Alice Coles stands in a field across from the shantytown in which she has lived all her life. Eight years ago the US state of Virginia planned to build a maximum-security prison in this field. But something quite different has been erected in its stead. Two rows of stately, gabled farmhouse-style dwellings flank a dirt road that awaits paving and streetlights. Just south of the homes lie communal fields of okra and squash, a storehouse barn and a greenhouse full of seedlings. This is the New Bayview Rural Village, the future home of the 52 families of Bayview, an isolated and impoverished African-American community on Virginia’s eastern shore.
‘This village was built from scratch. The water system, sewerage, the streets.’ Alice speaks slowly, but incessantly. For 10 years she has been explaining. First she explained to politicians why her community didn’t want a jail in their back yard, despite the jobs it might bring. They backed down. Then she explained to funding agencies their moral obligation to provide adequate housing for people who had never flushed a toilet or turned on an electric stove. They agreed. Then she explained to her neighbours how to sign leases and mortgages and how to maintain homes with modern amenities. Most are eager to comply.
The New Bayview development has cost $6.5 million. More than 100 people from neighbouring counties have applied here for future housing. Funded by state, county and federal grants as well as private contributions, its future is pregnant with possibilities… and uncertainties. On this rural peninsula just 200 miles from Washington DC, a third of the local population earns less than $10,000. Bayview is a particularly blighted example of the area’s poverty. Largely illiterate and dependent on seasonal farm work, most families have struggled to pay the $25 to $50 rent for the tarpaper shacks that they’ve been living in up until now.
The rent for the brand-new rental units – complete with running water and central air conditioning – is capped at a third of the tenant’s income. But significantly a handful of local residents have rejected the offer to trade their squalid dwellings for the units. ‘They don’t want responsibilities,’ says Alice. ‘They’ve never lived by rules. This place was left alone like the wilderness.’
‘Some people actually cried when we began demolishing these houses, because they know it’s like blowing up your own bridge. You just hop to one side and you’re not sure if your boss will wake up one day and say “I’m so sick of these people, they got better houses than mine!”’ explains Alice, a veteran observer of human jealousies.
Alice Coles – a single mother of two grown children – knows the cycle of poverty is hard to break: she sees it daily in the five generations that still struggle to get by in Bayview. Descendants of emancipated slaves, the neighbours of Bayview are also cousins, nephews and grandmothers.
Until the prison threat moved her to form Bayview Citizens for Social Justice (BCSJ) – the organization that serves as landlord and loan agency for the new collective village – Alice had never been exposed to any work aside from manual labour. Her father was a railroad worker. From potato picking to chicken plucking to conch shucking, she practised the trades of her ancestors and her offspring. ‘I was in training, but I didn’t know for what. I thought it was just for the struggle to survive,’ says Alice, who often found herself designated supervisor, but never promoted to managerial levels.
‘Once you can break the cycle, you can set a model of how you can escape,’ says Alice as she surveys the New Bayview Rural Village.
‘Most people are moving out of two-room houses. They don’t have anything, not even towels to hang on their racks. They are coming from Third World conditions. They don’t have a shower curtain, a decent set of dishes, disinfectants, a plunger – because they didn’t need them in their old houses.’ To prepare for the massive move-in, BCSJ members are organizing both shopping trips for new houseware and seminars from local utilities companies to introduce tenants to goods and services to which they haven’t had access before. Alice pauses, mentally checking off tasks and then smiles. ‘Then we’re gonna have gospel singing and hot dogs on the grill, set up some tents and have a good time as these men and women move into their houses.’
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