How Does Tallahassee Treat Its History? City, Blueprint Project Sparks Debate

Jun 26, 2019

Crews have begun demolition in an historic African American enclave neighborhood, making way for two projects funded by taxpayers. The City of Tallahassee and Blueprint 2000 say the projects are meticulously planned, with sensitivity to the area’s history. But a former city planner and group of activists say the shotgun-style homes, giant old oaks and pecan trees, could have been saved.

Less than a mile from Florida A&M University’s Bragg Stadium and adjacent to the Bond Westside neighborhood, there’s a tiny neighborhood where shotgun houses are shaded by a dense canopy.

Two projects – one to extend FAMU Way and construct a trailhead, and another to extend the Capital Cascades Trail and create a stormwater pond, will be the end of the neighborhood enclave. The new stretch of FAMU way will replace everything that sat between Miles Street and Still Court.

“This has been kind of a long-phased and planned and developed corridor,” City Engineer Steve Shafer said, while giving WFSU a driving tour of the future FAMU Way extension.

This portion of the roughly $70 million joint project, Shafer explains, is the third phase of improvements to FAMU Way and Capital Cascades Trail. The extension of the Capital Cascades Trail and construction of a stormwater pond are projects under Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency – while the extension of FAMU way is a City of Tallahassee project. FAMU Way will be aligned with Gamble Street all the way to Lake Bradford Road.

Shafer talked about the project’s intended benefit.

“It provides, really some much-needed relief for vehicular traffic, but the focus has also been on all the multi-modal components of transportation in the area,” Shafer said. “You’ll see bike lanes back here, you’ll see multi-use trails, wide sidewalks. The goal was to make sure this was a benefit not just for those folks that need to get in their car to go places, but to provide some opportunity for those who would like to have options.”

But some say the project wipes out history, and the natural tree canopy that has shaded the area for presumably more than a hundred years.

Jonathan Lammers, a historian and former San Francisco city planner, says alternate plans could have spared the historic enclave.

“This all could have been avoided, to a large extent, with better planning, more sensitive planning,” Lammers said. “It makes me very angry that my city, that I chose to live in, is doing this.”

The original plan for the project’s third phase didn’t touch the small enclave. But, through failed negotiations to get a railroad crossing for vehicles, the plan shifted. So, the City bought up 21 parcels of land for the project, 10 of which had houses. Lammers is concerned about what’s lost when development occurs.

“It’s a beautiful tree canopy in here,” Lammers said, the sounds of construction equipment droning in the background. “We have mature pecans, many mature live oaks, and a lot of little historic shotgun houses that are associated with the turpentine distillery that used to be back here. That’s why it’s called Still Court.”

The “Boynton Still Neighborhood,” as some call it, has a rich history. Many original residents of the neighborhood in the early 20th century worked for the W.J. Boynton and Son turpentine distillery.

In 1945, most of the plant was destroyed in a fire. Then, in the late 60’s, it became the site of Shingles Chicken House, operated by African American entrepreneur Henry Shingles. It became a favorite for locals and legislators before closing in 2007.

The small shotgun-style houses are all that connects the area’s history to its present. But last week, the demolition started.

“Every acquisition that we have gone through to date on this has been voluntary,” Shafer said. According to Shafer and other City officials, a plan was drawn up specifically for the project in order to compensate people for their homes.

“The commission actually adopted a right of way acquisition policy, that not only provided for incentive offers, if you will, for property – but also approved relocation expenses and a lot of other things that allowed us to deal with any of the impacted residents out here,” Shafer explained.

But two homes in the neighborhood didn’t have a clear-cut path to acquisition for the City.

“We really didn’t have anybody that didn’t agree to the terms. However, we had a couple of homes that, because the property owners were actually deceased, the difficulty became in the estate and the title work, and trying to figure out who had legal rights to the property – so, a lot of time spent trying to identify who the appropriate persons were to talk to,” Shafer said.

The City did file an eminent domain suit that appears to be ongoing. In an email, a City representative says due to the project’s construction schedule and uncertainty over whether timely settlement could be reached, "the lawsuit was filed in an abundance of caution."  The City says it’s currently working with known heirs and beneficiaries of these two parcels to identify all potential heirs to reach a final settlement.

Then, there’s the trees. Lammers fears it will be generations until the canopy will be restored.

“Unfortunately, the damage to the neighborhood residences is already done. And at this point, I’m just trying to fight for these trees,” Lammers said. “Which any citizen of Tallahassee, if they were here and looked at them, would be aghast that the City is knocking these down.”

The stormwater pond construction will remove 56 trees, including 11 live oaks and a number of pecan trees. Blueprint plans to plant 339 trees in their place, seven of which will be live oaks. City Engineer Steve Shafer says the City will plant an additional 148 trees. But to Lammers, it’s not a substitute for keeping the existing canopy.

