The central section of Jacksonville has the following neighborhoods: Brentwood, Brooklyn, Downtown, East Jacksonville, Fairfield, Hogans Creek, LaVilla, Longbranch, Midtown, Mid-Westside, Moncrief, Phoenix, Springfield, Southside, Tallyrand and 29th & Chase.
John Jones, who held a Spanish Land grant, was the first settler in the LaVilla area in 1801. During the Civil War years from 1861 until 1867, LaVilla was an independent muncipality with African-Americans holding senior positions in the government, police and fire departments. LaVilla, with a population of 3,000 residents, was annexed to Jacksonville in 1887. The Great Fire of 1901 originated in northern LaVilla but spared most of LaVilla's business district.
The Ritz Theater was designed in the Art Deco style by local architect Jefferson Powell and constructed in 1929. From then through the late 1960s, the theater was jammed with Ray Charles and many other artists who worked the "Chitlin' circuit". LaVilla was the center of a thriving, vibrant culture from 1921-1971, when it was known as the "Harlem of the South". Quite a few entertainers played the Ritz before moving on to the Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem.
Beginning in the early '70s, the LaVilla business and entertainment district began to decline. As the walls of segregation begin to fall, many middle and upper-class African-Americans found new opportunities and moved to other areas of the city. Time and social events took its toll on this once thriving hub of African-American life. According to General Counsel Rick Mullaney, who was chief of staff under Mayor Ed Austin, "LaVilla was nothing but crack houses, prostitution and crime." That may be a slight exaggeration, but the neighborhood needed help.
Mayor Ed Austin's River City Renaissance plan was adopted by the Jacksonville City Council in 1993. The project included $33 million to renovate the LaVilla and Brooklyn areas. Most of LaVilla's small, clapboard "shotgun" houses (so called because you could fire a shotgun through the central hallway to the back room and not hit anything) were torn down, and the area was cleaned up. Groundbreaking for the $4.2 million Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum took place in 1998. Construction took a year, and the grand opening took place on Sept. 30, 1999. LaVilla School of the Arts is a popular magnet middle school in Duval County that follows in the performance and art traditions of the Ritz/LaVilla area. Ritz Voices is a superb choir with 100 of the best youth (ages 10-21) voices in northeast Florida. Contemporary, jazz, gospel music and spirituals are combined for a celebration of the legacy of American musical art forms.
LaVilla is once again a center of the city's cultural life.