Life On Sleazy Street
John W. Cowart
My Mother warned me not to walk on Bay Street.
"I'd better not ever hear of you going on Bay Street," she said.
This was in the early 1950s when I was about 12 years old.
Back then, to a boy, "Downtown" meant the strip of movie theatres on Forsyth Street. There every weekend double features played at the Imperial, Empress, Palace, or Florida theatres.
For a nickel each my buddies and I could ride the bus from our homes in Southside and spend the day watching a cowboy named Bob Steele shoot up bad guys.
On Friday nights, we'd walk across the Main Street Bridge -- the rich aroma of the Maxwell House Coffee plant hanging in the air -- and we'd hang over the rail to look down on schools of porpoise at play in the river.
Sometimes, destroyers would be tied up beside the bridge and we would talk with real live sailors as they chipped paint or hung out their laundry on deck. Once one of them threw my buddy David Bryant a sailor cap! Wow!
David later became a sailor himself and I heard was killed in an accident aboard the Saratoga a few years after we both graduated from Landon High School.
On Friday nights we'd have to stand in line to get into the movies at the Palace theatre and across the street -- on the steps of City Hall -- Dr. Robert Whitty, pastor of Central Baptist Church, would preach to us sinners going into the movie
"Turn Ye. Turn ye; for why will ye die," he would plead.
And the line into the Palace would inch along.
"Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him turn unto the Lord," the preacher said.
And we boys saddled close behind some tall grownup.
"Come to Jesus, tonight," he called.
But for us boys, Bob Steele, Nyoka the Jungle Girl, and Bulletman called harder.
In the '70s when I enrolled at Luther Rice Seminary where Dr. Whitty was president, I reminded him of his street preaching days. "What took you so long to come forward," he asked.
Anyhow, sinners that we were, my buddy and I never thought of going onto Bay Street until my Mother warned us not to.
What was on Bay Street that we should not know about?
Naturally, the very next Saturday, we went to find out.
As we walked across the Main Street, the panorama of Bay Street offered no appeal. Everyplace, east and west along the riverfront, looked like Crawdaddys does now. Rusty corrugated metal buildings tilted over rickety docks in both directions.
We walked east from the bridge and found that we could walk down to the river and out onto part of a dock missing random planks. A couple of gristly old men were skinning eels on the dock. A tug boat -- or what was left of it -- squished down in the mud beside the dock.
We jumped on board.
The list of the boat made it seem like the crazy house in an amusement park. We found unspeakable filth in the cabin and the hole. We explored and played pirate on that boat and several just like it.
These derelicts were abandoned right about where Jacksonville’s City Hall Annex stands today.
No reason for a boy not to be on East Bay
-- so naturally, we traveled west.
Things picked up.
First, we came to an office building which had a huge grindstone bolted to the wall beside the door. We paused to sharpen out pocket knives. I think it was called the Drew Building -- What a great idea. Maybe when the Omni is finished, they'll put out a whetstone for boys.
After that last vestige of civilization we entered the real world of West Bay Street.
Two derelicts -- men this time -- rolled fighting in a gutter over the last few drops of whiskey in the bottom of a bottle. Their thrashing around broke the bottle and they hugged each other and cried.
A man with no legs sat on a pushboard selling comic books with Bible stories to passes-by.
David went to look in a pawnshop window where huge trays of rings shaped like skulls with ruby eyes glittered.
Knives. Hundreds of them. Double-bladed. Saw-toothed. Curved. Claw handled. Switchblades. Daggers. Bayonets. Machetes. Knives with hand-guards complete with brass-knuckles --- and even a red-handled Swiss Army Knife just like we'd seen advertised in Marvel Comics. Right here on Bay Street!
I began to suspect that, although the street preacher may not have agreed, that Heaven must look a lot like Bay Street did in 1950.
The next window we stopped at contained another wonder. Right there in the window a man was being tattooed. He tilted back bare-chested in a barber chair while the artist worked on him. A snarling green dragon curled up one arm already and other figures covered his shoulders. But the tattoo being emblazoned on him then was a woman -- naked!
Remember, at the time I’d never even seen a copy of Playboy.
Lots of people jostled each other in the street. Saloon doors stood open and the reek of warm beer and the noise of loud honky-tonk music poured out.
Down near the bus station a friendly woman came out and talked to us on the sidewalk for a while. She was nice but I felt embarrassed because she was wearing a tee-shirt and to my inexperienced eye apparently nothing else. Her girlfriends called her back inside the bar. We waved bye and she waved back. So did her girlfriends.
