When was the last time you sat and enjoyed Hemming Plaza? Maybe it was at Downtown Vision, Inc.’s First Wednesday Art Walk, or as far back as One Spark. Maybe you’ve never really sat in it at all, but instead walked through it, or, more likely, around it.
Hemming Plaza is a beautiful square right in the heart of Downtown Jacksonville with a rich history; it is, in fact, our first and oldest park. Hemming Plaza began as a public square in 1857, established by Isaiah Hart, the founder of Jacksonville. After Hart’s death in 1861 and the end of the Civil War, the Hart family deeded the land to the city for just $10 – can you imagine?
The plaza was renamed “Hemming Park” in 1899 in honor of Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming, a Jacksonville native who installed the 62-foot-tall Confederate monument that sits in the park’s center (the oldest in the city as well). Since then, the park has seen an enormous amount of growth and change, both inside its borders and in the buildings that surround it.
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson all gave speeches in the plaza, and that only scratches the surface of the site’s historical significance. The park has also seen evidence of our city’s struggles with race relations. Hemming Plaza was the location of several sit-ins and events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, most notably, Ax Handle Saturday.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the city completed integration of water fountains, restrooms and parks, but that didn’t solve the racial tension in the city. The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) was created in 1970 to reverse white flight and end urban blight. At this point, Jacksonville was facing issues post-consolidation related to suburbanization, the development of retail malls and massive urban sprawl. The plan was supposed to be completed within 20 years, but many components were never implemented.
By the mid-1970s, the image of the park had changed. Because Downtown was invaded by thousands of starling birds, the City removed shade trees to drive the invaders from the park. The City renovated the park in 1977 at a cost of $648,000, converting it into a simple concrete and brick-paved square, and changed the name officially to Hemming Plaza.
The second phase of City redevelopment was budgeted at $2.2 million but was delayed in 1979. The money was used to construct a University Boulevard overpass of the rail yard adjacent to Philips Highway. Money was again budgeted in 1981 but was used instead to widen 103rd Street. In 1984, the project began and lasted more than two years.
By this time, Jacksonville’s big retailers already built new stores at the malls to meet suburban demand. The last three major stores in the city closed their Downtown locations. The empty storefronts attracted the homeless, and the 1971 master plan became irrelevant.
Hemming Plaza was replanted with trees and offers abundant shade, what exists today. However, the park continues to attract homeless, and the city struggles to make the space usable for all.
With that history in mind, one unofficial grassroots group has been working to activate Hemming Plaza with a simple idea: having lunch. “BYOLunch in Hemming” invitations have passed around social media, encouraging people to break away from their traditional lunch routines and visit the neglected Downtown square on specific Wednesday afternoons.
The feeling at these lunches is joyful; people are happy to enjoy a section of our city, which for so long has remained quiet and underutilized. Invitations are always open to all, and the originators of “BYOLunch” encourage anyone and everyone to join them.
Connect to action by having lunch in Hemming Plaza! The next “BYOLunch” takes place on Wednesday, Feb. 5, from noon to 1:30 p.m. There’s no official R.S.V.P. – just show up by yourself or with friends. You are encouraged to bring your own lunch or support one of the many local businesses Downtown. From local restaurants to food trucks to vendors that sell food in Hemming Plaza for the rapidly-growing lunch crowd, the options are endless!