It’s unlikely most Jacksonville residents have walked the streets of Sugar Hill or could even locate the boundaries of this urban neighborhood on a map. And yet, Sugar Hill was once a prosperous streetcar hub for prominent African-American families, boasting its own thirty-acre park, blocks of impressive mansions, and several businesses vital to Jacksonville’s segregated community, including Brewster Hospital.
Unfortunately, Sugar Hill’s vibrancy was all but snuffed out by the Jacksonville Expressway project, which was completed in 1960. Interstate 95 now slices its way straight through the neighborhood. According to local historian Ennis Davis, the construction, along with desegregation, destroyed the economy of Sugar Hill. Not only that, eminent domain laws allowed for the destruction of some of the loveliest homes. In an article published in 2015, Davis claims that further damage came with some of the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development initiatives, which forced 75% of the remaining families out.
It’s unsurprising, then, that many drivers taking the 8th Street exit off I-95 don’t recognize its historical significance. As Davis points out, “Once a tree-lined street every bit as impressive as Riverside Row, West 8th Street is now a six-lane road lined with parking lots, McDonald’s, and a Walgreen’s Pharmacy.”
Despite all of this, many folks still call Sugar Hill home, but they share the same troubles that have plagued other historic urban neighborhoods in town. In 2017, when Groundwork Jacksonville brought the residents together to ask what changes they would like to see in their neighborhood and the surrounding area, many said they wanted to reduce crime, develop more park space, beautify the area, and revitalize the properties. The Groundwork Jax team, a non-profit organization that redevelops and restores public parks and green space, had already been working on the S-Line trail, a pathway following old rail lines, some of which connect to Sugar Hill. Incidentally, they had been looking for a good spot to begin a public art project. They identified the large underpass wall near 13th Street and North Davis, a perfect canvas for a mural of some sort.
Enter Kate and Kenny Rouh of RouxArt, a company specializing in the design and installation of large mosaic works. In 2017, Alyssa Bourgoyne, then the project manager of Groundwork Jacksonville, approached Kate after working as a volunteer on their Southbank Riverwalk mosaic. One of Bourgoyne’s main tasks was to lead the Green Team, a youth corps internship and fellowship program that supports the work of Groundwork Jax. They formed a partnership with RouxArt, and, before long, the Green Team was gathering ideas from residents of Sugar Hill.
At Groundwork-sponsored community events, including two bike rodeos, team members asked participants a series of questions for the project: How do you define home? How would you describe your community? What are your hopes for the community? They responded with aspirations for the neighborhood, concerns for its current state, and suggestions for the design of the wall.
Today the Sugar Hill Mosaic reflects the history of this special place and serves as a beacon for the future, while adding significant beauty to the S-Line Trail. Officially completed in March of 2019, it is a ninety-six-foot long, five-foot high mosaic made of glass, beads, and cement. Where it used to be a dank, gray space with a few colorless graffiti drawings, now the mosaic depicts children playing, people on bicycles, vibrant homes, green space, and the Jacksonville skyline under a Van Gogh-themed starry night. It’s kind of like a vision board for the neighborhood.
On a bright and clear Saturday in late March, the mosaic sparkled in the sun as more than one-hundred and fifty attendees gathered around to take a closer look. It was the day of the unveiling and dedication ceremony, and Groundwork Jax had invited the public to see the wall’s transformation. Approximately forty-one-thousand tiny pieces make up the six themed panels: the History of Sugar Hill, Peace, Neighborhood Fun, Green Team Youth Corps (recognizing the Green Team’s extensive work along the S-Line), Love Graffiti (memorializing a graffiti image that once appeared where the mosaic hangs today), and Jax Starry Night.
Working with hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life, Kate and Kenny estimate it took at least a thousand man hours to complete the mosaic. According to Kate, “We laid the first tile in January 2018. We are so proud to present this labor of love to Jacksonville not only to honor the legacy of Sugar Hill, but also to inspire the community through the beauty of mosaic art.”