With the economy doing nose dives and cartwheels, I may never make it to that posh, luxury retirement I so richly deserve. But even if my 401K goes the way of Friendster I can at least pretend to live the good life while MobileEast is in Gainesville, Florida. I had been hearing about our Gainesville accommodations for months, but had no idea how lovely and….pink our temporary address would be. As we turned onto the driveway, after a very long drive from Virginia, we came across a series of antique street lamps surrounding a gazebo that faced the back side of the house’s veranda and one of two second floor balconies. Needless to say, I was impressed.
Of course, it takes more than mere opulence to keep my interest, so I began to explore the neighborhood and found myself in the midst of a strange and beautiful nexus of old and new; the Southeast Residential Historic District. One of Gainesville’s oldest residential communities, the Southeast Historic District has its origins in the 1854 incorporation of the city. There are a significant number of Queen Anne style homes which served as residences for downtown merchants and professionals at the turn of the century. The area also has a cluster of bungalows and period revival homes which date from the 1920s. As Gainesville expanded so did the southeast community. During the 1880s it grew east from Sweetwater Branch with the surrounding areas used mainly for orange groves.
The Southeast Historic District of 2008 is a a study in contrasts. Our current digs are one example of the obvious wealth that has returned to the area but that wealth has yet to usurp the neighborhood from the more modest and, in some cases, ramshackle homes that find themselves side by side. The southeast side is the home of the Alachua County Public Library, where the MobileEast’s beloved airstream is currently parked, the Matheson Museum, and its also the once (and hopefully future) home of the Cotton Club.
Gainesville boomed after World War II as veterans, thanks to the GI Bill, enrolled at the University of Florida. Many of these new students were from other parts of the country or were well traveled due to their service in the military. They were fans of the popular music played by the African American bands and vocalists of the day and when those artists came to the Cotton Club via the chitlin circuit, they drew music lovers both black and white to the southeast side. “Cotton Club is one of my favorite stories in the whole world,” says activist, storyteller, and recent StoryCorps participant, Vivian Filer. “I know that we’re all familiar with World War II. Well, they had to build the army camps around the country, and in Starck, Florida they built Camp Blanding. This particular building that we’re using now [and calling] the Cotton Club was built on that site. After the war ended and [the federal government] sold those buildings off and the Perryman brothers bought a building and brought it to Gainesville. Their idea was to use it as a theater on the east side of town for African American citizens. We did not have a theater on the east side of town. This is 2008, we still do not have a theater on the east side of town. But at that time that concept didn’t go over as well as they expected it to do so they closed the theater after a couple of years.”
The next owners of the building were Sarah and Charles McKnight and they had a slightly different vision of how it could be used. The McKnights opened the Cotton Club in the early 1950′s and it soon became one of the early performance venues for well known artists like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and The Isley Brothers. The McKnight’s had big plans for the Cotton Club which included structural additions to better accommodate the ever increasing crowds. While the club existed during the time of segregation in Gainesville, you wouldn’t know it when you stepped through the front door. The audience was made up of folks from as far away as Ocala, Palatka, and Jacksonville and it was a favorite spot for many of the faculty and students from University of Florida. It is, perhaps, the popularity of the Cotton Club among the University of Florida football players that lead to the club’s demise. It is believed by some that the presence of the whites at the club, in direct conflict with the segregation laws of the time, was the reason the city chose not to renew the club’s license. Vivian is part of an effort to reclaim the building and to help the Cotton Club live again as a community and art center for the 21st Century. “Historically the east side of Gainesville has not been the side of town that has received the accommodation with infrastructure, with new ideas, with business, with all those things that make a thriving community. We can’t rehab it because it was never ‘habbed’ in the first place,” says Vivian. “We want to make sure that what ever we do holds on to what the history is but plan moves forward. When the hall itself is finished it will seat 350 people in auditorium style with a stage there.”