Will LaVilla be Jacksonville’s Ybor City?

Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood is a National Register Historic District, established in 1885 by Cuban immigrants, that became the most famous and prosperous cigar making district in the U.S. By the early 20th century, it justified Tampa’s new identity as the “Cigar City.” Its employment opportunities attracted a surge of new immigration to Tampa and to Ybor City itself, which was soon populated by Italians, Germans, Jews and Chinese. However, by the mid-20th century, cigarette smoking had decimated the cigar industry, and Ybor’s prosperity waned. In the 1950s and 1960s, second and third generation immigrant families moved to the new growing suburbs. The advent of Intestate 4 and urban renewal programs threatened what was left of Ybor City’s unique architecture and sense of place. Only in the 1990s did a fresh preservation movement gain enough support to foster an urban renaissance, resulting in Ybor’s new life as a destination for visitors and newcomers to Tampa, and a dining and entertainment mecca. In the 21st century, the Ybor City historic district illustrates and helps define Tampa’s metropolitan identity.

Since the late 19th century, the area just west of Jacksonville’s urban core has, like Ybor, held its own distinctive identity, and experienced a soaring rise followed by a devastating fall. The neighborhood was incorporated in 1869 as LaVilla. One of its mayors, J.E.D. Bowden (1857-1930), later served as Jacksonville’s mayor at the time of the Great Fire. Through annexation in 1887, LaVilla became part of Jacksonville, but its distinct identity thrived. In the late 1800s and well into the 20th century, LaVilla was the setting of Jacksonville’s richest multi-cultural, multi-ethnic life. Though predominantly Black, LaVilla was, by almost any measurement of diversity, a visual pastiche of humanity, and a cacophonic operetta to the ear. Because of its proximity to Jacksonville’s railroad and the riverfront docks, newcomers found LaVilla almost as soon as they arrived. Its several dozen blocks were fertile ground for people to meet others of different races, nationalities, education, and cultural tastes. Musicians, artists, and authors experienced, absorbed, and exchanged new things in an environment where “new” was a daily occurrence.

Two personalities whose paths fatefully crossed in LaVilla help tell its early story. With the patronage of travelers by train, as well as of mariners from the seagoing and rivergoing ships that called at Jacksonville, LaVilla’s cafes, saloons, bordellos, and clubs prospered. When fishermen and sailors stepped ashore, they hurried to avail themselves of those entertainments. Enterprising Jacksonians accommodated them in establishments like the Hotel de Dreme, at the corner of Ashley and Hawk (now Jefferson) Streets in LaVilla. Its owner was an unconventional woman named Cora Taylor – striking, prosperous, literate, and worldly enough to be at ease in the multinational milieu of gamblers, Spanish spies, newspaper reporters, Cuban rebels, smugglers, seamen and wanderers who frequented LaVilla by the 1890s.

Jacksonville was a center of intrigue relating to the brewing Cuban revolution. Journalists and writers from across the U.S. and beyond came thirsting for news and drama. One was a celebrated young author, Stephen Crane, whose 1894 novel, The Red Badge of Courage had made him famous. Cora Taylor met the 25-year-old Crane, then six years her junior, when, newly arrived in town, he appeared at the Hotel de Dreme. The two became common-law husband and wife.

Crane’s Jacksonville experiences were many and colorful, none more so than his attempt to ship out to Cuba pretending to be an ordinary seaman aboard the steamer Commodore, which departed the St. Johns River at Mayport on December 31, 1896, carrying weapons and ammunition for Cuban revolutionaries. The cargo was illegal, of course, but local officials looked the other way. Barely a day into its voyage, the Commodore foundered and sank, leaving Crane and his shipmates stranded in rough winter seas. His vivid, 4000-word account of the ordeal became “The Open Boat,” published in 1898 as part of a collection of short stories.

Stephen and Cora Crane, as she chose to be known for the rest of her life, were just two among the incandescent characters who strode the sidewalks of LaVilla. Others from across the nation and overseas helped to mark Jacksonville as the most important city in Florida and among the most alive, vibrant places in the country. LaVilla was the childhood home of James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamond, who became two giants of American cultural life.

Like Ybor City in Tampa, Jacksonville’s LaVilla had peaked in the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, suburban growth, declining industrial employment, urban renewal and the arrival of Interstate highways all came together to eclipse LaVilla’s glittering past. Jacksonville’s LaVilla story is different from that of Tampa’s Ybor City, but both are authentic places for telling some of their cities’ greatest stories. Those places and their stories are now for us to preserve and share.

Alan J. Bliss, CEO
Jacksonville Historical Society