“Everything between here and the railroad tracks becomes stormwater pond,” Lammers said as he stood at the head of the neighborhood. “Except for an area over there, they’re going to have a little trailhead with planted trees. And that’s, again, the absurdity, when you have this mature canopy that took over 100 years to develop.”

At the most recent City Commission meeting, Lammers and a group of like-minded conservationists filled out speaker cards to make their case to commissioners. Matthew Latch was among that group.

“We thought it proper to come before the City Commission, and request that you pause the demolitions and land clearing that are currently occurring in this neighborhood and – did any of you ever go to Shingles Chicken? There were 23 structures back there, there are five left,” Latch told Commissioners.

To Miaisha Mitchell, who spoke at the meeting, it’s personal.

“I was born in Smokey Hollow,” Mitchell said. “I lived there all my life, well, until I was 12. And then we were pushed out, displaced. Gentrification.”

The historic African American neighborhood Smokey Hollow stood on the site that is now Cascades Park. There is little left to commemorate its history in the area, save for the Smokey Hollow barber shop, which is still standing. Mitchell says highway projects and other development began to drive residents out, who moved elsewhere throughout the country. She sees shades of the same thing happening with the FAMU Way project.

“This is a systemic thing I see happening here. It’s just not the need to have beautification, aesthetic properties, things of that sort,” Mitchell said.

After commissioners heard from Latch, Mitchell and about six others, Assistant City Manager Wayne Tedder responded to their concerns. Tedder says exhaustive community outreach was done in the early stages of the project.

“If there’s one thing I would absolutely agree with, the speakers who have mentioned this, about you not being a part of the decision – that is correct. But I can tell you, over time, who has been expressly a part of the process, and the reason this project has been developed, is the citizens in and around this area,” Tedder said. “They were the ones who designed this project – we had to work within their criteria and make the technical aspects fit with what they wanted as a community.”

Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox defended the City’s process, and says she feels it’s best to move forward as planned. 

“I take exception to the fact that, just because we’re new, we don’t know what we’re into this,” Williams-Cox said. “Yes, I didn’t just drop in from Mars – I’ve lived in the Southside for 30 years.”

With respect to the houses being demolished. Williams-Cox says there wasn’t much to salvage.

“Some of you said they don’t have indoor plumbing,” Williams-Cox said. “Which one of us would want to go and live in that condition? With no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, as hot as it is?”

Loren Hubbard grew up in the neighborhood, living on Miles Street. She was living in one of the shotgun houses before demolition started.

“I love my street. You could smell Shingles down the street, that fish and that chicken – when you walked down that street you got humbled, that’s the word,”

Hubbard said. “You got humbled.”

Hubbard says her mother, who owned two houses on the street, was paid more by the City. But Hubbard, who didn’t own or rent the house she was staying in, says she only saw $1,000 in compensation.

Hubbard: “When you own something, that’s a bigger check for you. When you’re just a resident, they’re going to come through hand literally kick me out.

WFSU: “So you were renting at the time?”

Hubbard: “Well, staying there. My family’s house.”

Now, Hubbard says she’s been forced to rent a room, and that $1,000 was what it took for a down payment on the new apartment.

The whole situation, Hubbard says, has left her with a bad feeling.

“Raped, robbed. Raped and robbed, yeah,” Hubbard said.

Steve Beasley grew up just blocks from the tiny neighborhood. As a citizen who always kept a pulse on the area, Beasley gave input to the City where he could about the project.

“Some of the persons I saw on the televisions that there’s some negativism – I think those people should have expressed it back during the planning stages, and I think it would’ve been addressed more so,” Beasley said. “But the way I see it, I think the city did a very good job with community input.”

But Lammers remains concerned the project is casting history aside to eventually create a more aesthetic gateway into town from the Tallahassee airport.

“I don’t think this is all part of some grand, evil scheme. It’s the fact that they want to have as nice a looking gateway from the airport and into the area along FAMU Way as possible. And that’s a laudable goal. But what they’re doing right here is a crime,” Lammers said. “You know, it’s not called a crime when the city does eminent domain, but the fact remains that through threat of eminent domain, they’ve wiped out a predominantly African American residential enclave and they’re wiping out a grove of trees.”

City Engineer Steve Shafer acknowledges the FAMU Way project is a tie-in to the eventual airport gateway. But at the same time, Shafer says Lammers’ claim that the City has been insensitive in its planning is untrue.

“I feel very comfortable that, a lack of sensitivity – it’s the furthest thing from that. Everything was focused on making sure we do things the right way, with respect to the approach we’re going through,” Shafer said.

Shafer adds the City has a vision to extend the project all the way to Monroe Street, eventually.

Blueprint 2000 has a meeting on June 27 from 3-5 p.m. City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow encouraged those with concerns about the project to ask Blueprint staff to hold a town hall meeting at night for further discussions. 

Contact reporter Ryan Dailey at rdailey@fsu.edu or call 850-645-6090

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