“There were a lot of mom-and-pop shops. There was a black hotel, dentist, doctors, grocery store, service stations, restaurants and cafes. Wright’s Corner was really a hub,” Cusack said.
There was a theater next door to the Wright Building, and clubs, cafes and restaurants lined the street.
“My grandmother purchased a house on Adelle in the 1950s. At that time, Spring Hill was moving and shaking for the black community,” Girtman said. “Of course, my grandmother was more into religion than the juke joints down the road.”
Even then, at a time of bustling business in the black community, discrimination in lending, along with the historical disparity in wages between blacks and whites, and other damage from persistent racism, conspired to create separate and not equal standards of living.
Davenport said conditions now aren’t that different from the past. He sees some of his neighbors struggling at the bottom of the pay scale.
“It was always like how it is. They work, but they aren’t getting the wages to thrive,” Davenport said. “I had to work for 20 years so I could have just a little for myself.”
Fifty years after segregation, Spring Hill’s median annual household income, at $18,828, is 47 percent lower than the median household income of DeLand at-large, $39,902.
“The living conditions have improved, but the real change didn’t come. They still have to work two or three jobs to make things work,” Davenport said.
And what happened to the once-bustling center of commerce?
The reasons for its decline are myriad but not unfamiliar: the rise in illegal drug use in the 1980s and the subsequent crackdown that disproportionately affected minorities, the deaths of older residents whose children had moved on, and the prevalence of big-box stores like Walmart, which ran smaller businesses into the ground.
“There’s a lot of reason for a lack of wealth in the community … you can’t lay it in any one lap; it just is what it is,” Girtman said.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 4-square-mile area identified as Spring Hill was considered a blighted community. Basic public utilities, like sewage systems, streetlights and road improvements, arrived in patchwork fashion. For example, some 100 streetlights, including replacements for those that were broken and never repaired, were installed in 1998 only after residents petitioned the county.
In 2004, the CRA was created to help address the problems, but three short years later, the Great Recession decimated its funding.
The recession had another effect — homes in Spring Hill and nearby were targeted by predatory lenders who offered easy access to cash. Once the bubble burst, those who had borrowed were deep underwater, and foreclosed homes were snapped up by investors who live all over the country.
The Volusia County Property Appraiser website shows multiple vacant homes in Spring Hill that are owned by investors in Delaware, Illinois and New Jersey, to name a few, who have no discernible ties to the area.
“There is a long history of why this happened. And history repeated itself in the recession,” Girtman said.
In some cases, she said, investors snapped up devalued properties and started renting them back to the former homeowners.
A generation later, rentals that had become homesteads reverted back to rentals.
“That was the reality for that community, and it’s not true for any other community nearby. We got what we got,” Girtman said. “That generation is used to making do.”
Although those in power have shown an interest in helping Spring Hill, little has been accomplished.
“In the better days of 2000-2007, there were a lot of plans and support, and now it’s 11 years later,” Girtman said.
Girtman, elected to the County Council in 2018 when she narrowly defeated a longtime incumbent, is hopeful that she and others will be able to make a difference by serving in political office.
Spring Hill deserves to share in the success that has brought nationwide publicity, tourism and economic prosperity to Downtown DeLand, Girtman said.
“A rising tide lifts all boats. And they’re a couple of blocks away, and are not able to enjoy or be a part of it,” she said.
Sections of the 100 and 200 blocks of West Voorhis Avenue are included in the Downtown DeLand CRA, which helped develop DeLand’s central business district.
But that doesn’t cover everyone in the community, according to Mary Allen, executive director of the African American Museum of the Arts, which is next door to the deteriorated Wright Building.
“The Downtown CRA stops at the Wright Building; it doesn’t include us,” Allen said.
She pointed to now-bustling Downtown DeLand.
“There’s lots of activity there, and we sit here,” she said.
Once again, plans for improving Spring Hill and the surrounding area are being made.
This year, a new community resource center will be built near Spring Hill Park, at the corner of Beresford and Adelle avenues. A community garden for residents was begun in 2017, with support from Stetson University, in the 500 block of South Delaware Avenue. Greater Union First Baptist Church bought the Wright Building in 2016, and hopes to restore it.
Girtman says all these actions are steps in the right direction.
“We’re sowing the seeds, and now we have to connect that all together,” Girtman said.
— This article draws upon myriad sources, including: history books, news articles, historical documents, oral histories and resident interviews. Thanks to the Spring Hill Community Resource Center, the West Volusia Historical Society, and members of the Spring Hill community.
Editor’s note: Our next story in this series will address how two governmental mechanisms — annexation, and the Community Redevelopment Agency concept — could help Spring Hill.