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Who Cares About Preservation in Jacksonville?

May is National Historic Preservation Month

Adapting an historic building to use in the 21st century is difficult and expensive, so why bother? In particular, why should any public resources go into such a project? Whether historic preservation is worthy of public support is a question that Jacksonville has more trouble answering than any of its neighboring or peer cities in Florida. The reason may be that Jacksonville has often seemed to care less about its past than other cities do. Why that is so always makes for an interesting conversation.

A developer has turned to the City of Jacksonville to support financing of his proposed restoration and redevelopment of an iconic but now decrepit trio of downtown buildings, using $25 million in public grant dollars. Another developer has won approval to demolish Jacksonville’s 1924 Ford Motor Company plant, previously designated as a local historic landmark. Just across the Mathews Bridge, a property owner wishes to demolish a 1961 bank building, a classic example of the Mid-century Modern style that helps define what makes Jacksonville’s Arlington community unique, to replace it with a car wash.

Arlington Federal Savings & Loan

930 University Blvd.
Built in 1961 in the Mid-Century Modern style.

Image by Tim Gilmore

What those three different cases share is that each illustrates this city’s past in ways that define it, distinguishing Jacksonville from any other place. They help tell Jacksonville’s stories, and in doing so, they lend this city its identity. Citizens and visitors are drawn to places that are identifiably unique, such as downtowns or older neighborhoods. They soon move on from places that look as if they could be anywhere, such as the business strips around highway exits, or big-box marketplaces.

Before citizens accept that they belong to a community, they have to recognize it as a distinctive place. To do that, they need evidence of its identity. Whether that of an individual or a city, identity is formed over time. The identity of a city such as Jacksonville is no different, in that it doesn’t materialize out of thin air. It consists of the people who have occupied it and the events that have happened there over time. Eventually all people disappear, and the events they experienced become memories. What remains is their stories, and the places where they worked, lived, worshipped, traveled, and learned. Jacksonville is a city swimming with the potential to be great, but that some say struggles to express its identity. It is also a city that can credibly claim more and interesting history than any place else in Florida. Owning and investing in that history is a critical ingredient in fulfilling our 21st century potential.

Citizenship comes from a sense of place, which is what leads people to think about the future of that place. That’s why learning about the events of the past, and understanding the people who experienced them, fosters citizens who care about their community in the present. And when people care about their community, it shows in a thousand ways that work to help assure its future. That’s why Jacksonville’s history matters.

How much public support goes into preserving historic buildings is legitimately debatable. Not every old building can or should be preserved. After all, every building began its life serving an economic purpose, and in order to survive it must continue to be sustainable. But what’s certain is that historic preservation is fully part of economic development, adding tangible value to the communities that support it.

Alan J. Bliss, CEO
Jacksonville Historical Society / Jacksonville History Center

Copyright © 2019 by Jacksonville Historical Society