Great cities contain great places, but only in the past few decades has the “science of place” been given the same serious consideration that architects give to buildings. Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach that creates dynamic, vibrant, and magnetic public spaces.
Jacksonville’s historically significant public meeting place has been Hemming Park since the city’s humble beginnings. Laid out in the early 1820s, this public square was created by Isaiah D. Hart, considered to be the founder of Jacksonville. After his death, his heirs sold the piece of land to the city for ten dollars, maintaining the vision that this square, originally called City Park, was to be a public square. Presidents on speaking tours would give their public orations from the square. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon all spoke in Hemming Park. Over time, Hemming became the center for commerce, drawing citizens from the region.
During the 1970s, homelessness was increasingly becoming a public concern, partly due to the pervasiveness of drugs, a rise in mental illness, and economic depression. There was a move, nationally, to change public parks where so-called ne’er-do-wells hung out and remove the cover of trees that hid illicit activity. Cities took away grassy areas because it was expensive to maintain and made plazas in place of the parks. This happened all over the country, and here in Jacksonville, they decided to “plazify” Hemming Park as the retail and cultural center of Jacksonville shifted away from the urban core, leaving the park to fall into disrepair and disuse.
After years of neglect and circular conversations, the city finally decided to take action by putting out a request for proposals for an organization to manage, program, and revitalize the park. Enter Friends of Hemming Park (FoHP). FoHP has partnered with Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI), the Cultural Council, The Sulzbacher Center, Brunet-Garcia, The Jacksonville Public Library, and a number of other community groups working synergistically. The 501(c)3 nonprofit put in a proposal, and after some back and forth negotiations, the city signed one of the most forward-thinking agreements Jacksonville has seen in recent times. The Friends of Hemming Park holds a five-year management agreement with the City of Jacksonville, agreeing to host a minimum of twenty events this year that bring in five-hundred people or more to raise at least a quarter of a million dollars.
The board and staff of FoHP set to work researching the elements that constitute the recipe for creating a successful place.
Through the principles of placemaking, public spaces have returned from the depths of dirty, dangerous, and degraded to become vibrant, magnetic, and inspiring places to commune with nature and community.
FoHP is implementing a principle of placemaking called The Power of 10. The wisdom (research) states that a place comes alive when you give people at least ten reasons for visiting. It’s fairly obvious math: the more things to do, the more buzz created. FoHP is diligently working on adding physical amenities, retail, regular events, and special events…numerous reasons to experience the park.
In the short time since FoHP assumed management, the park now boasts a mobile coffee caravan and café, open five days a week with a rotating line-up of caterers, food trucks, and restaurants. Live music, yoga classes, free personal training, Friday evening fashion events, children’s picnics, and an author series are a taste of the regular programming already in the park with more on its way.
“Jacksonville is eager for its downtown to mature into a dynamic and compelling public place; there isn’t a single person who can’t see the potential of our city. There’s an army of motivated individuals ready to be a part of projects that create that vision,” says Vince Cavin, executive director of Friends of Hemming Park.
“Hemming Park is one tile of the mosaic of a vibrant, urban downtown. We envision Hemming Park as a destination for the denizens of Jacksonville and tourists. Through fixed amenities, diverse and regular programming, and exciting special event programming, we think it’s a successful path to pursue for our park.”
One of the park’s major hurdles is one of perception. Decades of neglect have left a lasting impression in people’s minds; ones that FoHP hopes to change over time. The Sulzbacher Center, The Jacksonville Main Library, and FoHP have partnered to have a dedicated full-time social services coordinator in the park and library. DVI’s Downtown Ambassadors have two dedicated, full-time Hemming Park staffers from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. The movable tables and chairs are cleaned daily, bricks are pressure-washed, and repairs and improvements happen weekly.
Another path to success will be programming dynamic, community-engaging events. The park’s first signature event, in partnership with Sun-Ray Cinema, was the appearance of Poncili Creacion, a world-renowned avant-garde puppeteer troupe from Puerto Rico. The ensemble was on tour, headed for performances at Art Basel Miami Beach. More than five hundred people witnessed their thirty-six-foot-long interactive whale puppet performance where children got to enter into the whale and become part of the show.
Jaxsons Night Market, a curated night market featuring the best of local artisanal food and boutique fashion happens the third Thursday of every month. Gastrofest is a new culinary festival launching on March 21st; and the organizers could only envision the festival at Hemming Park. One Spark returns in April, again putting Hemming Park in the center of the spark. A number of major announcements are on the way about events never-before seen in Jacksonville.
It took Bryant Park in New York City nearly twenty years to transform from being referred to as “Needle Park” in the ’80s into an iconic, public space, drawing tourists from around the world. Nobody plans for the process to take nearly that long for Hemming Park: Right now, FoHP is rapidly moving forward on a steady course, creating an iconic, public square in Northeast Florida. The concept is to speak across diverse cultural, age, political, and racial lines, while at the same time, provide a sense of fun and, ultimately, a place where we’d all like to meet.
Article written by Keith Marks