Before long we came to a shop selling souvenirs of Florida. Live baby alligators crawled around in a glass tank on the sidewalk. As I recall, you could buy one with its tail tied to a long string on a stick to twirl around your head. Can't even get those at Jacksonville Landing now adays.
Bay Street has changed.
Not long after our walk down Bay, the city tore down the old warehouses and dilapidated docks, filled in the silted up swampland along the river and built parking lots, City Hall, the Courthouse, and the new Jail. Sears came in and built a nice new store with a restaurant called the Ribault Room where you could eat lunch and look out over the river.
Then the Independent Life Building (Now Modis) went up. When they were digging the foundations for it, far below the present day ground level, workmen found the rusty bell and other remains of an ancient steam locomotive. Once tracks ran along the river and a train had jumped the tracks and buried itself in the river mud.
Long before my boyhood walk, Bay Street had been Jacksonville's primary artery for business, commerce and industry.
When D.S.H. Miller surveyed the town of Jacksonville in June of 1822, his initial marker was a large Bay tree by the river near what is now Market Street. He laid out four blocks north of the tree with Bay Street running right along the river bank.
John Bellamy bought the northwest corner lots at Bay and Liberty. Prices ranged from $10 to $25 a lot.
Jacksonville extended from Catherine Street (where the Police Memorial Building is today) to Ocean Street. The ferry across the river docked at the foot of Liberty Street.
A storm in October 1846 flooded Bay Street and the brig "Virginia" which was anchored in the river, drifted in so that her bowsprit extended all the way across Bay Street. This incident lead to the construction of a bulkhead which pushed the river back a few yards -- a process which has happened time and time again over the years.
Even with the bulkhead, in the 1850s, shoppers in the stores on the south side of Bay Street sometimes stood in the rear doors and shot alligators sunning themselves on the river bank.
The United States Army had built a storage building and dock at Bay and Laura during the Indian Wars of the 1840s. For years it was the only downtown structure west of Ocean.
Finally, they built a bridge over what is now Main Street; they had to build a bridge because that was a stream draining a pond where everyone in Jacksonville shot ducks.
The bridge opened west Bay Street for more development.
Right across the Bridge (over main street) Calvin Oaks opened his businesses in the first brick building in the city.
A shrewd businessman like those entrepreneurs who sell both salty popcorn and cold beer at a ballgame, Mr. Oaks. ran several businesses each of which encouraged the other -- he both made guns and ran Jacksonville’s first funeral pallor.
In those days, Bay Street saw frontier justice, public hangings and duels.
Historian T. Fredrick Davis described Bay Street during the early 1850s:
"Captain Charles Willey had a dwelling on the corner of Market, and a wharf from which he ran a line of sailing vessels... Afterwards Columbus Drew Sr. occupied this house and issued from here a Whig paper called the Republican...
"At the northwest corner of Washington Street stood the Merrick House, famous as the "haunted house".. Peculiar noises were often heard within, yet no ghosts appeared. Some of the less superstitious said there was an underground river at that point that caused the noises."
Boarding houses, wine shops, warehouses for naval stores lined Bay Street.
These latter establishments played a large roll in the fact that every few years, all downtown Jacksonville burned to the ground.
After the Great Fire of May 3, 1901, in which 466 acres of downtown burned to the ground, much of the rubble was dumped in the river south of Bay Street filling in swamp, narrowing the river, moving Bay Street further from the water.
What has not happened on Bay Street?
Last month when workers dug up Bay Street for the infrastructure for the Automated Skyway Express, they uncovered the old trolley tracks which used to run down Bay. The new ultra modern transportation will be right on top of the 1890's ultramodern transportation system.
Jacksonville's first telephone line ran between the river and Laura on Bay. When Corinthian Street Lights were introduced to Jacksonville in 1911???, the official at the celebration flipped the switch lighting Bay Street from the back of an elephant!
Temperance reformer Carry Nation once raided a Bay Street Saloon.
During the great yellow fever epidemic, the disease depopulated Jacksonville so that grass grew in Bay Street.
A storm once caused Bay Street to float away -- at the time it was paved with Cyprus blocks.
Since 1822, Bay Street has been alternately respectable and disreputable, residential and commercial, center of business and slum.
Not long ago, I was walking to work near the city parking garage at Bay and Broad. Workmen were digging another hole in Bay Street, for God-Only-Knows what reason. As I watched, the shovel brought a rusted curve of metal out of the hole. Because my grandfather used to drive ox teams, I recognized what it was and retrieved it -- an ox-shoe.
I use it as a paperweight next to my word processor -- another evidence that Jacksonville's future rests on Jacksonville's past.
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