West Side Stories

By Randy Noles

There were two things I learned right away when my family moved to Winter Park in 1967. You didn’t read the comic books at Irvine’s Drug Store without paying for them and you didn’t go to Hannibal Square. Either activity was deemed dangerous, although going to Hannibal Square was more likely to result in actual physical harm.

What I didn’t know then, but learned much later, is that Hannibal Square — the heart of the city’s traditionally African-American west side — hadn’t always been such a rough place. It had once been a vibrant, lively district where neighbors did business with neighbors. A place where people of color who weren’t welcome elsewhere had an opportunity to build successful lives.

Whenever I go to the west side, I think about those days in late 1960s, when Hannibal Square consisted of run-down rooming houses, seedy convenience stores and the infamous Big C bar, which was infamous for brawls and knifings.

If you had told me then — or even much later — that Hannibal Square would one day be home to fine-dining restaurants and eclectic boutiques I wouldn’t have believed it.

That this transformation has occurred is largely through the efforts of one man, Dan Bellows, a rough-and-tumble developer who began buying up west side property in the 1990s.

Around the same time, the city formed a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the geographic area of which encompasses the west side. That’s when the area began to change, first with a massive remake of Hannibal Square and now with smaller residential projects at its periphery.

In the coming years, Hannibal Square was remade and reborn, spurring demand for smaller-scale residential development at its periphery.

Block by block, say preservationists and many west side residents, the character of the community is changing, its proud history vanishing. At this writing, there’s a furor over a proposal to increase the allowed density in a one-block area between Denning and Capen avenues.

The change would allow two-story townhomes to be built near a Canton Avenue parking garage that Bellows built in 2007. If this as-yet unnamed project is approved, the units will be priced at $600,000-plus. And there’ll be no shortage of eager buyers.

Mark me down as one who loves the “new” Hannibal Square, and the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, which was opened in 2007 and pays homage to the district’s history with photographic displays, oral histories and special programs.

Nobody is going to convince me that Bellows, who took a risk that no other developer was willing to take, has done a bad thing here. Yes, I know his public-relations skills are lacking. But let’s give the man his due.

All that said, as a history buff, I understand the concern about gentrification. Complicating matters for the west side is the fact that there are few significant historic buildings left to rally around. In 2001, GAI Consultants identified 70 west side homes as historic resources. About a third of them have since been demolished.

I spoke to Rollins College history professor Julian Chambliss, who specializes in urban history and city planning and has been active with the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust, which facilitates construction of affordable housing within the CRA.

Chambliss describes the historic value of the west side as “familial and communal.” That is, as far back as the 1880s, the west side was known as a place where African-Americans could achieve success despite discrimination outside its boundaries or across the tracks.

Generations of families have been comforted by this sense of pride and place. And many remain fiercely protective of it.

No, I don’t have the answer. I support redevelopment, but I don’t know how to preserve the area’s historic significance while accommodating seemingly irresistible market forces. I do know that block-by-block dust-ups only seem to engender more mistrust.

Yes, I realize that the city has a comprehensive plan that recognizes the goal of preserving the single-family residential character of the west side. But let’s face it; we need to talk about this.

How about a big-picture visioning session? Maybe no grand solution will emerge, but at least we’ll have talked it out in a constructive setting.

The discussion, like the west side, is worth the effort.

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