By Katie Garwood | email@example.com
Less than a mile from downtown St. Augustine, where thousands of visitors stroll around daily, snapping photos, and riding in horse-drawn carriages is a neighborhood that’s seemingly worlds away.
In West Augustine, a predominantly African American neighborhood, a Family Dollar is one of few signs of commercial economic development, more than 90 percent of residents use septic tanks and abandoned shops dot King Street, separating the remaining storefronts in business.
Small, one-story homes are the norm in the neighborhood – some taken better care of than others. Some homes have miscellaneous items covering the front lawns – items that look like they’ve been there for years, indicative of the longtime residents in the neighborhood. Renovated homes are an exception, and new construction is practically non-existent.
Boarded up windows are a common sight, often adjacent to empty lots with overgrown vegetation. Some buildings are crumbling, peeling and clearly abandoned.
Churches – of all denominations – are scattered throughout residential areas and are seemingly more plentiful than commercial development in the neighborhood. Many offer free food or events for parishioners, advertised on the marquees out front.
In the mornings, roosters roam residential streets, crowing back and forth. There’s never a shortage of people outside, either. Locals walk and bike along the sidewalks and gather outside the Corner Store. No matter the time, there’s people conversing in the store’s parking lot.
Just an intersection separates West Augustine from downtown St. Augustine – take a left turn instead of a right on U.S. 1 south, and you’ll find yourself in a place that doesn’t closely resemble the city’s tourist base. If not for the towers of the Ponce de Leon hotel and the Casa Monica sticking out of the skyline in the distance, it would be tough to tell that such a wealthy area existed nearby.
“The polarization of wealth, opulence and disposable income in downtown versus despair and neglect and decay in West Augustine – it’s so stark,” said Michael Butler, a history professor at Flagler College who specializes in civil rights. “How can you have these two extremes coexisting in less than five miles from each other? It kind of boggles the mind. It makes you ask questions about what do we value as a community, and why do we value it?”
In the 1960s, lawmakers decided against an interstate exit onto King Street, which runs straight through West Augustine into the city’s tourism base. Instead, S.R. 207 and S.R. 16 run off I-95 and around West Augustine, funneling traffic around the neighborhood.
“We have direct access to downtown, why don’t we have a 95 exit there? There should be an exit for people to get off the interstate there and come through King Street,” said Jaime Perkins, a lifelong West Augustine resident. “We should be able to have commercial development in that area. I mean literally, tourists can get off the highway and come straight into downtown St. Augustine and yet we put them on 16 and 207 and they have to drive into the city. And it’s like why? What would be the reason for that?”
City Commissioner Leanna Freeman, whose law office is located in West Augustine, said the decision to put interstate exits at S.R. 16 and 207 “sealed a little bit of the fate of the development of West Augustine.”
And looking back, some think the choice was intentional.
“If all your tourism came through [West Augustine], you would have to develop that area,” said Ron Rawls, the former chairman of the West Augustine Community Redevelopment Area. “But they chose 207 and 16. So most people that come to St. Augustine don’t even know that West Augustine exists. As long as they keep it hidden, you don’t have to pay attention to it. St. Augustine is encouraged by tourists and the dollar. And if you can hide something from your tourists and the dollar and make it invisible, you don’t have to invest in it … It was brilliant, it was genius because it kept that area depressed.”
Problems for the neighborhood
While Perkins has seen West Augustine change a great deal throughout her life, she still sees many issues in her neighborhood. Without economic development in the area, residents will have a harder time finding jobs in the neighborhood, especially if they can’t afford transportation.
With few options for affordable housing, those without livable-wage jobs find it difficult to find homes for their families. Concentrated issues like these generally aren’t present in other parts of St. Johns County, she said.
Rawls, who’s worked closely with West Augustine since coming to pastor at St. Paul AME Church in 2007, noted the educational disparities for children in West Augustine. The test scores and grades coming from schools in the neighborhood are far behind the average in the county.
“I don’t like to say West Augustine’s fallen behind, I think it’s being left behind the rest of the county,” Perkins said. “Most of the people that live in West Augustine, they’re not in the position to change this. They are not movers or shakers in the city or this area. We’re being left behind by the individuals who are in charge and in the positions to make change.”
To Greg White, a West Augustine resident and former CRA chairman, the lack of well-paying jobs, as well as commercial development to provide those jobs, is the root of many issues in the neighborhood. Small companies, like manufacturers, coming into the neighborhood could go a long way in the community, White said. The trick is attracting the companies to West Augustine, and not another part of the county.
“It’s simple,” White said. “If you look on C.R. 210 in the population and the income – if I’m a developer and I look at all of St. Johns County I’m going to go with the largest population and the greatest source of money.”
And while tourism is prevalent throughout the county, especially downtown St. Augustine, White said finding an out-of-state license plate in West Augustine is a difficult task. Without tourist attractions in the neighborhood, West Augustine misses out on revenue brought in by it.
