Saturday, November 03, 2007

Historic Photos of Jacksonville

After over three years of blogging, I've finally gotten some free stuff.

Not that I haven't been offered before. I remember two other occasions where an independent DVD producer wanted to send me some obscure DVD for review. I declined both times for lack of interest and for fear of being put on someone's spam list.

But when I received an email last month from the Turner Publishing Company, it sparked my interest. They wanted to send me a complimentary copy of their book Historic Photos of Jacksonville. Being an area of great interest to myself, I gladly accepted their offer. And now, with that back story/disclosure out of the way, let me tell you about it.

Historic Photos of Jacksonville is a portfolio of images from the town once known as Cowford. The pictures are divided into four chronological sections: Pre-Civil War to the Great Fire (1850-1901), the rise of a new city (1902-1919), the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression (1920-1939) and World War II to Consolidation* (1940-1960's). Commentary and captions are provided by University of North Florida History professor Carolyn Williams.

* In 1968, the City of Jacksonville government consolidated with Duval County so that they are, in essence, one and the same. As a result, Jacksonville is the largest city by square miles (885) in the continental United States.

First, a note about the format itself. Even a history major like can feel bogged down while reading reams off text. It's a forest-for-the-trees thing, and it's probably why I don't read history books much anymore. This book of photographs, however, is able to show us the various stages of Jacksonville's development and provide just enough context in the captions to illuminate them further. I may have been born in 1973, but this book of my hometown makes me feel like I'm looking at personal snapshots.

The one defining event in Jacksonville's history, ranking up there with Consolidation, is the Great Fire of 1901. In terms of this event, the book is invaluable. To view so many buildings, such as the St. James Hotel, that would have been magnificent components of our downtown landscape had they survived is an exercise in regret. But the book allows us to savor these images and think of what could have been.

But to look at the humble beginnings of our downtown (which some people may still call humble, but that's another discussion), can be a disconcerting experience. Hemming Plaza is nothing but dirt paths and modest hedges. Main Street turns into shipping docks as it meets the river. Rail cars are carried across the St. Johns by barges instead of the rail bridge that is used today. Most disconcerting of all is Riverside and Five Points being referred to as "suburbs". In a town that has been called a never ending suburbia, those are two neighborhoods which definitely aren't.

Then there are the things that have not changed, which allow me to transport myself back in time with ease. One picture in particular, which is of the Florida Theatre upon it's opening in 1933, is among my favorites in this book. The staff is lined up on the front curb dressed in suits and ties. Advertisements for "Lady For a Day" and "Gold Diggers of 1933" flank them on either side. Some details of the theater's facade have changed, but the whole is still unmistakable to anyone who calls Jacksonville home.

There are some themes that emerge through the photos: The longstanding military importance of the city, stretching from the Civil War all the way to the multiple naval and air bases the city hosted by the 1960's. The strength of the automobile industry, both in manufacturing and selling, to the region. The changing position of African Americans in the city's population. Such broad strokes does a great job of connecting the photos into a whole.

There are a few things that I wished the book had included. One of the most interesting portions of Jacksonville's past is it's brief time as a film production capital before Hollywood came into being. Though there is a brief mention of this fact, there are no photos of the numerous studios in town, of scenes being shot, or of the actors themselves. Several years ago, I saw a fabulous photographic retrospective on this very topic at the Cummer Art Gallery here in town. It would have been nice to see a couple of those photos make the final cut.

Also, the simple addition of a downtown map would have been very welcome. Even though I've worked downtown for the past four years, even I had to whip out a map occasionally when an intersection is named in a caption. Furthermore, a map could have also served an additional function by indicating which blocks were destroyed by the Great Fire, showing the reader the breadth of the destruction.

In the end, the book is very effective of giving the reader an overall view of Jacksonville history before Consolidation. Jacksonville takes a lot of flak for being a city with no character; no soul. And though a great deal of our history went up in smoke back in 1901, it's still here in these pages; That and so much more.

Turner Publishing Company - Amazon - Barnes & Noble

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