Saturday, October 15, 2011

Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate

More good news! We have been accepted into the St. Croix Foundation's "Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate" program. This program is to assist owners in the historic towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted in fixing their building. I have a meeting at the site next week with the program manager, but I am feeling so Midas right now! I can't wait to see exactly what they will be able to help me do to the property.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Video Footage: Time, Place and Memory

This weekend the Virgin Islands Humanities Council held their signature event, the "We the People" conference with this year's theme, "Time, Place and Memory". As I am one of their grant recipients they invited me and two other documentary projects to present our works. Since I am in the very beginning stages of my documentary I presented two short trailers. One is already posted on this site. The other I'll post here which is montage of various footage. For me it was nuts, absolutely crazy, to put something together that quickly. I lost one full night of sleep. But it was a good exercise. It helped me wrestle with how I would weave the story together, how I might visually represent the previous owners, what do I want from my interview subjects.

Attending the conference reinforced for me how important it is to collect these memories. As I looked over the footage of my first interviewee, Gerville Larsen, a historical preservation architect, it made me realize that I really want to be able to access those memories, the personal ones, the smell of the place, if the street was shady, what did it feel like to breathe the air, was it heavy with heat, or light with a fragrance of bread baking or sweet from a ground littered with rotting mangoes. And although with this interview, even though I thought it went well, Gerville was articulate and passionate, it made me realize that I want to be able to access more, especially when I begin to interview people who actually lived in Free Gut.

I look forward to more interviews and research and continue to learn and improve production. Comments are most welcome on what you think about the footage so far.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Back from a Hiatus

I spent most of the summer visiting family in Cuba (my husband is from Cuba). We got stuck coming back via Santo Domingo in Tropical Storm Irene. I have to admit I was a little worried about the house. It's still standing I am happy to report, but part of the porch roof was taken off. It's also super overgrown so I am deciding between paying someone to cut it or doing it myself again with a cutlass. The latter fits more my financial status, the former fits more my energy level.

On the documentary front I have received some grant money from the University of the Virgin Islands and the Virgin Islands Council of Humanities! This is fantastic! I am very grateful and these funds will ensure the project moves forward!

So last week I met with the historian on the project, George Tyson, to begin to plot out exactly how we would do that. One of the areas we are researching at the moment are the "hucksters", vendors, mainly women ,who sold their wares in markets. A few of the previous owners in the 1700s were hucksters and seems that was how they purchased their freedom. I just admire the spirit of these women and want to learn more.

So I am back in gear! Full speed ahead!!!!!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Funding Trailer #1

This is a funding trailer I developed as a part of the application process for a grant from the Virgin Islands Humanities Council. Wish me luck!

I started with using Vimeo, which has a higher quality, until I realized that you could not watch the video using a cell phone.

The House That Freedom Built from La Vaughn Belle on Vimeo.

So I decided to also post on YouTube. So if watching from your smartphone you should be able to see this one.

Since this is also a production blog I will comment a bit on that. Most of the footage was shot by Jason Roberts, except the shot where I am sitting and describing the motivation for the film. Due to deadlines and scheduling conflicts I shot that myself in my living room.

I so need funding to get better equipment! But a wise friend told me this:"The best camera to get is the one you have". So I push on filming what needs to be filmed, but writing away like a mad woman to get funding to take the production up a notch.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Over the past couple weeks I have been back and forth meeting and inquiring about getting power to the building, building plans, electrical permits, historical guidelines, etc... The process has felt like a Labyrinth, a puzzling sacred path that is supposed to lead me to some center, enlightenment even. Well, I'm not sure I would use the word enlightened to describe what I'm feeling now, but I have certainly been surprised along the way. Here are a few things that I have learned:

  1. The women and men who work at DPNR (the Department of Planning and Natural Resources) are incredibly helpful and pleasant. My questions were answered respectfully and thoroughly. The inspector that came out to do the site visit was knowledgeable and gracious. I was told how much things would cost ($20 for an electrical permit), how long it would take (2-4 days) and exactly what I needed to bring (an electrical plan and permit form filled out and signed by licensed electrician). Courteous efficient service can really be achieved in government. Wow.
  2. Building plans are expensive! I am surprised at how expensive building plans are, especially considering one of the buildings is less than 400 square feet. Charging $100-$200 per square foot is a lot, especially considering that I know how to draw and measure and use the computer, so minus the fact that I don’t know the building codes, what I received looks pretty much like something I could do myself.
  3. Becoming a licensed electrician is hard. I couldn’t understand why so many electricians or plumbers I have interacted with over the years always got uneasy when I mentioned anything with permits. You would have thought that DPNR had a minotaur hiding inside! Well I have since realized that many of these people are not licensed. When it came time to get permits, people who I have used for years had to admit that they did not have a license and could not help me. Upon finding a licensed electrician he said to me that when he took the test he passed it in one shot, but that the woman who administered it told him that in the 25 years she had worked at Licensing & Consumer Affairs, he was only the second person to do that. Wow.
  4. DPNR and SHPO are actually there to help you. The State Historic Preservation Committee has been nicknamed by some as the Hysterical Society, meaning that they impose ridiculous rules and guidelines and seem to delight in telling people what to do with their property. My interaction with them has been quite the opposite. It’s a small four member committee of individuals who care about our community and see our architecture as a treasure and want to help protect Y/OUR investment and Y/OUR heritage.
And as for DPNR, they want to make sure that what happened for example in Haiti, doesn’t happen to us, that our buildings don’t collapse, that who is working on our homes where we or somebody’s children will sleep, knows what they are doing.

So ultimately I learned that like the walls forming a labyrinth and guiding your path, that rules and regulations are not such a bad thing. They help to steer us along our way.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wyndi: Great Expectations

Taking photographs….Filming….Editing….Producing…I feel like I’ve entered a communications major’s dream! As an intern, I will have the opportunity to participate in all the activities mentioned. I will also have the opportunity to work with many talented professionals with the hopes of picking up essential skills. One of the main reasons I’m so excited about the HFB project, however, is that it’s ambitious AND practical. It’s ambitious in the sense that it will be an ongoing process that will require effort and energy from its participants. But HFB is also a practical way to learn about local history and make our Virgin Islands’ community a better place.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

¿Cómo estamos? I am we

In Spanish a common greeting is ¿Cómo estás? translated to "How are you?" or "How are you doing?" Years ago I noticed that often people in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean extend the greeting further by saying, "¿Cómo estamos?" or "How are we doing?" I never forgot noticing that and think about it often. A simple shift from the first-person singular to the first-person plural and we have a view of ourselves based on community. It's not about how are you doing? And then how am I doing, but how are we doing? It's a simple, but profound shift and it happened to me today at the house.

I met a neighbor today that just so happens to be the brother of my daughter's godfather. Batsbo (his dread name) was kind enough to help me cut some of the larger branches from a rotten tree we trimmed and put them into the bin. I have to mention that shortly after he began chopping anotherBold man who lives in the neighborhood walked by and after hailing up Batsbo he said, "Lion, your cutlass needs to sharpen". He continued walking until he remembered that there was a file in his bag. Who walks around town shirtless with a file to sharpen machetes in his bag? Very curious about that.

Anyway, as we continued collecting and cutting branches, I commented to him about the trash on the sidewalk, wondering why the persons who put the trash out to be collected didn't make sure it stayed in the bin. Or after seeing that if fell on the street, why wouldn't they pick it up? It was about they, and them, and those people. And then it hit me. This is my house. I am they and them and those people. Even if I didn't put it there, the trash is on the corner of the block where my house is and if I leave it there, I am just as guilty. I am them which means that I am we. If we extend that further to living on a small island, whatever trash there is, whether it be literal or societal, is really just on the corner of our block and it's really our job to clean it up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It wasn't a well, not really

I hadn't noticed it at first because of the bush. After we cut back some of the bush, peaking out under some rusted galvanize, I could see a structure of rubble stone. A structure of what? One always hopes for a well, but after taking all the galvanize off we realized that we were unearthing an outhouse. Our friend Nathan who was helping us cut some trees quickly added, "You know people excavate outhouses. There are lot's of history in them and sometimes people even hid things in them". Hmm. So we didn't find a well in the literal sense, but perhaps will uncover something much more unexpected.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kadeem: Intern's first week

In my first week of being an intern for "The House That Freedom Built" project, I was exposed to different aspects of filmmaking. From camera operations to getting funding for maintenance, restoration, and renovation. Under the direction of Ms. LaVaugn Belle, I've been able to further develop a creative eye for taking pictures and videos. We watched films and videos and Ms. Belle pointed out several camera techniques. Although, I've been watching films for a long time, the techniques she shared became more noticeable. For example, some films shift the audience's attention by changing the focus on an object and blurring everything else that would seem distracting such as people or other objects in the background. With a simple switch of the lens of the camera and a focused object, the subject comes to life. Because I've never worked with a professional camera before, the technique is very new to me but it is an example of one the many things that I look forward in learning about.

Being chosen for an internship for this project is an opportunity to improve my film skills, learn more about our history, develop a creative eye, and to learn the fundamentals behind film-making. In my first week alone, after being exposed to just a little bit of the project, my curiosity and interest have expanded and I look forward to making this internship a memorable learning experience.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why we don't remember

The house is located in an area of Christiansted that is forgotten, abandoned both physically and psychologically. It is a part of an amnesia in our social memory. Why? Most people when they ask where the house is and I begin to tell them, don't have any visual references in mind. Their images and memory stop at about Company Street. Through my research I've learned that the town was designed to have a social, commercial and even racial divide. All the main buildings that had the most importance to colonial commerce were located near the waterfront. The laborers were placed in areas in the back streets. The first freed blacks were placed there by law in the 1700's as a form of urban segregation and control. How is it that we don't remember them? Them, the people who worked extra hard on Sundays, their only day off, week after week, to purchase freedom for themselves or for a loved one? How is it that we don't remember them?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Vagrants are Good, Why Vagrants are Bad

Why vagrants are good:
They go through your garbage and collect all REUSABLE items, like aluminum and bike tires.

Why vagrants are bad:
They go through your stuff and collect all USEABLE items, like your tools that you were using to get the last bit of vinyl off your original pine floor!!!!

Lesson learned:
NEVER, EVER leave tools at a job site, even if you think they are well hidden and small.
At least it was an inexpensive lesson I learned as the tool they stole was about $35 to replace.

It feels a little creepy to know that when I'm not at the house there are people, primarily men who are drug addicts, that are combing through everything there. But there was one good thing that surfaced through them sifting through our trash: CHANEY!

Chaney, a word morphed from "china" and "money", are the fragments and shards of plates from Danish colonial times that children ground and used as play money in games. It's a serious collectors item and local jewelers use them to make fantastic pieces. As an artist I have referenced them in previous work entitled "Collectible".

I think the chaney might have been in some of the trash that was taken out of the house. Pedro, a wonderful man who has been helping out as a contractor, found it with his keen eye. What drew his attention to the bag was how it was knotted, "Ah hah, somebody's been collecting something," he said. He was right. I wonder if these pieces were collected from our site, or another. Regardless, most historic properties in the Virgin Islands have them all over the yard.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reno vs Docu

One of the biggest challenges I'm facing is the urge and at times need to get things done for the renovation, but not being able, whether it be to have the time, energy or resources to do the filming of the documentary. There is a ton of stuff that has happened already that I wasn't able to get clearance to film, couldn't organize a cameraperson or was just too focussed on getting done to stop and think about filming, like getting the damn vinyl off the floor! It's a conflict I need to resolve quick. I just got a great suggestion to just tripod it. Get in the habit of bringing the camera setting it up and pressing record. Meanwhile, here is a cool pic of the original floors (wide-plank pitch pine) that I may just be able to save! If I can only get that last bit of vinyl off....

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The House of Strange Things

I should have taken more pics, but I just wanted to be rid of it. Here is a list though of the strangest things we found in the house:

magazine porn
a dread lock
snuff from Copenhagen
Russian coins
small plastic bags (for crack, weed, etc..)
lighters in every color imaginable
Brow soda bottles (are these vintage yet?)
Christian readings
a gold cufflink
a horseshoe
a set of Encyclopedias from 1987
a drawing on the wall of Betty Boop

Monday, May 2, 2011

I've got INTERNS!!!!

This is a quick pic of my new interns: Kadeem Hendrickson and Wyndi Ambrose. They are star students at the University of the Virgin Islands and will be working on the production of the film. This is from our first meeting. You'll be seeing a lot more of them!

Saturday, April 30, 2011


So we filmed the first day of me entering the building since I first saw it three years ago. I couldn't sleep the night before. I was so anxious. Was it worse than I remembered it? Had the roof caved in? The floor dropped out?

At 7am all parties arrived and we were all full of excitement and anticipation. When I entered I have to admit I was scared. There was a foot high pile of garbage: clothes, shoes, lighters, plates, bottles, magazines, hangers, food containers. All the detritus evidencing a place that was used by human beings living on the edge of humanity, in complete squalor and destitution. We found odd items like Russian coins, a gold cufflink, encyclopedias from 1987, a thick dread lock, and a bag of suspicious white powder. What bothered me most though was the feeling I got. I could really feel the depravity in the moldy mattress, the faded porn pages and the dozens of lighters. After hours of cleaning and 13 garbage bags later, I left not because I was tired but because I felt their energy invading me. When I got home I took a long hot shower and scrubbed my hair and skin. But it's still there lingering, that feeling.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Urban Jungle

Here are some pictures from our photo shoot last Saturday the house looks like something in the jungle. It's hard to believe that it's in a fairly urban area.
Special Thanks to Bernard Castillo and Kynoch Monroe for the photos.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We've started!

It's official. The closing on 18B East Street was today. We began filming. The lawyer said something funny. "Well I can't give you keys. I should probably have given you a some tools, like a drill and a hammer". This is because the building has been boarded up for over a year. On Saturday will be the first time I have entered it in three years. I can't wait!!!