaVilla’s population were African-Americans, many of whom worked in Jacksonville’s booming hotel, lumber, port, building and railroad industries.
Early businesses include the Banes and Washington Lumber Dealership, the El Modelo Cigar factory, the Bergner and Engle Brewing Company, the Refrigerated Ice Works, carriage works, and beef dressing works.
By the 1890s, LaVilla’s Ward Street had developed into a red light district, giving the neighborhood its original aura of notoriety. The district originated in early 1887 as a result of Jacksonville Mayor John Q. Burbridge chasing most of Jacksonville’s prostitutes over the city line to the suburb of LaVilla. Burbridge’s efforts were thwarted when Jacksonville later annexed LaVilla a few months later on May 31, 1887.
With the January 1897 opening of Henry Flagler’s Jacksonville Terminal Company passenger railroad depot, LaVilla was rapidly engulfed in development, resulting in the red light district growing and ultimately becoming known as “The Line."