Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My testimony at the August 3, 2012 Legislative Hearing on St. Thomas, VI

Below is the written testimony I provided at the legislative hearing. I must say that after listening to many of the other testimonies that morning I ad-libbed A LOT. Mostly because I realized that the bill was not in a state that it could be moved through, but needed both minor tweaking and major amendments. The hearing on St. Croix is slated for August, 23, 2012. I plan on being there. Hope you will too and if you can't please submit a written testimony to Colette Monroe ( Chief of Staff of Senator Louis Patrick Hill, sponsor of the bill.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that part of my testimony made the local radio and tv news the following day, in addition to being paraphrased here in the Virgin Islands Daily News. Here is some of the coverage from TV2. I'm in the background in this coverage. :)

I also need to add that my ticket to go to St. Thomas was paid for by the VI Territorial Realtors Association. They had written a grant to the National Realtors Association and gotten funding to do this advocacy work as a way to impact and change their community. Although I had planned on going over myself, when they heard I wanted to come, they offered to pay for my ticket.  I am very grateful.

Testimony of La Vaughn Belle in regards to the

I would like to offer the perspective of someone who is actually in the process of what we all want: renovating historic buildings. I hope my testimony gives you more insight as to why this bill is so important to pass, despite some of its shortcomings. The status quo is not an option, our buildings are crumbling, being scavenged, stripped or burnt or and the histories that come with them, forgotten.
My husband and I are currently renovating two properties in Christiansted.  The first property, 36 King St, is located in Sunday Market Square, otherwise known as Times Square. It has two two-story buildings that consist of four residential units and one commercial space. The residential space was last used as a nightclub and the residential spaces were converted into a brothel. We are about 50% completed with the renovation. We did most of the work ourselves or with friends, including our dearest ones: Visa, Mastercard and American Express.   It has not been easy. I looked for grants and could not find any that we qualified for, including the famed “Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate Program” run through the St. Croix Foundation. The income limits are too low and the grant eligibility required that the space be occupied. We are exhausted, but happy that we have wonderful families living in two of the apartments and have began renting the third one as a vacation rental. We are currently looking for more financing to complete the project.
The other property is really special as it speaks to the core of what is really at stake in this discussion: our cultural patrimony. 18B East Street is located in the Free Gut area of Christiansted.  It comprises of two small vernacular houses, one was burnt by crack addicts and the other structure is partially wooden with a unique brick arches in the foundation.  Currently the area is full of dilapidated and abandoned buildings, abandoned not just physically but psychologically. They represent a part of our collective social amnesia of a part of our history that we have chosen to forget. But why? Why did we forget Elizabeth Abraham, who was the first registered owner of 18 East Street. She was an African born woman, who was brought here to be a slave, she survived the Middle Passage, survived slavery and was able to escape that system and become one of the few privileged class of blacks in that time, the Freed Blacks. It is amazing that she was able to purchase property and in my little decrepit building, that many people told me I should just push down, resides dozens of stories like Elizabeth’s. These buildings and these stories are so important. They are our cultural heritage and we must honor them by remembering their legacy of self-determination and by treating these buildings like the treasures that they are.
I was so inspired by the stories of the previous owners of my building that it motivated me to do a documentary about them, the larger Free Gut community and the process of bringing this building back to life. I hope that you might also be inspired to act and move this bill forward. We need to hold our community accountable. We need this impetus for change to move from a culture of decay and abandonment to one of development and dignity.
Further points that this bill speaks to that are key:
  • We need money in the form of grants or low- interest loans to renovate buildings.
  • We need education, both the owners and the general public, but especially contractors and construction workers. It is a constant battle with contractors who want to use modern materials and techniques that would destroy the character of the building simply because they do not know any better. I suggest a class at CTECH for carpenters and contractors on the historic guidelines and how to build the shutter, windows, etc.. to keep in line with them.
  • We do need the penalties to ensure that everyone is held accountable. It is not fair that some are investing their hard earned money to rehabilitate or maintain their properties and their neighbors are allowed to let garbage accumulate, grass overgrow or let vagrants or addicts take over their neglected property.
  • We need incentives. The tax incentives are excellent, however they should reflect the reality of maintaining historic structures. This is expensive! Especially if they are partially wood, which most of them are. Wooden structures are more expensive because of the upkeep and the insurance and the tax incentives should better reflect these costs. Perhaps even subsidies could be introduced.

Finally, we need action. We need you, our legislators to support this bill and create this catalyst for change. We need you to remember Elizabeth Gabriel, and the other men and women like her that first occupied these spaces, that worked hard to purchase and build these first homes. As the title of my documentary emphasizes, these are the houses that freedom built. Please act now to honor and celebrate them.

La Vaughn Belle

Christiansted rehabber
Documentary filmmaker

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Foreboding Interview: Dr. Elizabeth Rezende on Hill Street

A few weeks ago I did an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Rezende. She is an expert on Free Gut and wrote her dissertation on the history of the area. She suggested that we do the interview in front of a house on Hill Street near "London Bridge". It is a row house and fairly well maintained. That day we had issues with our equipment. One of the cameras kept stopping, but we were able to get it working again and did a fantastic interview. Dr. Rezende, or Betsy as she is most favorably known, is a wealth of knowledge and had so many stories to tell. One of the stories that stood out was about a woman who was for all intents and purposes, a pimp. She would groom young girls to be a "housekeeper' for Danes and would take the children of those relationships and groom them as well in an ever efficient cycle. But later that day I got a call from Rashad, our cameraman, to say the footage was lost. The memory card wasn't reading! Darn! We still had footage from another camera and good audio, but may likely have to do the interview again. However, it will have to be in another location.  Why? Because the building we did the interview in front of burnt down last week. Why? Because a vagrant had gotten in to the abandoned house next door and in using candles burnt the building. So the lovely woman, Ms. Sutton, whom we had to ask permission to film on her front stoop has lost her home of over forty years.  I once saw a picture of the inside of her house. The photographer Ted Davis had taken this amazing photograph of the interior of her home while she was conducting piano lessons. There was so much detail in that picture, you felt as if you were transported into another world. And now it's gone.

I have recently been advocating for new bill, the Antiquities and Historic Preservation Bill 29-0358. Some of the concerns of the bill are that it has a mechanism that could possibly lead to local people losing their properties if they do not fix or maintain them.  What I don't think people get is that if you just leave your building to the elements and the vagrants, you will lose your property anyway! It will rot, crumble, be burnt, scavenged, and deteriorate to such a condition that even if you wanted to sell you would not get much money for it, so then what was the point in trying to hold onto it?  When children are neglected by their parents because they are unable to care for them properly, no matter the reason, the children are put in foster care. Maybe that's what needs to happen to these buildings. But I hope that Ms. Sutton and what happened to her will convince our legislators that the status quo is not an option.

For those who are moved by Ms. Marjorie Sutton's story here are the details to help. St. Croix attorney Joel Holt has set up an escrow account so donations can be made. You can donate via PayPal by clicking on this link:

OR, Checks can be made to: Joel H. Holt Esquire P.C. Trust Account, and put ‘Marjorie’ on the memo line.  Checks can be mailed to c/o D&D Studio, 55 Company St. C'sted, VI 00820. All funds will go to Marjorie Sutton.