by David J Driapsa, FASLA
The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.
Smokey Hollow was someone’s home. It was a community of someone’s homes—until it was destroyed through urban renewal in the guise of slum clearance.
Remembered affectionately as a vibrant community in urban Tallahassee, Smokey Hollow was located only steps away from the historic Florida State Capitol. Once a slave state, Florida was at one time racially segregated. Descendants of former slaves were required to live in Black communities segregated from white society under the cruel restrictions of white prejudices, Jim Crow laws, and Black codes. Smokey Hollow, an approximately 85-acre African American community, was shaped under these harsh conditions.
Albert Davis Taylor (1883-1951) of Ohio, a prominent landscape architect, past president and fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, produced the 1947 Florida Capitol Center: A Report on the Proposed Development that served as the State master plan with principles of European landscape design that forecast the 1957 construction of the Apalachee Parkway cutting a straight path through the center of Smokey Hollow to the front of the Florida State Capitol Building. Construction of the State Road Department office in 1965 further enlarged the footprint of government that mostly obliterated Smokey Hollow and dispersed its residents.
Government development in Smokey Hollow was halted with the discovery of risks to human health and the environment on an adjacent 10-acre landfill and gasification plant that operated from 1895 into the mid-1950s to provide light and heat for city residents. Toxins created from the process poisoned the air and contaminated the soil and ground water. The environmental cleanup of this Superfund site included a portion of the former Smokey Hollow Community, and now serves the Tallahassee area as a stormwater management facility and attractive 26-acre city park, named Cascades Park.
The Smokey Hollow Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS FL-9, was conducted to research, document, record, preserve the history, and restore the memory of that once vibrant African American community lost to urban renewal.
The award-winning Smokey Hollow Plaza constructed in Cascades Park commemorating the lost community was based on the detailed site physical history of this HALS survey, which was derived from interpretation of forensic and ethnographic resources recovered from oral history interviews, archival data, and aerial photography.
The Smokey Hollow cultural landscape was like many small Florida communities, with the exception that racial segregation made it an African American community. The social demographics included clusters of crowded residential quarters consisting of shotgun houses laid out in rows owned by white landlords rented to the very poor; a sprinkling of neat, small homes owned by middle class professionals; the bordering productive farms; and the large home of millionaire former slave, educator, and entrepreneur Dr. John Gilmore Riley.
The community was a tapestry of residences, institutional buildings, stores, and shops along dirt roads lined with fences, trees, and shrubs that produced edible fruit and nuts—which together collectively conveyed a unique sense of place and welcome, except to most whites who viewed it as forlorn and a slum. In most respects, Smokey Hollow mirrored the white communities with its churches, grocery stores, and juke joints as well as laundries, barber, beauty, and automobile-repair shops. Churches and the primary school were very important social institutions within the segregated community, and later became centers of the Civil Rights Movement.
The occasional mowed lawn did exist on some of the middle-class properties, but more commonly seen were swept dirt yards surrounded by tall rough grasses, as can be envisioned from popular naturalistic landscaping of today. Most houses were surrounded by a swept yard as a carefully maintained outdoor environment where children played and friends congregated. The dirt yard was routinely and frequently swept bare. One would leave a trail of footprints when walking across a swept yard.
Swept yards functioned as an outdoor extension of the small house. It was a place used for both work and socializing, an outdoor kitchen, a laundry of large iron pots over open fires, among other daily and seasonal activities. Implements for these tasks were often hung between uses on the outside walls of the houses.
Where water was not available inside a house, the domestic work surrounded a water faucet on a pipe riser in the yard. When available in the house, the water faucet was typically located on a back porch serving as a wash-sink on the open half and an enclosed toilet on the opposite side.
An outdoor privy was a common sight, and when outdated these often were converted into a tool shed or chicken coop or other such small sheds and pens constructed of recycled materials from the dump. Clustered between houses, they made a ramshackle appearance, but were very functional and necessary.
Bonfires of rubber tires and burning fires in steel drums illuminated the nights, around which gathered some of the community in social activity and friendship.
Saint Augustine Branch, the so-called “ditch,” flowed down the middle of Smokey Hollow, and occasionally overflowed the banks of its deep, stone channeled course during heavy rainstorms, flooding into yards and occasionally sweeping downstream an unfortunate person slipping into its swift current.
State policies of urban renewal in the late 1950s and early 1960s removed residents of Smokey Hollow from their homes, demolished their community, and constructed one office building and acres of parking lots. All but a dozen homes on 2.38 acres on the higher ground east of the railroad tracks were condemned, leaving that small cluster of homes as all that remained of the Smokey Hollow Community. In 2000, this last vestige of the once vibrant community was listed as an historic district in the National Register of Historic Places, primarily in recognition of the surviving shotgun style houses. Some original trees and characteristics of the cultural landscape are still extant. The Burns State Transportation office building constructed in 1966 blocked the panoramic view of the state Capitol that generations of Smokey Hollow residents in this historic district once enjoyed from its elevated vantage point.
This remnant of the Smokey Hollow Community preserves a trace of the Black cultural landscape of the segregated South, where extended family groups and friends in close proximity occupied clusters of dwellings, shared a common yard, facilities and amenities, and lived the best life afforded as a people that white society set apart.
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David Driapsa et al., The Smokey Hollow Community Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS FL-9
For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic Black landscapes that have already been documented for HALS, like the Smokey Hollow Community highlighted here. Coming up next: a post by Chris Pattillo, FASLA, on Allensworth in Tulare County, California. And, coming up later this month: a webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes on February 24, 2021. Register now to learn more from Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA.