STORIES BY JOSHUA LESTER

The Rise and Fall of LaVilla

Published: Oct. 5, 2020

You could find Genovar’s Hall on the eastern side of LaVilla. What started as a grocery store had evolved into a hotel and jazz club, and regularly hosted talents like Louis Armstrong.

Travel west down Ashley Street and you’d arrive at The Strand Theatre. It was the first movie house in this segregated African American community and soon became one of LaVilla’s primary performance venues, specializing in vaudeville productions. 

Just a few blocks away, highlighted by its bright red, neon sign, was the newly opened Ritz Theatre, a movie house and hub for local business, with many storefronts located adjacent to the theater.

The year was 1930 and “The Harlem of the South” had taken shape.

 But it didn’t stay that way.

The Ritz Theatre and Museum, located on Davies street in the heart of LaVilla.

The construction of I-95 split LaVilla and Durkeeville, stifling commerce and housing value on either side. The decline of the railroad industry led to substantial employment loss. Once segregation was lifted, many of the more economically fortunate in the community left the neighborhood to pursue better opportunities. 

LaVilla never recovered. 

The renowned Genovar’s Hall now rests on Ashley Street, a skeleton of its former self, abandoned, with no restoration plan in place. The Strand burned down in 1969, shortly after closing its doors for good. The Ritz is the only prominent building that truly survived LaVilla’s decline and it too was almost demolished. 

The River City Renaissance project, which stretched its resources from Brooklyn to the Sports Complex, saved and fully restored the Ritz Theatre in 1999.

The Ritz, now both a performance venue and museum, represents a lost history of the once vibrant LaVilla neighborhood.