“If the east side of U.S. 1 is historic, how the heck can the west side not be historic,” White said. “If you get all this revenue because it’s historical on the east side then why does the west side get zero tourism? Certainly we have history, all neighborhoods do, but have we captured the tourists with our history? The answer’s no, we haven’t.”
While development in West Augustine has remained stagnant, other areas in the county are booming – in terms of population and physical growth. In the northern end of the county, housing and commercial developments are popping up in Nocatee and World Golf Village. These developments account for the majority of the county’s population boom in the past decade, which has nearly doubled since 2000.
“You have to have a large portion of the county that even cares about what you’re dealing with over there and help elect officials who see a need to improve that area just as much as they see a need to grow the north end of the county,” Rawls said. “If they saw one-50th of the potential in West Augustine that they see in Nocatee, it would purchase the [sewer] service area from the city, it would provide the entire infrastructure.”
‘A volley’ between municipalities
For residents of West Augustine who directly deal with the issues in their community, it can often feel as if city and county officials aren’t doing enough to improve the area. Part of the problem is that West Augustine’s jurisdiction is split between the city and the county – from U.S. 1 to the railroad tracks is under the city, but beyond that, it’s under county jurisdiction.
Rawls said the two municipalities often clash on how to solve issues for the whole neighborhood, such as sewer availability. Recently, the city put aside $425,000 for homeowners to apply for grants that would allow them to go from septic tanks to city sewer. Aside from that funding, Rawls said the city “throws breadcrumbs at West Augustine.”
“I think [city commission has] used $400,000 of taxpayer money to fund an area that’s not in the city,” Freeman said. “That’s a big deal.”
For the entire neighborhood to switch to sewer service, it would cost nearly $22 million. And while there are some positives to having septic tanks rather than a sewer connection, such as saving water and money, septic tanks need frequent maintenance and are more likely to fail, which requires homeowners to make difficult, costly repairs.
“Just imagine buying a home, and it’s already a small lot, but a third of that lot has to be taken up by a mound for a septic tank,” Rawls said. “That just kills a property value. Some people try to be creative or put a picnic table up there, but it’s a septic tank. A mound for a septic tank. I never saw that before I came here. That’s ridiculous.”
There’s a fear among some that building up West Augustine and solving its issues could lead to the developing the community to the point of becoming gentrified, forcing out the existing community.
“We were warned by one of the commissioners that if we improve West Augustine, it’s going to experience the same gentrification that Lincolnville experienced,” Rawls said. “And my question was, so you just leave it undesirable? So that people don’t want it? And you condemn people to living in those types of situations? That doesn’t seem human or Christian-like to me.”
Becoming a racial issue
Those familiar with West Augustine feel like its situation is closely tied to race. Some areas of West Augustine have as many as 87 percent African American residents. Conversely, the county’s population is just 5 percent African American.
If West Augustine were a white community, would it be the way it is? Perkins doesn’t think so.
More than a decade ago, Vilano Beach was “run down,” and lacked much of the commercial development it has today, such as the Publix shopping center and the revitalized main street area. Perkins said the community got a CRA, and was able to bring commercial development to the neighborhood, “literally in no time.” According to 2016 Census data, Vilano Beach has less than 1 percent African American residents.
“I don’t want to say that was because it’s a white area, but look how quickly that turned around for them,” Perkins said. “I just don’t see why we couldn’t have the same thing in West Augustine because the money is there.”
Butler said the reason why West Augustine is depressed is clear.
“Look at the racial divide,” Butler said. “Who lives in that area? It’s predominantly African Americans who live there. That’s why the African American community feels like they don’t matter. So very little is done to improve the standard of living in West Augustine, and West Augustine is primarily inhabited by African Americans. The conclusion is pretty obvious–you don’t care about this community because of who lives there. To ignore the racial element is to ignore the obvious.”
Improving for a new generation
Despite the problems West Augustine faces, Perkins said there’s still a lot to like about her neighborhood. Growing up, she never thought she’d stay in West Augustine but doing so, she said, has been one of the best choices she’s ever made.
She calls it a “close-knit” community, where it seems like everyone knows each other’s names and no one passes by without a “hello” or “how are you doing?”
“It’s a friendly place, it has its problems just like everywhere else, but it’s nothing like what people make it out to be,” Perkins said. “I have a problem with that, people trying to make it out as a hard core, ghetto place. It’s not that. My description would just be a tight-knit community, and an area that needs some help, structure, some additional infrastructure and more jobs.”
In the future, Perkins wants to see more commercial development in the area. A gas station would be “grand,” and she’d love to see a bank in West Augustine, as well as a shopping center and more locally-owned businesses.
“The people who I interact with daily, they’re proud of the changes we’re trying to bring about and the things that people are doing in that area to try to make it a better place, a more livable area for generations to come,” Perkins said. “I have a 13-year-old son, and I want to see the area blossom into something that he can be proud of.”