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THE JAXSON | Cultural heritage trails increasing in popularity

Published on December 12, 2023 at 9:46 pm
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Cultural heritage trails take users on journeys between sites, attractions or businesses by providing information and storytelling on their unique neighborhood or environment. In many communities, heritage trails are intended to honor local history and aid local economies, especially through activities that attract tourism. 

In recent years, heritage trails in underserved, but historically important, sections of cities, including Downtown Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood, have been designed or proposed with the goal of assisting in ongoing revitalization efforts. Here are a few examples of popular cultural heritage trail projects in peer communities across the country.

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1. Auburn Avenue Historic and Cultural Information Project

  • City: Atlanta
  • Year completed: 2020
  • Number of markers: 21
  • Marker type: Custom-designed single-post
  • Overall project cost: $500,000
  • Estimated cost per marker: $23,810

Once referred to as the “richest Negro street in the world” by civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs, at its height, Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue was home to one of the largest concentrations of Black-owned businesses in the country. Originally a 19th century settlement west of Downtown called Shermantown, Auburn Avenue emerged as the city’s primary Black business district after the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. The birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Auburn Avenue’s businesses and religious institutions played a major role in the country’s civil rights movement.

Paying homage to this story, the Auburn Avenue Historic and Cultural Information Project consists of a large-scale mural, four gateways and 21 interpretive signs. The project adds an extra dimension to Auburn Avenue by highlighting its historical and cultural significance and paying homage to individuals who played a major role in the shaping of race relations and rights in the country.

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This trail is a good example of combining cultural history and placemaking to expose a neighborhood’s heritage while simultaneously encouraging increased pedestrian traffic along the corridor to assist in its revitalization.

2. Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail 

  • City: Birmingham, Alabama
  • Year completed: 2013
  • Number of markers: 123
  • Marker type: Custom-designed, double mounted
  • Overall project cost: $1,000,000
  • Estimated cost per marker: $18,177

Almost synonymous with the civil rights movement, Birmingham is a city that was the site of bloodshed and strife as civil rights leaders faced significant local opposition in their fight for equal rights. Completed in 2013, the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail features over 100 markers throughout Downtown, marking significant locations along the 1963 Civil Rights March routes. Designed as a self-guided tour, the trail speaks to the valor of both common people and to the spiritual leaders who spearheaded the fight against segregation and other forms of racism. Considered to be an “outside museum,” the custom-fabricated markers feature large-size historical photographs taken at the same locations, with dramatic cut-outs intended to enhance the visitor’s experience. 

3. City Within A City: Greater U Street Heritage Trail

  • City: Washington, D.C.
  • Year completed: 2019
  • Number of markers: 14 markers
  • Marker type: Custom-designed, single post
  • Overall project cost: $100,000
  • Estimated cost per marker: $7,142

The Greater U Street Heritage Trail is composed of 14 illustrated markers and designed to allow trail users to begin their journey at any point along the route. During the years of segregation, U Street was the heart of Washington’s African American business and culture community, known as the “Black Broadway.” Located in close proximity to Howard University, U Street’s theaters and clubs were known for hosting the brightest lights in American jazz, blues and other genres.

This self-guided trail is one of 12 Cultural Tourism DC Neighborhood Heritage Trails encouraging tourists to explore the city a different way. Since the first trail was completed in 2001, Cultural Tourism DC estimates that around 10,000 people read each trail in a given year. Walkers are encouraged to follow the trail at their own pace, sampling neighborhood character, businesses, and restaurants along the way. To increase the trail route’s visibility, trailhead markers are coordinated with Metro stations within the neighborhoods. 

4. St. Petersburg African-American Heritage Trail

  • City: St. Petersburg, Florida
  • Year completed: 2014
  • Number of markers: 20
  • Marker type: Kiosk (trailhead) and double mounted
  • Overall project cost: $50,000
  • Estimated cost per marker: $2,500

The African American Heritage Trail identifies the people and places significant to African American history in St. Petersburg’s Deuces community. The Deuces is a historically African American neighborhood in St. Petersburg, centered on the commercial strip of 22nd Street South (the name refers to the two “2s”). Located just a mile from Downtown, the Deuces was a bustling hub during segregation.

The trail is split into two corridors that provide a glimpse into the culture of this South St. Petersburg neighborhood. Both trails begin at the Carter G. Woodson Museum, illustrating the importance of linking heritage trails with local cultural institutions to stimulate higher exposure, synergy and foot traffic. In addition, the heritage trail’s signage colors are correlated with the colors from the local high school to further tie the system to the community.

5. Soul Voices of Frenchtown – Frenchtown historical marker trail

  • City: Tallahassee, Florida
  • Year completed: 2019
  • Number of markers: 13
  • Marker type: Mason mounted
  • Overall project cost: $236,300
  • Estimated cost per marker: $18,177

Located just north of Florida State University, Frenchtown is considered to be the state’s oldest historically Black community. Frenchtown dates back to 1825, when the U.S. government gave a Tallahassee township to French General Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, for his help during the Revolutionary War. Frenchtown’s history is honored with a unique heritage trail that utilizes the oral history of residents from the community’s past. An initiative of the John G. Riley Center & Museum, the Soul Voices of Frenchtown historical marker trail features a series of plaques documenting the neighborhood’s heritage. At select locations, plaques are accompanied with audio interviews from former Frenchtown natives who ranged from 80 to 90 years of age when interviewed between 1997 and 2005. 

New cultural heritage trail proposed for Jacksonville’s LaVilla

A 1940s view of LaVilla’s West Ashley Street. | University of North Florida.

In recent years, the Downtown Investment Authority has planned to develop a cultural heritage trail in LaVilla as a part of the neighborhood’s ongoing redevelopment and preservation efforts.

Dating back to 1866, from ragtime, blues and jazz, to the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, and many local food dishes we enjoy today, the neighborhood of LaVilla has played a significant cultural role.

A major goal of this interpretive marker project is for it to serve as an inclusive economic development focused on honoring LaVilla’s historical contributions to society, while stimulating cultural heritage tourism and revitalization opportunities. 

On Thursday, December 14th, a public meeting will be held at the Ritz Theatre & Museum to continue discussions and planning efforts for a proposed LaVilla cultural heritage trail. Topics to be discussed and to solicit public feedback include heritage trail planning efforts to date, LaVilla Heritage Trail & Gateways Committee, marker concept design alternatives. The meeting, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. is free and open to the public.

author image The Jaxson Ennis Davis, AICP is an urban planner and member of the city of Jacksonville's Downtown Development Review Board. He is also co-owner of The Jaxson and Modern Cities.
author image The Jaxson Ennis Davis, AICP is an urban planner and member of the city of Jacksonville's Downtown Development Review Board. He is also co-owner of The Jaxson and Modern Cities.

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