City, community leaders planning heritage trail for Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood

LaVilla, a neighborhood in Downtown Jacksonville, is arguably one of the most historic areas in the city.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – LaVilla, a neighborhood in Downtown Jacksonville, is arguably one of the most historic areas in the city. More than a century ago, it’s where the Great Fire of 1901 was sparked.

It’s just one of the interesting things about the area, and now, some city and community leaders are considering plans to put in a heritage trail to help memorialize what used to be a very vibrant neighborhood. It was a huge social gathering for African American musicians and a place for families — an area that was one of the central points of Jacksonville in the early 1900s.

When you look at LaVilla today, many of the sites are dilapidated. Neglected. Torn down. Despite that, the memories are still there.

Francis Yvonne Hicks lives in LaVilla and wants to see a return of its glory.

“In my mind, it’s a major project because there is a lot of restoration and filling in those spaces that have been torn down. A lot of really wonderful places have been destroyed,” Hicks said. “So I would like to see the neighborhood revitalized.”

That may not happen anytime soon, but what the group of city and community leaders are working on is creating a series of markers throughout the neighborhood.

The trail might highlight places like Genovar’s Hall, which at one point was going to be restored and now sits abandoned — losing its former glory as a store, hotel and a bar where Black entertainers gathered nightly.

There are many other sites being discussed, and plans on how to go about telling the history are still being worked out.

“Having somebody that has relatives that were there, remembers it when they went there as a kid as an entirely different flavor. And to really make it come alive, we wanted to have community members providing that input on what it should look like,” said Lori Boyer, CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority.

And while the markers could teach us all about the history, some say much more needs to happen in LaVilla. Marsha Phelts, an author and historian, said the historic markers aren’t enough.

“We need to bring life into the community and bring people into the community and open up businesses and even residents,” Phelts said.

The Downtown Investment Authority and the special committee on LaVilla really want to make sure they get this right. That’s why they’re going to be discussing this for awhile.

The money is apparently there for the markers, but exactly how it’s all going to play out is still up in the air.

About the Author:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.