Cities in the South are not singular, undivided entities at all but composites of smaller neighborhoods which could often constitute towns themselves if not surrounded by a larger urban area. Black American communities were especially this way, as they were cloistered off and segregated from the mainstream white residential and business districts. Due to both formal and informal segregation, black American neighborhoods developed into fully-formed townscapes with their own stores, restaurants, bars, doctors, dentists, funeral parlors, churches, and, at times, even their own fire companies and other civil services as well.
From around the 1870’s to the 1930’s, the community infrastructure required was greater than today’s for many reasons: transportation at both the local and larger levels was less advanced and thus businesses needed to be closer to their customers—many people didn’t have any means of transport beyond walking, so a doctor couldn’t be across town from his patients. Homes were expectedly less-advanced, and goods like firewood for wood stoves, chimney sweeps, ice salesmen, and legions of door-to-door hawkers selling everything from fresh vegetables to seafood to sharpening knives and mending pots and pans (tinkers) were common through the early part of the twentieth century. Black American communities which were often poorer than their white counterparts nonetheless had a wealth of home-grown services—professionals such as dentists, lawyers, and funeral directors—that provided them with independence from the white majority.
Gainesville’s Pleasant Street Neighborhood is exactly this type of traditional black American neighborhood. The tract of land where this neighborhood sits is now in the heart of downtown Gainesville, but when it was added to Gainesville in the nineteenth century, it was in fact an outlying part of the city limits a short distance from the white neighborhoods and business district downtown. With the coming of the University of Florida campus which went into a vast tract of land due west, it only followed logic that the Pleasant Street Neighborhood, situated between downtown and the university, would grow—and it did. But additionally it has remained to this day not only mostly black American but vital to a black community now spread across Gainesville and beyond.
As former University of Florida architecture professor Kim Tanzer pointed out in her 1997 article for the Florida Humanities Council Forum magazine, this neighborhood has more black American churches than any other in Gainesville, and those houses of worship still draw in congregants from far beyond this specific neighborhood. Professor Tanzer’s statement remains true today, nearly two decades later, as most of these churches are still around and thriving. They are the real heart of this neighborhood.
Unlike many planned communities and subdivisions today, traditional, organic neighborhoods had a great deal of diversity in house types and architecture in general. Most of the older homes in the neighborhood follow the styles of traditional black American Southern house types—the shotgun house is seen in several good examples, as are bungalows which became popular in the early twentieth century. Major retailers including Sears sold bungalow plans and kits, and the bungalow, which has its origins in India, quickly became a favored house type for small towns and semi-urban areas of the American South.
Beyond specifics of architectural style, though, even more we can find in the neighborhood general aspects of Southern approaches to the building arts. Tin roofs are commonplace with some great older examples still intact today, porches are a constant theme and many are ample, with some running right up to the street—clearly porches to be used as such and not just cute spaces between exterior and interior of the house.
These homes were built prior to the advent of air conditioning and understandably apply a variety of mechanisms to make things more comfortable despite north-central Florida’s many months of high heat and humidity. Windows are large and designed to be opened for cross-ventilation, and many homes have front, rear, and sometimes side porches and these porches were where everything from family meals to cutting the kids’ hair might take place. Larger homes, often inspired by Victorian trends in turn-of-the-century architecture, have two stories and sometimes even upstairs side porches. Crawl spaces under houses are common, as are small attics, designed to provide better air circulation.
Paint was one way black American traditions really were manifest in neighborhoods like Pleasant Street. Bright colors influenced by Africa and the Caribbean abound: golden yellows, teals, magenta-tinged pinks used for trim and accents. Most of all, the unique tint of pale blue with a hint of green, known as Haint Blue throughout the Deep South, is also prevalent, not only in the ceilings of porches as it is used in South Carolina, Savannah, and elsewhere, but for other accent purposes and even as general exterior paint.
Most homes are of wood construction, although a few are brick or cement block, and several churches and businesses utilize brick in their primary construction. Many homes have fences, either old-fashioned wooden ones of various designs or modern chain-link, but an effort is made to make the yard a space for kids to play in or family dogs to roam, while gardens are common in back or side yards as well.
Though the Pleasant Street Neighborhood is now surrounded by the rest of Gainesville, which expanded towards the university as early as the 1930’s as it grew, there are still the traditional black American businesses. In fact, the neighborhood, far from simply a collection of homes and a few churches, is still very much a functioning community, nearly even a town of sorts. A number of barbershops and beauty parlors thrive here as well as two beloved neighborhood restaurants, the Caribbean Queen and Ruby’s.
The Caribbean Queen is a Jamaican restaurant which serves authentic Jamaican food from its small location on Fifth Avenue. While many customers get food to take home and eat, there is a tiny yard in front of the restaurant where you can enjoy lunch or dinner. Ruby’s, a local institution, serves soul food and American favorites such as sandwiches and hamburgers. Along with the barbershops, these restaurants have been centers of community for years and when churches are factored in, we can see how important places that are not private homes are to a real, living neighborhood in this regard.
Another essential business represented in the Pleasant Street area is funeral parlors. Due to segregation and occasional differences in funerary customs, black American neighborhoods often had their own undertakers. In the South, with whites and blacks alike, professional undertakers were not common except in major cities such as Charleston or Atlanta until after the Civil War, and even then, in many rural areas, a body was prepared for burial in the family home and not in a funeral parlor. Having the services of an actual funeral director was seen as a move towards a more modern age, of a community having a level of refinement, and the funeral parlors of the Pleasant Street Neighborhood—Duncan Brothers’, Chestnut’s and Pickney-Smith—provided a sense of the community being able to take care of its own from cradle to grave—literally.
Kim Tanzer, who eventually served as the dean of architecture at the esteemed University of Virginia, and others have worked to ensure the preservation of the architectural and material culture of the Pleasant Street Neighborhood, and their good work has helped the area retain its valued historic character. That said, the neighborhood is, and has always been, a living one and not a museum by any means. While some of its homes in the vernacular architectural tradition sit vacant and a few are in poor repair, most continue as residences, and although the neighborhood now has some white residents and college students have found it an affordable place to live without being in a generic apartment community, most of the area is still black and many home-owners can trace their heritage back generations. In the early twentieth century, when black Americans still lacked a lot of legal and social agency in the South, communities such as the Pleasant Street Neighborhood provided a sense of one’s own place, one’s own land, and one’s own community.
See Many More Mike Walker Photos of Gainesville’s Pleasant Street Neighborhood