Progress and Pride in Hannibal Square

By: Shannon Shelton Miller

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Children in Easter finery stand tall outside their small wood-framed homes, the pride in their appearance evident as they pose for black-and-white photographs, capturing the moment for posterity.

In other pictures, young men with musical instruments beam in advance of a local radio broadcast performance, and neatly dressed schoolchildren sit in rows for an official class picture.

The photographs rested in albums or frames on the tables and mantels of west Winter Park homes for decades, seen by few aside from family and friends. In 2002, historians from the Crealde’ School of Art, a local non-profit arts organization established in 1975, began asking residents to submit those pictures for inclusion in an exhibit that would chronicle the city’s African-American history.

The photos and the personal accounts behind them became the centerpiece of the Hannibal Square Heritage Center when it opened in 2007, providing a testament of the rich African-American heritage of Winter Park. “The Heritage Collection: Photographs and Oral Histories of West Winter Park,” contains 130 matted and framed photos with an accompanying story about each person or family.

“There was very little inclusive history of African-Americans in Winter Park,” said Heritage Center docent Mary P. Daniels, who moved to the city as a child in 1958. “Now we have somewhere to house that history.”

Most Orlando residents and visitors are familiar with the eastern part of Winter Park, a wealthy suburb with upscale shopping districts, expansive homes, golf courses and Rollins College. Hannibal Square sits to the west, across the railroad tracks, and mostly hidden from the traffic traversing the city’s main thoroughfares.

Founded in 1881, Hannibal Square -- named for the ancient African general -- was home to black families who worked as laborers for the white residents of Winter Park (named for its establishment as a destination for wealthy Northerners looking to escape to warmer climes), the railroad or the service industry that catered to visitors.

In the 1990s, Hannibal Square became a magnet for developers who saw opportunity in its prime Winter Park location. Although the area always had a business district, the shops, restaurants and apartments now on New England Avenue differ in character from the places that occupied the strip for most of its existence.

Instead of the black-owned barbershops, banks, grocery stores, theaters, churches and an elementary school that once occupied the street, visitors today encounter boutique shopping, spas, salons and upscale eateries with outdoor seating, such as Dexter’s, an American-style bistro with three Orlando locations, and mi Tomatina, a tapas spot recognized as one of the best Spanish restaurants in Central Florida.

Although the new businesses and luxury apartments infused energy and economic growth in an economically depressed area, longtime residents worried about the potential loss of the community’s heritage.

“When you gentrify, something has to be forsaken,” said Fairolyn Livingston, the Heritage Center manager and Winter Park historian who worked with Crealde’ photographer Peter Schreyer to develop the photography exhibit. “Gentrifiers often consider the people living there as the weakest link.”

The Heritage Center, staffed mostly by west Winter Park residents, was just one response. The city also helped establish the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust in 2004 to help low- and moderate-income families live in west Winter Park through a model that keeps ownership of the land with the municipality, while allowing buyers to own the home.

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes average $150,000, and 15 have been built since 2004. The land trust also rehabbed a dilapidated house that had been a center for drug and criminal activity, and rented it to a family.

“We want to preserve and restore the land for what it was intended,” said land trust executive director Denise Weathers. “When you look back at the history of this community, it was a thriving, successful community. We want to help residents here maintain what their families started years ago.”

Today, old and new seem to have found a balance. Hannibal Square boasts a bustling lifestyle district and a new influx of residents, while maintaining its roots through the work of the land trust and Heritage Center, which hosts festivals and rotating exhibits featuring black Florida artists. Livingston said many newer residents, of all races, visit the Heritage Center, and local businesses have supported community events.

Residents old and new can walk to the popular Saturday Farmer’s Market on New England Avenue that attracts shoppers across Central Florida, and enjoy recreational offerings at Shady Park, located next to the new Winter Park Community Center, which opened in 2011.

The land trust is also working to acquire land for commercial development, and encourage minority-owned businesses to come to Hannibal Square.

“The diversity of this community can make it thrive,” Weathers said. “We want people to see the rewards and benefits of being in this community.”

Livingston said she’d like to see even more involvement from newer residents and visitors in the neighborhood’s cultural events, and Weathers believes the land trust can show that mixed-income, multicultural areas such as west Winter Park can be desirable places to live for people of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

If you go…

Hannibal Square Heritage Center

642 West New England Avenue, Winter Park, FL 32789

For information about exhibits and hours of operation, visit http://www.hannibalsquareheritagecenter.org/home.html or call  407-539-2680

 

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